Updated: Jun 7, 2021
A year ago we launched SKILLS an education company for scientists, here is why we think this is key to our work and the future of science commercialisation.
Back in 2019 as venture operators in deeptech we knew how to build companies and work with founders for the long game. We realised that most of the solutions that we were looking to support were being developed by scientists however we also realised that there was an entrepreneurial 'void' within academia. We had to fill this and, with that, supporting scientists became our sole focus.
For over 6 months we spent a day a week at each of these universities - Imperial, Oxford and Cambridge - to meet with scientists, professors, university programmes, TTOs and specialist investors. We wanted to understand how we could help scientific talent express itself more effectively beyond academia.
We did not focus on the value of the IP or the potential investment returns, we focused on understanding the individuals behind the research and the nature of their ambitions.
We realised that many scientists were actually very curious about entrepreneurship and that some were ready to jump into the venture world. However the leap was a pretty big one: 0 to 100 real quick! Business was perceived as hostile and in most eyes it was just about negotiations and sales pitches e.g. "I am hiring a MBA/BD guy to take care of the business side".
We instead believed that business is just another form of science, albeit a social one, a medium to bring aligned people together and a sandbox through which to iterate assumptions and understand audiences. And we believed that if we could shift mindsets to this view we would be able to unlock incredible potential.
We learnt that the biggest hurdle to commercialising sciences is not access to finance or network but rather the lack of confidence researchers have in their business skills.
The key to commercialising science was in providing scientists with business confidence. Not an easy feat!
Around scientists there are quite a few stakeholders that try to help as much as possible. There are executive courses provided by business schools, panel talks hosted by departments, templates and introductions provided by TTOs, investors events and mentorship programmes. All scattered, theoretical or partial information. And unfortunately mostly focused on investment (not relevant at this stage) and not much focused on product, market and team (fundamental stuff) and company dynamics (needed stuff).
As venture operators and battle-scarred grafters, we saw this gap and were eager to share our learnings strong of the belief that if we could provide scientists with complete practical business skills, they would be able to adopt business as a second language and turn their research into commercial realities.
The solution became quickly apparent: let's give scientists strong foundations to understand the value of the customer, of shares, set healthy expectations with peers and the university and get the ball rolling themselves.
We set out to put scientists in control of their research, turning doubt into curiosity and eventually into confidence and power.
And so we were off. With the help of some early postdoc supporters we designed a programme which was led by these core principles:
Practical: real value business learnings shared in an interactive intimate class delivered by accomplished science founders, operators and investors.
Cross-pollination: bringing scientists from across leading institutes in the same 'room' and promoting a sense of community and support.
Actionable: helping graduates putting into action the different learnings and ambitions.
We ran the programme a few times as a set of independent seminars on specific themes, trying out different class sizes, tools, exercises and delivery tone. Like any venture, we were building a product for our audience and improving it at every turn with the sound help of our brilliant academic partner team including Melanie, Hakan, Nanki and Gautam.
Come May 2020 we felt we had achieved the right balance, we shared a tight plan and programme with the postdoc careers departments at Oxford, Imperial College and Cambridge universities, got all their incredible directors on the same call (!) and together we launched Class #1 of Become a Science Founder.
BSF | Become a Science Founder
BSF is a 4-week super-intense course covering all the knowhow needed on product, market, capital and team through 5 classes, group exercises, homework and weekly 1on1 sessions.
All delivered by a carefully curated set of seasoned science entrepreneurs, operators and investors, some of whom you can find below. With a special shout out to Saalim & Dezzy who took the leap and co-created the first course with us, big heart.
Every quarter we select max 30 postdocs per class. Candidates who complete the course in full become our Fellows who typically would then roll out to either stay in academia with a business hat on (which is great for the ecosystem!), join a science venture or build a science venture.
Now our flagship fellowship, we run BSF with 6 leading institutions across Europe and a further 3 launching this summer, involving 12 instructors mostly US-based and with exits + IPOs under their belt, feeding a growing online community of Fellows (we hear there are now independent local alumni chapters!).
Since launch our work has been unanimously well received with an NPS of 100 and we are constantly working to improve the content, delivery and capacity with a view to create a new generation of scientist leaders.
Behind the scene one of the trickiest parts to manage for us has been building an education company that was truly independent from its Wilbe mothership and which could aim to scale and benefit the science ecosystem at large, not just our venture building and investment interests (we work with a dozen founders a year with these hats on).
One of the core principles we apply is that of separation between the work in the lab and the one on the course. Before joining candidates do not need to have a business idea or commercially viable research to apply, all we are looking for is raw curiosity for entrepreneurship. During the fellowship, candidates are in no way expected to share proprietary research or seek to commercialise their research, they can use fictitious commercial scenarios to learn business principles, we use teaching to bring a mindshift not to discover commercialisation opportunities.
After graduation, Fellows are not pushed to pursue entrepreneurship or to match-make with other Fellows to force business creation. As a team we don't pursue conversations and in fact we require that each Fellow takes a 4-week break from us. During this time we encourage them to absorb the learnings, socialise ideas across the class and measure next steps. Should they wish to continue the conversation in any way with us we try to be as supportive as possible with material, guidance and introductions to relevant operators and investors whether we are vested or not.
Ultimately with our work we wish to extend the range of choices available to scientists and this is what makes us the happiest as venture operators.
A great result for us is also if after graduation a Fellow decides not to pursue entrepreneurship and to remain in academia. That Fellow will form part of a generation of academics which is much more aware of how to work with entrepreneurial peers and facilitate commercialisation.
Besides BSF, we now run a suite of fellowships dedicated to different science stakeholders. For example in November 2020 we launched Become a Science Operator for cracking product managers and engineers looking to join a science founder in a venture operator capacity, in effect developing the next generation of science COOs. This summer we are launching a fellowship for another pivotal university stakeholder, to be announced shortly.
SKILLS is an independent enterprise on a mission to create the next generation of scientist leaders and science stakeholders. Self-funded and self-sustaining, soon to be led by a specialist team. If you wish to help us on this mission, we would love to speak with you.
And if you are a postdoc and wish to take part to our Summer BSF kicking off on 9 July 2021, applications are NOW open!
Ale & Dee