Spin out or drop out?

Venture capitalists work, according to urban myth, on a success rate of 1 in 10. Long odds then of a start-up companies being successful. Start ups, or spin outs, from Universities have understandably had mixed fortunes. The success of one Scottish company Burdica Biomed, a spin out supported by The Edinburgh Pre-Incubator Scheme (EPIS) which is a joint project between the University of Edinburgh, Scottish Enterprise and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), is worth noting and learning from.

Universities are of course a rich source of innovation, as well as adding to the wealth of human knowledge. Academics in the applied sciences have long sought ways to see their work reach widespread, commercial use, and quite reasonably expect personal rewards along the way. One mechanism for getting ideas out of universities, licensing, is worthy of much comment, but here it is another option, the spin out, which takes centre stage. More to the point, the hunt for the elixir of life that spin out companies need to have to be successful, and why university spin outs have, in the past, not easily found it. Let’s be honest even the professionals, the venture capitalists whose work is start-ups, find that winning formula had to capture. All the more likelihood that those of us, and there are many, who do it once or twice in a lifetime are going to find it hard.

The ingredients, specially the human ingredients, needed to make a successful start up company are very different from the skills and qualities needed to do academic research. It is not just about neurons; entrepreneurial skills are recognisable different purely intellectual skills. Not so surprising then, when companies setup and lead by academics find the going hard. Certainly some do succeed, but it is rare to find individuals with both an academic and business forte. Of course we all would like to thing we can, we are, but for the vast majority of us we are entrepreneurial also rans. The secret of the founders of Burdica? They had worked together in business before.