A new story for Science entrepreneurship
We believe the “Old Story” about science venturing is no longer the whole story.
Moveover, it looks to us like it is the dominance of the Old Story itself which is the primary bottleneck to unleashing the impact potential of scientific innovation, rather than infrastructure we have in place in the UK and Europe.
If we’re right, the good news is that our national scientific infrastructure is just fine. The bad news is that altering paradigmatic narratives is really hard.
The Old Story about Science Venturing
This is how the Old Story goes:
- Science ventures (or spinouts) spring from access to scientific innovation (invention)
- Scientific innovation (invention) comes from solving scientific problems (scientific breakthrough)
- Solving scientific problems requires understanding more about the science (fundamental research)
- Gaining deep understanding of science is the domain of senior academics (professors)
The following commonly held conceptions of science companies spring from those premises:
- Science companies start with IP (inventions, ideas), which means they usually wrestle with university tech transfer offices for a year or two
- Science companies are expensive to develop (they have to solve scientific problems) which means they need access to large amounts of money
- Science companies are slow to market (they have to conduct fundamental research) which means your capital has to be “patient” (or not care about returns)
- You need to have senior academics involved from the start as prime movers (usually focused exclusively on science, rather than operational or commercial)
This narrative directs people who want to fix the system to focus on suboptimal interventions, such as trying to make tech transfer offices marginally faster, creating website or portals for more transparent intellectual property access, trying to get university rewards to inventors schemes to be “less greedy”, better matching between knowledge and industry, higher levels of proof of concept funding…
The New Story about science venturing
We contend that in a rapidly growing minority of cases, an alternative narrative is true.
Companies such as MaterializeX (new composite materials optimised with machine learning) and Antiverse (in silico antibody design), Lab Genius (computational material science) and Hackscience (automating lab work), demonstrate that you can build science companies in a completely different way. These companies are all early stage, but they have grown exceptionally quickly and offer stepchanges by combining insights from scientific disciplines that have not really communicated with one another.
These sorts of companies are supported by a vanguard of ecosystem initiatives, such as:
- SOSV’s RebelBio (accelerating life science companies),
- Hello Tomorrow’s Deep Tech Founders (training PhDs),
- Cell Free’s Open Cell (providing low cost space for science companies),
- Clustermarket’s facilities access (allowing cheap flexible access to equipment)
- TUM’s BioKitchen (a biohackspace for the 21st century!)
- The University of Waterloo’s creator-owned IP policy (showing that “IP free” can be lucrative too)
- …and of course we’re part of this ecosystem too.
These initiatives and examples support the following, alternative premises:
- Science ventures can be created directly in response to market problems, rather than having to wait for inventions (market pull is possible in science venturing)
- Scientific innovation can spring directly from the intersection of ideas from fields (what we refer to as “convergent science”) that have not had exposure to one another (rather than purely from experimentation and fundamental research)
- This kind of innovation is often profound, defensible and much cheaper to develop — meaning, IP can come from places other than Universities
- This kind of innovation is within reach of early career researchers such as PhDs, Postdocs and professional researchers in commercial R&D
Once you accept this alternative set of premises, it becomes clear that there is a huge gap in provision for this sort of company.
- Investors have designed their theses around the Old Story: they have not yet developed the right lenses through which to look at these new companies, and their old lenses shout “do not invest: they’re not professors, have only the beginnings of IP and aren’t commercialising fundamental research”. The change here is being lead by the US, with firms such as Fifty Years, Lux, DCVC and Flagship (and many others) demonstrating a willingness to back unconventional founders and at earlier stages of development
- Labs and incubators are set up for companies backed the old way — a £2m seed round to get beyond lab scale prototype, rather than a smaller cheque to rapid proof of concept. We are starting to see this change with spaces such as Imperial’s White City iHub and Bristol’s UnitDX
- Process and advice is aimed at commercialising an invention, rather than generating a useful invention in the first place. This leaves pre-invention people without clear guidance. And if you think about it, this is crazy: all inventors were pre-invention people once.
It’s exactly this gap that DSV is looking to solve. If you’re interested in helping us change the story in science venturing, we’d love to hear from you — get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org