How to get funding, making a business plan or marketing are things that many researchers don’t know a lot about. And still these skills might be significant for the breakthrough of their research, because who is going to buy their research, their products or invest in them if they cannot provide a clear business plan or explain in a simple-enough fashion what they are trying to accomplish?
The BioFISA II 'Lean Entrepreneur in Biosciences' trainings are arranged exactly for this reason. BioFISA II is a programme funded by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the South African Department of Science and Technology (DST). The BioFISA II is also funded by implementing partner stakeholders in partnership with the NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development) to support the SANBio (Southern Africa Network for Biosciences). Through the BioFISA II, funds are provided for researchers developing innovative products in biosciences and implementing various capacity building activities..
Under the programme, applicants can apply for flagship grants, seed grants or mobility grants, depending on the type of their project. However, in order to receive funding it is compulsory to incorporate relevant business aspects to the proposal. This was the reason for the training, to help the groups move on from research to business.
The competence and passion of all project groups was impressive. The prototype products varied from genotyping kits to fish feed and biscuits for malnourished children. The applicants came from numerous different countries in Southern Africa, with each project team having participation from at least three.
Even though the applicants had a huge passion for their research and products, one could easily see that things like marketing, business planning and entrepreneurship weren't things they had a lot of experience in. With 13 groups in total, all with individual products, one could see there was some competition between the groups during the workshop as only some would be funded. This was what pushed the participants to be active in discussions and ask tricky questions, just like in the competition in the global market.
The training was facilitated by Will Cardwell and Laura Carnicelli, both from Courage Ventures, with other experts giving lectures via Skype. The week started with an introduction to entrepreneurship, followed by a workshop for planning using the Business Model Canvas. This was something that the participants seemed to be more familiar with, even though this particular canvas was something quite different to what they had done before.
When it came to the next part of the workshop, the customer interviews, it became clear that this wasn't something the applicants were really ready for. 'What a shame' one could think, but this was not the case! The more work they had to do, and the less inexperienced they were from before, the more they learned.
The most challenging, and probably the most educative part of the training was the 'dragons' den'. The applicants were put in a situation where experts in business - so called 'dragons' - were asking them questions about their products, research and business plans after a short pitch by the teams. Hard questions like how can your product have a market impact? and which challenges do you think your product is about to face? were posed. At this very point many of the applicants realized the shortcomings in their projects and what they could improve.
After this week one could see that many of the projects had good potential, but also that some of the projects needed improvement. What was very common was that many of the research projects were still at an early stage of development.
However, even if projects might end up not receiving the grants available, the BioFISA II Lean Entrepreneur in Biosciences training has helped them to improve their projects significantly, especially for future application processes, even by other funders. And when one looks back at the applicants at the beginning of the week they could clearly be called 'researchers' or 'scientists', whereas now one could call them 'potential entrepreneurs'.
Text: Daniel Mickos