‘Call me an inventor with a business edge’

The best of both worlds is to have a razor-sharp academic mind and be able to build a solid business, as Dan Matthews reports


It’s a well-worn cliché that the brains of academics and entrepreneurs are wired differently. They are driven by goals that are mutually exclusive and their skill-sets are diametrically opposed. In short, there’s very little cross-over between the two personalities.

Stephen Hawking couldn’t sell a scarf to a naked polar explorer, while try to teach Lord Sugar the very simplest tenets of string theory and watch him burst into tears of frustration.

The idea that clever people can’t build companies and business-minds can’t invent things is a grotesque oversimplification that nevertheless has gained traction, not least in the opinions of academics about entrepreneurs and vice versa.

That’s despite a host of counter-examples: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, two of the most successful entrepreneurs on the planet, both flunked out of Harvard by choice – Gates because Harvard was too easy. Both found the switch to entrepreneurship an effortless one.

Closer to home, Autonomy founder Mike Lynch, who last year sold his business to Hewlett-Packard for $11 billion, has a PhD from Cambridge, while fellow Brit Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of nothing less than the world wide web, has a reported personal fortune of $50 million, as well as a first-class physics degree from Oxford.

But for every example of a theoretical model evolved into a healthy profit there’s another story of failure to commercialise good ideas. Consider Frederick William Lanchester, who died poor despite inventing the disk brake, used in almost all modern motor vehicles.

There are a lot of people my age out there being labelled as entrepreneurs – I’d rather class myself as an inventor with a business edge

A future example of an opportunity spurned could be graphene, the wonder material that is stronger than steel and conducts electricity more readily than copper. It is thin, transparent and highly flexible. In fact, it’s about to change the world.

Its invention earned two Manchester-based scientists the Nobel Prize in 2010, yet firms in China, the United States and South Korea have already gobbled up most of graphene’s associated patents, with the UK snaffling less than 1 per cent of the total.

So is this symptomatic of a damaging disconnect between the world of academia and the notion of free market opportunity? Are clever-clogs costing the UK billions by not spotting commercial potential in the things they discover and should we educate our best brains in market-trader logic?

Sonobex, a company with origins in a Loughborough University PhD, is a sign of progress in this area. Founder Daniel Elford is now an “enterprise fellow” at the Royal Academy of Engineering with £85,000 seed funding and 12 months of salary support under his belt.

Dr Elford was studying for his doctorate in engineering physics at Loughborough, specialising in acoustics and noise-reduction technologies, when he was approached by his supervisor and told to patent the work. With no commercial experience, he has been on a steep learning curve ever since.

“I’d never thought of starting a business and I didn’t think about protecting my intellectual property until I was told to file a patent,” he says. “Before that I had done one module in my degree called ‘business skills for scientists’, which was basic stuff.

“Since then I have been on a crash course with the Royal Academy and Cambridge University Business School, but I’ve also done a lot of learning on the job, for which there is no substitute in developing your skills.”

It was a similar story for Jenny Griffiths, founder of Snap Fashion, a visual search engine enabling people to match items for sale by uploading images to the website, who started playing with search algorithms while studying computer science at Bristol University.

Ms Griffiths created a prototype for the website in 2009 and, fast-forward four years, she has bagged a string of accreditations including the Cisco British Innovation Award and is shortlisted in the British Young Business Awards 2013.

“I’m reluctant about the use of the term ‘entrepreneur’,” she says, attempting to sum
up whether she sees herself as a fledgling tycoon or a smarty-pants. “There are a lot of people my age out there being labelled as entrepreneurs – I’d rather class myself as an inventor with a business edge.”

On having technical and not just entrepreneurial skills, she adds: “It’s really liberating to have an idea in the middle of the night, wake up in the morning and begin to work on it.

“Within months or even weeks, you can have sketched out the system architecture, written some algorithms and coded a prototype. Being able to code gives you the cheapest and most satisfying route to having a minimum viable product.”

These examples, and hundreds more besides, dent the myth that academics can’t do business. Suranga Chandratillake (double-first and Master’s degree in computer science from Cambridge), former chief technical officer of Autonomy and founder of UK-based video search engine Blinkx, which has market capital of nearly £500 million, wants to blow a hole in what he has coined the “boffin fallacy”.

“The boffin fallacy is the misconception that technologists do not understand business; that it’s something they can’t do, something they won’t enjoy and something that is beneath them,” he says.

“It is a dangerous state of cultural mind and appears to be peculiarly British. It does not exist, for example, in Silicon Valley where inventors-turned-businesspeople are common – Bill Gates, Larry Page, Stan Shih, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.”

But it’s a view not shared by Marc Worth, inventor of fashion trend forecaster WGSN, which he sold for more than £120 million in 2005, and more recently founder of Stylus. “Just because someone has a great idea, doesn’t mean they will know how to market it. You can be the best inventor in the world, but what an entrepreneur does is bring ideas to life,” he says.

“Many inventors can be almost too passionate about their ideas and fail to see the wider business picture. It is those inventors who are lucky enough to think like entrepreneurs that are the most successful in business; however, this is a talent that is few and far between.”

Perhaps the best formula is that of a blood-thirsty magnate-in-the-making and a spod of Egon Spengler proportions; the capacity to create complex and revolutionary things combined with the gumption to fire them into world markets.

That’s the (admittedly exaggerated) view of entrepreneur Kevin Arthur and solar-glazing inventor Dr Henry Snaith, who together run Oxford Photovoltaics, a spin-out from Oxford University, founded in 2010, which has so far secured £4.2 million in equity and grant funding.

“Henry is very entrepreneurial and wants to change the world with his technology,” says Mr Arthur. “He’s great in front of an audience and a brilliant academic.

“However, entrepreneurship is also about attention to detail, methodically and doggedly pushing forward the spin-out company, securing investment into a credible company and dealing with the ever-growing piles of administration, investor relations and government regulations; this sort of thing really doesn’t float Henry’s boat.

“I love pitching and presenting to customers and partners more than anything else in business, but it’s me who has put in place the original robust systems and the right people to build the company,” he says.

The truth is, of course, some people are lucky. They have the best of both worlds: a sharp academic mind and the acumen to deliver inventions on a platter. It’s the role of government, academic institutions and mentors to identify these gifted individuals and to back them, as well as to spot potential billion-pound ideas that are coasting unmonetised, and put them in the hands of people who can realise their potential.