“It was an overnight success that was 30 years in the making”.
So says Sophie Wilson FREng FRS, whose revolutionary design of the ARM microprocessor instruction set has fundamentally influenced mobile consumer electronics. Working for the small British computer company Acorn in the 1980s, Sophie and her colleague Professor Steve Furber CBE FREng FRS co-designed the ARM processor with almost no money and no resources. Nowadays the microprocessor is used in thousands of products, from smart phones and tablets to computers and WiFi devices. Describing the huge success of her design, Sophie says:
“The numbers are astonishingly large, something like 55 billion chips have been shipped… practically everybody on the planet owns a device powered by an ARM.”
Sophie’s story is one of 10 personal accounts which we published in a booklet as part of our work for the Royal Society’s new industry programme. These ‘Success Stories’ showcase how excellent UK science has been translated into successful businesses and revolutionary new technologies used around the world. The discoveries of the 10 scientists and entrepreneurs featured in our publication have opened up new markets, created companies and jobs, stimulated economic growth and improved people’s lives and wellbeing. We also asked the scientists what advice they would give to other aspiring entrepreneurs on how to overcome major challenges along the way.
What have we learned from collecting these stories about inspiring people with great ideas? To begin with, securing the initial funding to get things started is crucial for entrepreneurs.
“Getting the money was the biggest challenge”,
says Sir Tom Blundell FMedSci FRS, co-founder of the therapeutics company Astex Technologies. Over the years he and his colleagues at Astex made 30 bids and gained support from venture capitalists, the university and other companies in the field. The company grew and eventually employed about 100 people before being sold in 2013 to Otsuka Holdings for $886 million. However, one Astex office is still located in Cambridge, where the company was founded.
The length of time it takes to develop a viable commercial product can be a significant obstacle. Professor Donal Bradley CBE FRS, co-founder of Cambridge Display Technologies said, “Many people we talked to wanted to see products in two or three years. You should be thinking on a 20-years’ time scale.”
Professor Bradley and his colleagues Dr Jeremy Burroughes FREng FRS and Professor Sir Richard Friend FREng FRS were pioneers in the field of plastic electronics. Together they developed the first P-OLED technology, which was commercially developed by Cambridge Display Technologies.
The long timescales mean that entrepreneurial scientists who are trying to raise funding from investors have to be enormously committed and tenacious about what they do.
“There are many challenges: working alongside CEOs, talking to customers, selling your technology – you really have to be passionate and really want to do it otherwise you won’t succeed,”
advises Dr Semali Perera, who won the Royal Society’s Brian Mercer Award for Innovation in 2007.
Her spin-out company, nano-porous solutions, is developing environmental technologies that could save over four million tonnes of carbon dioxide from being emitted in the UK by 2050.
Scientists aiming to commercialise their research will also have to successfully convince other companies or venture capitalists that in the investment is worthwhile and not just “pie-in-the-sky”. Some of the technologies that the entrepreneurs in our stories developed were so transformative that there was no clear market.
Regarding his first encounter with potential partners, Sir Gregory Winter CBE FMedSci FRS, founder of Cambridge Antibody Technology, said, “I guess they thought it was pretty hare-brained. You’ve got to find a way to sell your dream and fantasy to other people”.
In his case, it worked out extremely well. Cambridge Antibody Technology grew to 300 employees and helped develop the first human therapeutic antibody. In 2006 the company was purchased for £702 million by AstraZenca.
Mike Lynch OBE FREng FRS, founder of multi-billion dollar company Autonomy, has a more bullish approach to negotiating with potential investors. He warns: “Always take a gun to a knife-fight”.
And finally, think big! Budding entrepreneurs or innovators will not only need a huge amount of dedication to their research, they also need to develop a clear vision of how their discovery could impact the economy and society. Professor Shankar Balasubramanian FMedSci FRS, who co-developed a game-changing technology to sequence DNA, recommends:
“If you have an idea, an invention, an observation, take the time to dream a little bit about how the world might be at some point in the future if you would develop it in a certain way.”