Agenda: An entrepreneurial academic mindset benefits society

LAST month the University of Edinburgh’s flagship Venture Builder Incubator program proudly announced it was renewing a key strategic partnership with Cancer Research Horizons, the innovation engine of Cancer Research UK.

The Venture Builder Incubator supports the commercialization of data-driven PhD research, and Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest independent cancer research organization.

Through this partnership, Cancer Research Horizons will sponsor 10 places for cancer-related research projects to take part in a 16-week program. Applications are now open to university research teams from across the UK.

The aim is to drive academic entrepreneurship by supporting PhD students and researchers to develop their innovation and secure investment to convert their ideas into a transformational and viable business. This alliance promotes entrepreneurship by giving innovative research teams that are focused on conquering cancer an opportunity to work with other founders and benefit from peer-to-peer support.

In 2021, the first year of the Cancer Research Horizons collaboration, eight emerging companies operating in the field of cancer were selected for the incubator program. They included OncoAssign, a precision medicine start-up integrating AI to deliver accurate treatment prediction; 10zyme, a company devising a simple method of detecting cancers through urine or saliva samples; ForceBiology, developers of a versatile, more accurate and cost-effective cancer drug-screening platform; and Therapevo, a further screening platform designed to fill the gap between research and medical testing of new therapeutic strategies.

By helping these innovative researchers build their skills, secure funding and bring their ideas to fruition, this partnership is not only benefiting society in the fight against cancer but it’s also driving economic growth across the UK.

The alliance with Cancer Research Horizons effectively demonstrates how collaboration can support and develop entrepreneurship within universities. It will however take a cultural change within many universities, where a more entrepreneurial mindset is required, to progress research projects beyond academic journals and out to the wider market to create a positive impact.

The responsibility for implementing this cultural change sits firmly within the higher education sector. Research and teaching have been key metrics for universities, but a greater focus is required to show how this can be translated into deliverable solutions that tackle key challenges facing mankind such as climate change, food production sustainability and, in the case of our own partnership, more effective remedies to enhance health and well-being.

Academic research is instrumental in helping find solutions to pressing issues and collaborative partnerships can accelerate this process. While not all research should be solely focused on a commercial outcome, it is important that we develop mechanisms to harness and develop anything that can be the basis of a viable business and, wherever possible, one that helps address key global challenges.

By changing the mindset within universities and encouraging and supporting more academics to think as entrepreneurs, we will find more areas where their research can be used to a positive effect. The impact of our renewed partnership with Cancer Research Horizons shows the tangible benefits that can result from taking this approach.

Laura Bernal is Program Manager of the University of Edinburgh’s Venture Builder Incubator program. See www.edinburghdde.com

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