I've just come back from presenting the "Commercialisation and Marketing Strategies" session at Energy YES event in Edinburgh. This is the first for this topic area of Young Enterpreneur Scheme which also covers the themes of Biotechnology, Environment and Engineering. It is one of the excellent ways that Postgraduates can learn about business during their studies and research.
I firmly believe that this is an experience that all postgraduate researchers should be exposed to. The world today requires a better understanding of IP (especially non-patent IP) and how that can benefit pure research and a better understanding of how business works.
And it is fun. I regularly meet students who have never considered jobs outside of academia who have their eyes opened by this type of experience. To explore what marketing is, why potential customers ought to be interested in your "idea" and to be forced to put themselves into the mind of investors who wish only to maximise their ROI can be a brain melting but enlightening experience.
Better still to find that they enjoy it and may wish to pursure a career in technical sales helping to improve the success rate of start-ups based around specialist technologies.
That is what the Knowledge Economy needs, that is what could really make a difference.
And I get the priviledge of being part of that process.
Roll on November and Biotechnology/Environment YES.
At a recent seminar in Helsinki I was asked a searching question by Heikki Vuorikoski the VP Business Development of Montisera. He asked why are we still talking about the potential of Bioinformatics in Finland after 20 years? A great question which has provided me food for thought.
I answered at the time that it was to do with failure to commercialise properly. That it wasn't to do with the correct skills in the Finnish population (they have some of the best academic qualifications in Bioinformatics and some of the leading research teams) and it wasn't to do with a lack of quality of the ideas – but a lack of exploitation.
I stand by my initial response and would like to expand on it.
Commercialisation is a skill that scientists are rarely exposed to, it is rarely taught in Science faculties. Some people wander into the business aspects of scientific endeavour though accidental exposure via business skills courses and business games events and some because they are aware of their suitability for such a career. However many scientists leave their education unaware that sales and marketing are possible careers and that pursuit of wealth is possible whilst retaining scientific integrity and take the natural career progression into the world of academic research or into teaching.
As a result when the opportunity to pursue a commercial opportunity comes along they are often unskilled in maximising the potential both in terms of financial gain but also dispersal of the technology to global market base that it could benefit.
The commercial world is proactive not reactive. It requires scientists to use different language to communicate in a different way to see their inventions from a different prospective. These are new skills which are mainly taught through Business School language of marketeers and totally inaccessible to the average scientist recently made CEO who needs a practical guide to “how do I make this work”.
There are also cultural issues. Scientists have their own combination of arrogance and shyness. They can be used to working in a single location surrounded by the same team for lengthy periods of time in their own language – linguistically and scientifically. They don't find it easy to change to having to cold call potential perspective customers and speak to them about the benefits of their technology in a language that feels and sounds unfamiliar. After all if the customers wanted this, they would look it up on the patents database or through citations? Surely they know who I am?
There are times when good salespeople are brought in to bridge the gap but this may not be the perfect solution if that sales person doesn't have deep enough an interest or understanding in the technology to be able to explain it with credibility to the equally intelligent and expert customers.
Another hurdle can be the lack of comfort with collaborations or partnerships to perfect a product or service. The wisdom of combination can be overshadowed by the fear of losing control by sharing equity. Global dominant products come from ensuring that all parts are of the same global excellence standard and the reward pie can be much bigger as a result and the collaboration experience can provide a cross-pollination of skills that benefits all parties.
I think that commercialisation of Bioinformatics in Finland (and other places) could benefit from more ambition to create global awareness of the IP and a greater confidence and ambition in the leading scientists brave enough to make the move into the commercial world.
Ethos and attitude are of great importance in business.
Having a good logo, clear website, accurate up-to-date appropriate marketing materials all create an image that the company wishes to project, but the drive to do so and in what manner, comes from the CEO.
The CEO will set the tone for the whole business. The senior managers will disperse this downwards and outwards on behalf of the whole organisation, (if your organisation is large enough to have this layer of staff).
CEO's come from various backgrounds, brought into companies at various stages to enable the exploitation of their skills and their networks. Young companies often bring in CEO's with connections in the investment world with experience of raising capital in similar technology areas. Home grown companies can get stuck with the CEO who invented the company who often has a focus on the science/IP that created the embryonic enterprise, sometime to their benefit – Steve Jobs for example.
But what about the bigger picture : For a small company would it not be better to bring in a “jack of all trades” who has the skill set for developing relationships where needed, but who revels in the multi-tasking required to get the company moving and understands that emails need to be responded to, that the credibility and scientific/technological standing of the company can make the fund raising easier?
Is it better to bring in someone with greater experience at a higher cost, potentially from outside of your geographic area that you don't have the same knowledge or comfort with or take someone that is locally based that you've got to know who has adequate connections, adequate potential to access the early-stage funding that you need?
These are not questions I have the answers to – they form part of the conundrum that I work repeatedly inside my head.
….but I do know that companies that do not develop their marketing strategy and build brand/product credibility will only succeed through luck not by good guidance...and there is little enough luck around in the current economic climate.
In the UK tonight (19th Oct 2012) we have a telethon called “Stand up to Cancer” to raise awareness and funds to support cancer research.
This is a cause close to my heart as I have a good friend with recurrence of oesophageal cancer and the prognosis is not good. As a result of his fight against this disease over the past 2 years (so far) I have learnt much more about cancer, about the options and about the impact of this disease. I have finally seen this disease for real and not just a set of protein structures within a small molecule docking challenge on a computer screen.
This summer I read “The Emperor of all Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an excellent book which I fully recommend to all. It charts the progress, understanding and the continuing exploration into the disease which is cancer.
What struck me most strongly is that the most significant breakthroughs are the coincidental ones. The rediscovery of a compound stuck on a shelf, the chance encounter of two scientists working on the same area but from two different approaches.
Serendipity still places a large part in new leaps forward. Cross-disciplinary approaches bringing together different ways of thinking, different skills and different historical knowledge and small companies provide easy natural environments to put those teams together to innovate new products, services and scientific discovery.
This is the stuff that excites me, the problem solving, the creativity of something tangible – and thankfully I have a job that lets me work in this area.
When I started this blog I was promising myself I would write something once a week. Not too onerous I thought as I often have ideas for blog items rattling around my head when I am doing other things. But I am failing.
As with many small businesses it is hard to divide the key people amoungst the key tasks. A lot of the administration of the website, the development of the corporate brand for SSC falls into my area of responsibility and I can find it challenging to keep up with. However it is all important and it is all relevant and I'm still at the stage where I find it all enjoyable.
The blog is something that I am using as a learning tool. As we expand I want to see how social media tools can be used practically for small businesses, and particularly for companies which have a complex technical background to their products and services. I am not an expert in the technical side of this so each time I write something I am also learning more about using Joomla (our chosen system) and RSS feeds etc. Hopefully when I look back I will be able to see improvements in the use of metatags as well as the quality of the content. When I had to add it all as code directly into HTML it seemed more straightforward!
I need to also focus myself on the advice that I provide to others. Do something, move forwards, get a goal, create a strategy, develop an action plan and make it happen -- and then review at significant points to learn from the positive and negative outcomes.
So far this year we have several positives - repeat business secured, new associates to be announced shortly, new clients in the pipeline and a new website to assist the building of the SSC brand. The negatives are not huge and mainly centre on not getting things done on the Admin side as fast or as efficiently as we would like. Goal set, strategy and action plan to follow.
I'll keep you posted.
I'm always watching and observing how the business world around me uses marketing techniques and how non-technical businesses adapt and respond to change and challenges.
One company that impresses me every time I step into their premises is Stevens & Graham, a family owned business established 1947. An unlikely candidate from the outside for they exist in a downtrodden area of Glasgow with an old warehouse with no remaining windows directly opposite – but definitely not an organisation to judge by the cover.
Inside their emporium of carpet is Sandy Graham, a gentleman who understands his market, his product, his competition and his customers to the nth degree....a man who I enjoy listening to and continually learn from.
He has guided his company into the internet age by picking out a high-value niche product from their range and ensuring front page Google search engine rankings on a global basis. How?? By going after Tartan. And that is no mean feat. He courts the overseas, ex-pat and corporate markets incredibly successfully, providing high quality acres of delightfully patriotic floor coverings. Check it out at www.tartanrugs.co.uk
He also courts his customers wonderfully well. An encyclopedic knowledge of his stock and his immediate ability to calculate discount/profit margins helps, but outstanding is his manner. He always has a positive story to tell – an exciting encounter about American golf enthusiasts wanting to get a few rugs for their summer house “back home” or the lucky-chance opportunity to carpet the Prince's Trust show-house at the Ideal Home exhibition. No hard luck stories here – up beat, up tempo...customer service all the way.
Importantly this message, this approach, is found echoed in all the front-line staff.
His simple answer to the economic downturn – a sensible increase in his sales and marketing budget. After all they are not only about Tartan, but all floor coverings for all requirements, a message which they are taking firmly to the world through their website, their impeccable staff and their new outlet in East Kilbride.
As Sandy himself frequently says “Very Good”.
Last week we got the new website up and running. Still working on the final tweaks for the layout and template constructions and the text needs an overhaul because now it is up on the site it looks and sounds so different - and I need to think harder about SEO and all those good things. BUT it works.
Literally two days after it went live I got a phonecall from an organisation who had a genuine reason to contact us. They had located likely people from searching Linked-In profiles and then followed through to the website and were impressed enough to pick up the phone.
Brilliant -- SSC have started to make their mark. We have been invited to attend the Science and Innovation conference in London. I have no disllusions here, this is a case of them needing bums on seats and us being a suitable candidate for the role - but they found us and YES, this is a good fit for us at this point in our company life-cycle.
So....I'm off to London to visit the troops - hopefully ones that are going to inform me about the policys and concepts the UK supports at a higher political level for innovation and company growth, which hopefully will help me refine the text of the website further....in the meantime I'm going to enjoy the moment, that the website is doing its job.
Much has been mentioned in the press recently about a desire for a new political agenda to support growth. Tax breaks, an end to austerity and more support for all kinds of options depending on who is writing the article are all put forward as the ultimate solutions.
But is that really the answer?
Getting traction in the market place and creating growth for your company is hard. The theory is all there, the list of things to do is long and uncompromising and it's really easy for people like me in fledgling companies to put all their available time and effort into providing product (in my case advice and guidance) to those clients brave enough to work with you rather than considering yourself to be one of your most important clients.