Author: Isabel Wassing Edited by: Luiz Guidi
In the second session of the SIU360 education programme in Oxford we welcomed three speakers to share their views on the commercialisation of academic research: Kevin Marks, COO of Warwick Ventures, the technology transfer team at the University of Warwick; Prof. Jonathan Seville from the University of Surrey, and Adrian Griffiths, managing director of Recycling Technologies Ltd. The talk promised to address the difficulties of starting a company alongside an academic career. Where does an academic scientist fit in a startup? Is it possible to maintain a full-time academic position and successfully run a spin out company?
According to Kevin Marks, you can't maintain an academic position and run a spin out at the same time. As COO of Warwick Ventures, Kevin works to facilitate the commercialisation of the University’s research. He has seen many hopeful spin outs disappear into the so-called ‘Valley of Death’ – an ominous term reflecting the difficulty of bridging the gap from fundamental research to industry. Many academics fantasise of converting their research into a profitable spin out, perhaps even to finance their future research. But Kevin believes it is precisely this passion for fundamental research that so often makes the academic unfit to lead a spin out.
Successful commercialisation relies on the flexibility to pivot away from the initial scientific discovery that inspired it, and adapt to the existing market demand. A key component of spin out success is, therefore, to connect the knowledgeable academic to a pragmatic business partner. Indeed, it is the very objective of Warwick Ventures to establish these crucial connections. One successful pairing that Warwick Ventures can take credit for is that of Prof. Seville and Adrian Griffiths, which resulted in the successful spin out company, Recycling Technologies Ltd.
Recycling Technologies was born from Prof. Seville’s academic interest to apply pyrolysis (the decomposition of organic material by heat) to the recycling of plastic waste. Unable to leave his academic commitments to fully develop this idea, Prof. Seville teamed up with Adrian Griffiths, a former management consultant and current managing director of the company. Given that only 10% of plastic is currently reused, there is an enormous need for new technologies to contribute to its recycling. This is especially true of Residual Plastic Waste (i.e. mixed plastics), which is not easily broken down into useful components until after laborious separation of the different types of plastic.
Recycling Technologies now specialises in converting Residual Plastic Waste into Plaxx™: a waxy substance that makes an easily transportable hydrocarbon containing low sulfur. Plaxx™ can feed back into the production of plastics and additionally presents an attractive alternative to Heavy Fuel Oil due to its low sulfur content. Strikingly, targeting Residual Plastic Waste was not the initial focus of the spin out. It wasn’t until a news article erroneously reported on the team’s advances in recycling mixed plastics – which generated an unprecedented response from big industrial players – that Adrian realised the incredible market demand in recycling Residual Plastic Waste. Refocusing the technology led to the production of Plaxx™, which was recognised as a valuable, multi-use hydrocarbon. This evolution of Recycling Technologies perfectly exemplifies the flexibility necessary to pivot a spin out idea from an initial scientific proposition into a commercial technology, as advocated earlier in the talk.
So, should academics give up on translating their research interests into industrial applications? Absolutely not. However, as emphasised by all other speakers alongside Kevin, a successful spin out company requires a fully committed team. In other words, academics must distance themselves from their fundamental research interest in order to commit fully to the spin out. Alternatively, appropriate partnerships must be formed to allow others to take on a major role in shaping the initial idea into a successful business. Without the partnerships between universities and the organisations such as Warwick Ventures and our own SIU, the vast pool of knowledge and talent generated in academia will remain largely untapped. Young scientists, inspired by their research and willing to follow it into the world of industry, should be encouraged to do so. The speakers left us with a final message: create vision, but have the courage to follow it.