A Journey from Research to Commercialisation of Science – An interview with Dr Jeff Skinner

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Author: Jun Hon Pang Edited by: Burcu Anil Kirmizitas, Tom Dalliston

With a PhD in thin film photonics and an MBA, Dr Skinner is actively involved in technology commercialisation through teaching and consulting, and has a great deal of experience working with academics to commercialise new technologies. Jeff is leading our upcoming SIU workshop in London on ‘How a bad commercial strategy can kill a great technology’ on Thursday, 16th November 2017 at London Business School. In this interview, he spoke to us about his journey in developing his career and passion in supporting translation of science.

 

(1) ‘Your current position is the executive director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the LBS, what does that entail? What are you most proud of doing in the role?’

‘I run curricular and co-curricular activities to help students learn how to start a business,’ Jeff said. He also does one-to-one sessions where he advises students who are keen to commercialise an idea to start a business, and helps them to link up with suitable connections. Jeff spends around half of his time at LBS, and the other half working with academics across the world from London to the Middle East to find applications for new technologies and to support their commercialisation.  One of the roles Jeff enjoys most is teaching: ‘I get immense pleasure from motivating and showing researchers how to translate their technology into innovation’.

 

(2) ‘How would you describe your passion for educating people about the translation of science? When did this passion develop? Is this what drives you at work?’

‘After my PhD, I joined General Electric (GE) as a researcher. Being in the industry environment, I started to realise that I was more interested in the commercialisation of science rather than the science itself,’ Jeff replied. He went on to a firm (Hoechst Celanese Photonics) in New Jersey, USA, to work in technology commercialisation and really enjoyed the process. He also enjoys teaching. ‘I have always been a teacher at heart; even before my PhD I taught science at a secondary school,’ he said. He started to be involved in teaching of commercialisation when he volunteered to set up the management centre in UCL drawing heavily on the tools, frameworks and methodologies he learned during his MBA. About what continues to drive him now he says, ‘I just want to teach others what I wish others had taught me as a young researcher all those years ago’.

 

(3) ‘We understand that you have a PhD in thin film photonics. Could you share with us how you made the leap towards your current career in technology commercialisation?’

Jeff’s transition from a scientist to technology transfer was gradual. ‘Coming out of my PhD, I went on to research in industry at GE, and I discovered interest in the business of science,’ he said. It became even clearer when he attended a one-week course on commercialising high technology at Cranfield, which he described as ‘a transformational experience’. The big insight was that business was accessible to scientists whereas science isn’t accessible to most business-people.  His new-found passion led him to join Hoechst Celanese as product manager for the same thin-film photonic devices he’s been working on at GE. ‘I had the advantage of being the only one who knew how they worked’, he said. The experience of the job reaffirmed his interest in commercialisation and he found that he enjoyed engaging with and selling to end users.  Later on Jeff moved back to the UK where he joined UCL. ‘I was lucky to find a position at UCL starting the new venture unit. I began working with a handful scientists who wanted to develop ventures but didn’t know how to’. Some of these became very successful. In a few years technology transfer became increasingly recognised in the UK as a force for good and he led successful collaborative bids for huge government support to build capacity that included creating new units, programmes and teaching at UCL and other institutions.

 

(4) ‘How has your scientific background helped you in your present career? And how should other aspiring entrepreneurial researchers be using their backgrounds to their advantage?’

‘The PhD definitely helps to enhance credibility with researchers. But more than that it helps to understand their mentality, motivation and methods. This makes it easier to work alongside them,’ Jeff answered. As for the scientific aspects of projects, it’s a process of continuous learning as he is involved in a wide range of projects, including areas beyond his background such as molecular biology. ‘I spend hours with academics to talk about any new project and I get a kick from the being constantly exposed to really bright researchers and great new technologies’. Furthermore, the process of science bears a strong resemblance to starting a business, as a business idea is a hypothesis (more details in Dr Skinner’s TEDx talk in 2013). The idea of hypothesis testing and subsequent refinement is natural to the best scientists. Asking what the main advice he would give to aspiring entrepreneurial scientists, his answer was ‘start doing it, figure out what needs to go right and who needs to do what for your venture to succeed and then talk to those who can help you make it happen’. 

 

(5) ‘If you had to pick only 3 key traits required to be a successful entrepreneurial scientist, what would they be?’

‘I don’t really go with the trait theory. I have seen that even the most unlikely people can be entrepreneurial,’ Jeff responded. He added that conviction, determination and drive are vital attitudes – but this is true of anyone wanting to make a difference. ‘Maybe, the ability to cope with the ambiguity and loneliness that is the nature of any new venture, although even that may be lessened now with the advent of so much start-up support and incubation’.  

 

(6) ‘Have you ever experienced a failure or setback in your career? If so, how did you deal with that? What did it teach you?’

During his PhD, Jeff was completely consumed by his research. But afterwards at GE he began to realise that he didn’t really enjoy it – and thus wouldn’t be that good at it - and he couldn’t see where it was leading.  He comes across many PhD students who feel the same. ‘I was really lucky to find a different way to leverage my scientific training. Having realised that I loved commercialising technology a whole new world opened up and I just went for it.  Part of what I do nowadays is to help researchers to realise that they can be brilliant at business and sales and that this can be just as challenging and entertaining as a life in science’.  Moreover he believes that those who have experience in commercialising technology are sought-after by the best (well read, most innovative) employers. ‘They want people who know how to create commercial value from their intellectual assets’. 

 

(7) ‘What can we expect from your upcoming workshop? Who will it benefit?’

‘The workshop will help [the attendees] to better understand the first steps in commercialising a technology. We will explore a real scenario of a scientist who is trying to commercialise his product, and figure out how to develop a commercial strategy.’ The workshop will be of interactive nature, and designed to help scientists who have little to no experience in commercialisation.

 

To register for the SIU workshop by Dr Jeff Skinner on 16th Nov 2017, please click https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/how-a-bad-commercial-strategy-can-kill-a-great-technology-tickets-39491724812.

Dr Skinner’s TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7I8yOLNzgc