A strong background in science and technology is crucial for students who want to become academic research scientists. But there are many other jobs for budding scientists that also need extra business-oriented skills.
For instance, students can become the engine of biotechnology incubators – looking into agriculture or food innovations. Or they could be the employees of new start-up ventures dealing with energy challenges.
As African countries continue to develop, there will be more and more demand for these experts who help to address development needs and economic realities.
First, though, students need to be taught how to turn scientific innovations into business opportunities. This includes problem-solving, teamwork, communications, management and project management and technical skills. But such skills aren’t usually part of postgraduate science training, where the focus is instead on producing another academic bench scientist.
There is growing awareness that this gap needs to be addressed with the proliferation of professional science masters programmes. Countries like Malaysia and Singapore have done a good job of addressing this research-commercialisation gap. And this has helped to propel their development.
Universities can play a key role in this. They can design courses to help bridge the gap between pure science and commercial research and development.
Science students’ primary focus should still be on research. But getting a brief introduction into entrepreneurship will improve their competitiveness in the job market. Graduates from biotechnology entrepreneurship programmes in particular are in high demand.
An encouraging sign is that a small number of African universities – such as Kenyatta University School of Business in Kenya and Makerere University in Uganda – have started to equip their science students with these skills.
In South Africa, the University of Pretoria offers a “Biotechnology in the Workplace” course to fourth-year students as part of the Biotechnology Honours degree. Here they’re encouraged to develop a business idea based on biotechnology. This is supported by entrepreneurs and biotech industry experts who share their experiences. They teach students about industrial demands, and help them with financial planning. They also show them how to write a final business plan.
But many universities will face hurdles in rolling programmes like this out as part of their curricula. This is partly because “bio-entrepreneurship” education falls between the crack of science and business.
Links with industry
Science departments may not have the appropriate industrial networks to expose their students to industrial thinking. A business school, on the other hand, may not see entrepreneurship in science as part of its primary portfolio. African universities must therefore actively try to establish these links with industry.
Another stumbling block is not having enough teachers in a science faculty who can (and want to) dedicate themselves to the more generic aspects of career and professional development.
From the University of Pretoria experience, there are almost no staff members who have worked in an industrial environment for a long time. This might also be true for other universities.
In addition, academic scientists, who rarely have industrial experience, may not see their function as training students with an entrepreneurial bent. It’s also not attractive to them because their achievements are primarily measured by how much they’ve published in scientific journals – not in teaching students about business.
Universities can possibly address this incentive problem for academics by recognising and rewarding these practices. This institutional commitment and resource support is also important. As we’ve seen from our experiences, many programmes start due to a local champion but fail as soon as that individual leaves.
Because of these challenges, rolling out bio-entrepreneurship courses might only be realistic for a very small number of universities in the short term. There are a few other ideas, though, which may be more realistic.
The first option is that several universities could share a programme by participating together in a single workshop, managed by one university. A good example of this is the “YES” scheme managed by the University of Nottingham in the UK. Student teams from different UK universities take part in a competition which, with the support of experts, takes them from conceptualising an idea and, based on real markets and financial data, helps them to put together a business plan.
Another option might be online courses. For instance, the Society for International Bio-enterprise Education and Research (SIBER) is putting together courses that will be accessible online at a very low cost. The organisation is made up of scientists and academic institutions dedicated to supporting bio-enterprise programmes around the world.
Finally, internships are an integral part of bio-entrepreneurship training. The Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Programmes (STEP) at Case Western Reserve University in the US are a good example. For degrees that fall under this, a year-long internship activity is usually included in the training. The interns work in small start-up enterprises and often write a grant as part of their final thesis for the company at which they are interning.
This would also allow subsequent employment of these interns as participants in the management teams of new or already existing start-up companies commercialising the universities’ scientific discoveries.
Karl Kunert is Professor of Plant Science in the Department of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Pretoria.
Christopher Cullis is Professor of Biology at Case Western Reserve University.
This article first appeared in The Conversation on 25 August 2019.