Planning your way to success?

The brain is a wonderful organ.  It notices things all the time but only brings them to your attention when it thinks you might care.  For example, if you buy a new red car, all of a sudden, there are red cars everywhere.  There seem to be countless similar examples where you see things without noticing them and then they’re everywhere.

Something happened a few weeks ago which gave me an insight into what we (at the Technology Strategy Board) do and – now – I see the evidence everywhere,

It was the Major Awards of Committee of the Biomedical Catalyst that started it.  Set up jointly with the Medical Research Council, the Biomedical Catalyst is designed to support companies through the process of getting a new product or service into the commercial world.  It covers each stage of development on the innovation journey.  There is a Feasibility Studies first stage (twinned with the MRC’s Confidence in Concept scheme), an Early Stage and a Late Stage award.  The Late Stage, because the companies that we support will hopefully become the poster children of the overall scheme, is a tough competition. 

To be successful, you need to demonstrate that your idea is based on well-proven science and you need to have a robust business plan.  To complement our usual paper-based assessment, we had added the Major Awards Committee into the assessment process.  Made up of academics, clinicians, business people and investors, they give the companies a final grilling to ensure that their proposal will succeed. 

I sat in on the second day of the presentations, and heard some stunningly original ideas brought to the brink of commercialisation.  What I noticed was the thread of the questions and discussions – the academics asked mainly about the strength of the science, the clinicians about the impact on patients, the business people about the markets.  It was the investors’ questions that intrigued me.  They basically asked what the company was going to do to get from where they were now to the commercial world they envisioned.  It was strictly practical and incredibly incisive.  Their point was simple.  It is the change that takes effort – and to make that change happen and stick you need a plan.  It was this plan they wanted to hear. 

The point came up a week later at a meeting of our Governing Board.  We have just added two new membersDoug Richard and Hazel Moore – and they are very much focused on the “investment criteria” we use to decide who we support.  As we discussed how to improve our support for early stage companies, the subject of whether a company was “investment ready” or “investor ready” came up and got a good airing.

Then, just last week, I went out to Denver to listen to the Industry Growth Forum held by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  Companies compete to be at the Forum – only 30 make it – and then pitch to a panel of 15 cleantech investors for 10 minutes, get 10 minutes of questioning and then summary feedback.  The cleantech area is very different from the healthcare area.  The regulatory framework is a lot simpler, but the consumer benefit is much more difficult to articulate.  It is easy to explain why a new diagnostic therapy is a good thing, but making petrol a different way or running truck fleets on data analysis is a more difficult sell.  However, the questions from the investors followed the logic I had first noticed at the Major Awards Committee.  They focused on what the companies would do the following morning to change their position in the development cycle.  It wasn’t broad visions they were after (although we heard a lot of those); it was simple physical actions that would change things.

In the “guide to applicants” we issue for each of our funding competitions, there is advice on how to answer one of the questions about what happens after the project finishes.  It says “Applicants should then describe how these outputs will be exploited including where applicable the route to market, protection of intellectual property rights and other methods of exploitation and protection.”  On the same theme, when devising the LaunchPad competition we ran in 2011 (there will be more announced shortly) we realised that companies often needed support to gain access to the matching funds they needed and we tried to support them.  The bit that got them from “we have a great idea” to “ we have a business” was a lot more complicated than any of us anticipated.

What is important is not that the projects we fund are successful in terms of delivering what they said they would, but that these ideas go on to commercial success.  That requires the sort of plan the Major Awards Committee, Doug and Hazel and the Cleantech Investors in Denver were all asking for.  Perhaps we need to help companies as much with what they do after our funding as before?

 

Last updated on Monday 29 October 2012 at 21:54

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