ONE element of successful innovation constantly overlooked is commercialisation. Effective monetisation of an innovation is integral to sustainability and growth, not just for businesses, but also the whole economy.
At the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, i-Teams, a programme under its Engineering Department, brings together students and the university’s groundbreaking research to develop commercially-viable strategies and build university-industry links.
Last month, Zurina Moktar, a Malaysian undertaking her PhD at Cambridge, presented a case study titled “Cambridge i-Teams: Commercialising innovations while empowering budding entrepreneurs” at the 6th International Conference on Innovation and Entrepreneurship 2018 (ICIE) in Washington, DC.
The conference was co-hosted by University of the District of Columbia, Georgetown University and George Washington University.
At the conference, the Third Innovative Youth Incubator Awards competition became a platform to showcase innovative institutional incubators and similar initiatives that focused on the development of young entrepreneurs. After three rounds of judging, Zurina’s presentation and case study won first place for excellence in Student Incubators.
She competed with five finalists from five other universities: the University of Twente (the Netherlands), Ryerson University (Canada), University of Central Lancashire (UK), University of KwaZulu Natal (South Africa) and Jomo Kenyatta University (Kenya).
A decade-old programme, i-Teams Cambridge was founded by serial entrepreneur Amy Weatherup in 2006 and inspired by the i-Teams MIT at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.
Zurina holds the position deputy programme director/support manager for the i-Teams. Her main role is to assist Weatherup, who is the programme director, in organising and coordinating the programme.
“Anyone from the university who is a technology inventor with entrepreneurial interest, wants to know if his newly discovered technology is commercially viable or is seeking access to useful market research can engage i-Teams.
“We will help the inventor to recruit a team of seven students from various academic background and one industry mentor. They will help the inventor to determine the best route for technology commercialisation.
“Through this, the inventor saves time and energy to focus on the most viable market for his or her new technology to be commercialised in,” said Zurina, who graduated with a Degree in Biodiversity Conservation and Management from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu.
Previously, she said, entrepreneurial opportunities within the institution were limited and mostly designed for students in the business school.
“When students apply to take part in i-Teams projects, they are grouped as a team for a term or nine weeks to assess the commercial prospects of a new technology.
“They will interact with real customers in relevant industries, guided by the technology inventors, a dedicated industrial mentor, facilitators and the i-Teams programme director. At the end of the programme, their findings are presented to business and academic experts.
Zurina said the programme had benefited students and researchers.
“Students gain hands-on experience in investigating potential markets for a new technology. They brainstorm real-world applications of the invention and investigate their ideas by contacting external industry experts. In the process, they gain a taste of the processes needed to turn a lab technology or new concept into a commercially-viable product, as well as learn a wide range of skills.”
Researchers, on the other hand, are given early feedback from potential partners and customers on the innovation.
Since 2006, i-Teams Cambridge has worked on more than 125 technologies, involving more than 800 students and 40 business mentors. Fifty projects have gone on to create spin-off companies, several of which have received significant investment funding. Some of the spin-offs have involved original members of the student i-Teams, and other projects continue to be actively commercialised prior to the spin-off stage.
In other cases, the i-Teams have helped to make a rapid decision to stop commercialising a technology, allowing the researchers to re-focus their efforts on projects with greater potential.
“We can certainly learn from the best practices to enhance the existing incubator or similar initiatives in Malaysia. i-Teams is a proven approach for extracting the latent value of a newly-discovered university technology by getting students and industrial mentor involved in the commercialisation pipeline.
“The quest to commercialise any new technology is not a one-man show, nor is it straightforward. New technology needs challenges and iterations. Hence, it is never too soon to get other people to tell us what they think about our invention because when we get too emotionally attached with our own invention, it is hard to visualise the potential of the technology beyond its immediate applications and realise where the blind spots are.
“We explore new ideas and prospects by interacting with other people outside the confines of our workspace,” said Zurina, who completed her Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge.
For her Phd, she is researching the commercialisation of invention resulting from university research and its business model implications. Her research interests are on intellectual property commercialisation, intellectual property business model and green patent.
“As part of my MPhil, I have been involved with the United Nations Environment Programme — World Conservation and Monitoring Centre work through the accomplishment of a project to develop a Capacity Development Needs Assessment Tool, which has been operationalised in multiple projects within the centre.”
After completing her MPhil, Zurina interned at the Permanent Mission of Malaysia to the United Nations in New York. She also worked at the National Institute of Public Administration Malaysia as a training consultant and was temporarily attached with the Innovation Agency of Malaysia.