Introduction by Professor Nick Jennings
It gives me great pleasure to introduce Imperial’s second Review of Enterprising Activity. Our goal is to share what the College is doing in this important area, and to continue tracking our performance over time. We also want to show how enterprise takes place at Imperial, and the high value we place on innovation and entrepreneurship.
Imperial’s focus on deep science and technology means that a much higher proportion of our staff and students are interested in innovation and entrepreneurship than at many other universities.
While Imperial benefits from a natural groundswell of entrepreneurial endeavour, this activity still requires encouragement and support. Our ways of working have had to evolve. In the past, companies gave us problems to work on and waited patiently for an answer. Now we see new modes of engagement, with researchers from our corporate partners coming into our laboratories to work alongside us, and our staff going to work in corporate labs.
We also organise hackathons to bring staff from businesses together with some of our brightest minds to work together on solving specific issues in a focussed way over a short period of time.
Then there are more staff who want to create their own companies, and who need practical guidance and active support.
Our students are also increasingly interested in innovation and entrepreneurship. Many already have business ideas that they want to pursue; we talk to them about forming a company, protecting their innovations and securing funding.
The most committed can enrol in the Enterprise Lab to develop their ideas further, and then test their proposals through startup competitions. If successful, the startups can join Imperial’s White City Incubator and later scaleup in the Translation & Innovation Hub. We are starting to see innovations and entrepreneurs who are completing that journey – just a handful at the moment, but with more to come.
The whole ethos at White City is that staff, students and business people should work side by side. It is not simply a university campus, nor a science park remote from the university, but a place for sustained and meaningful interaction.
I know from my own experience as an entrepreneurial academic how important it is to listen to people who understand the market. It is easy to think that world-leading science will inevitably lead to commercial success, but that is not always the case. You have to identify your market niche and know how your science will make a difference. Contacts with companies, either at White City, through research partnerships or our network of business mentors, are how we bring that market experience into the College.
Above all, it is important to consider the whole entrepreneurial journey. Implementing a comprehensive support programme for student entrepreneurs or building an excellent business incubator are not enough in isolation. All the elements need to be in place so that people can move naturally along a pipeline from one to another, creating a healthy environment in which entrepreneurship can flourish.
At Imperial we have worked in a number of ways to achieve that. For example, innovation initiatives have developed across the College in response to local needs, but with slightly different ways of working. The challenge has been to bring structure and coherence to these activities, without stifling them.
We have also made an effort to fill in gaps. For example, we felt that while staff and students were well-supported, there was less support for our community of early career researchers. The result has been two programmes to help this highly innovative community to hone their entrepreneurial skills.
We do all this because we want our research to make a difference. Our reward comes from seeing our research put to good use, and the intellectual stimulation of engaging with business. For every problem we solve or question we answer, a range of new research challenges opens up.
Imperial aspires to be one of the world’s leading innovative and entrepreneurial universities, and it is gratifying when rankings and league tables confirm our achievements. But they should just confirm, rather than shape our agenda. If we are authentic about what we are doing, and we are doing it for the right reasons, then the ratings and plaudits will follow.
Photo depicts Pae Natwilai (MSc Mechanical Engineering 2015), founder and CEO of TRIK, which produces software for creating interactive 3D maps of large structures from drone footage. Pae originally developed TRIK as a project for WE Innovate, Imperial’s programme to encourage entrepreneurial women. Since then she has developed and launched her business with the help of both the Enterprise Lab and the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service. In 2017, she won the Design in Innovation Award, and was named as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30.