What if starting a science venture were as easy as starting a digital one?

In March, we spoke at SXSW 2018 about the kind of support and initiatives that could make it easier for scientists to build successful science-based startups outside of industry and academia. We brought together a panel that talked about the role of an engaged community, shared lab spaces and facilities, venture programmes, and funding.

An ecosystem for science ventures

Becoming an entrepreneur and starting your own digital company is now a common and accessible career option. That’s because, over the past decade, a lot of time and resources have gone into creating programmes, spaces, events and funding opportunities for people to come up with ideas, explore and grow them. The same is now happening for science-based startups.

We have been seeing this in the UK with the emergence of deep-tech focused accelerators and incubators, shared lab space and equipment, events and networking opportunities for scientists looking to start their own businesses, and funders turning to science innovation to increase their impact (and return). But most of these are nascent and often isolated from one another. We wanted to start a conversation to raise awareness of these different initiatives and to start thinking about them as part of a broader system — a system aimed to incentivise and empower scientists to build their own science ventures. Speaking at SXSW offered the perfect opportunity to do so.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is an exciting 10-day conference known for its fantastic diversity of cultural, political and technological events. This year, we added science to the mix. Our panel featured:

  • Gemma Milne, co-founder at Science Disrupt — an organisation whose goal is to promote scientific innovation;
  • Harry Destecroix, founder at Unit DX — the UK’s first independent science incubator;
  • Dominic Falcão, co-founder at Deep Science Ventures — a science-focused venture builder;
  • Ana Florescu, head of our Good Problems team — working with science and innovation funders to develop problem-driven programmes.

🎙️ You can hear the audio recording of the conversation here or carry on reading for the key points & updates since the panel. 

Ecosystem components

We discussed four ecosystem aspects — community, facilities, venture programmes, and funding. Below we provide a brief description of how these differ for science ventures and provide a couple of UK example initiatives.

1. A community of like-minded people 

If you’re an entrepreneur looking to start a digital company, there’s a wide range of events, communities and conferences you can join to help meet potential collaborators, investors, and test your ideas. If you’re a scientist looking to set up a science business outside of academia or industry, your options are limited (although the Hello Tomorrow conference deserves a worthy mention here). 

It was this gap that Gemma Milne and Lawrence Yolland tried to fill when they created Science: Disrupt — an organisation connecting innovators, iconoclasts and entrepreneurs interested in creating change in science. They have an online slack community with around 800 members, they produce podcasts, write editorials, and run events, all intended on sharing existing initiatives in this space, raising awareness of opportunities available for scientists beyond academia and industry. As part of the panel, Gemma talked about the value of having spaces where entrepreneurs can meet like-minded people, exchange ideas, and learn from each other.

2. Physical spaces for scientists to experiment and build their ideas

To create a digital startup you need a laptop and internet. To build a science startup you will most likely need a lab and equipment. Organisations like the London BioHackspace and Clustermarket are making it easier for science entrepreneurs to access the equipment and skills needed to test ideas.

As co-working spaces have demonstrated for digital startups, there is a significant added value in having different entrepreneurs working in the same space, sharing lessons, networks and expertise. These flexible shared work spaces and facilities are currently limited for science entrepreneurs. 

Whilst founding Ziylo, a novel glucose monitoring tech, Harry Destecroix encountered the same problem in terms of lack of facilities for scientific spin-offs from local universities. So he set one up. Unit DX is the UK’s first independent science incubator, and now houses 18 early-stage science companies ranging from quantum to biotech startups. Harry talked about setting up Unit DX and empowering scientists to start their own companies.

3. Venture programmes tailored to science innovation

Going through an accelerator or incubator programme has become part of the regular journey for a digital startup. But programmes designed to support science ventures are still nascent. Examples include RebelBio – the world’s first life sciences accelerator, the BioCity incubators, and Deep Science Ventures (DSV). 

DSV is a hypothesis-led venture builder that aims to create science companies from scratch. Modelled on the Entrepreneur First approach, twice a year they select a multidisciplinary group of elite scientists and engineers and support them in starting high-impact science companies. Dominic Falcão, co-founder at DSV, talked about what a minimum viable product looks like for a science startup and how they’re trying to manage funder and VC expectations when it comes to investing in deep-tech companies (they’ve also written a great piece on this here).

4. Problem-led funding opportunities and support

Innovation funds tend to be skewed towards digital solutions. That means that funders can start seeing solutions quite soon after investing, but the downside is that these often have a limited impact. In an attempt to maximise this impact, funders are increasingly looking at more complex problems that would benefit from science innovation.

Our Good Problems team works with such science and innovation funders. We help them identify relevant challenges and design incentives that can both motivate and support scientists in developing solutions — whether by running prizes, funding calls or offering access to mentors, training or lab space. Ana Florescu, our team lead, talked about the value of good problems and how they can provide an opportunity for scientists to turn their ideas into impactful ventures.

What next?

We’re keen to keep the conversation going and see how we can contribute to building a supportive ecosystem for science entrepreneurs. Here’s what we’ve been up to since the panel:

  • Science Disrupt — Recently launched a new podcast series on ‘Responsible Science’. First two episodes are out, so start listening!
  • Deep Science Ventures — Contributed to The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s report “Life Sciences Industrial Strategy: Who’s driving the bus?” and to the CBRE report “Life Sciences: Opportunity Under The Microscope”. And Dom was on a podcast!
  • Unit DX — In April, they hosted the BrisSynBio, a 4-Day MBA designed for budding entrepreneurs, from postgraduates to seasoned academics, interested in starting a synthetic biology-rich business in the biotechnology or life sciences sectors (more here).
  • Good Problems team — We’re currently working on turning our Playbook into a resource for science entrepreneurs and funders interested in finding good problems. If you’d like to find out more, please get in touch!

🎙️ Reminder – You can listen to our full SXSW2018 panel discussion here. Enjoy!