'In the 1980s, most biologists who set up their own companies were scientists who had achieved a certain renown. Today, most of these budding entrepreneurs are younger researchers who are unable to fall back on their name or their contacts but who already have specialist knowledge and are attracted by the entrepreneurial adventure,' explains the Belgian researcher and specialist in immunology Donny Strosberg. As the co-founder of a number of biotechnology companies over the past 20 years, he was in at the beginning of this 'cultural revolution' which has given birth to a new kind of start-up.
Before taking the plunge, however, one must first have the training. Traditional academic culture – based on the widest possible dissemination of results within the international scientific community – is very different to private research which is guided primarily by the quest for a competitive edge. A researcher who plans to become an entrepreneur must therefore learn to keep things under wraps a little if he does not want to see his ideas stolen by his competitors, thereby robbing him of the rewards generated by their industrial application. He must also plan his company's activities over the years to come, raise investment capital, anticipate expenditure and revenue, draw up a business plan and enlist the help of genuine business managers. As European universities have grown increasingly aware of this trend – and of its benefits – so they have started to provide training on the many aspects of setting up a company.
For those who are already working and have limited time, the Eurobiobiz company (which received €193000 from the Commission in 2002) holds workshops for future researcher-entrepreneurs on subjects including accounting, intellectual property, negotiation, human resources management and raising funds. These all feature in the programme during the two-day training courses held nearly every month in a different European capital. Twenty-five European biotechnology companies have already been set up by graduates from these courses.
Setting up a company is not, of course, the culmination of the efforts of the lone researcher-entrepreneur. It is the result of countless meetings, contacts and negotiations with financiers able to back what are often costly projects. This is why every year the 'Biotechnology and Finance', forums – initiated in 1998 by the Commission and the European Association of Investment Companies – bring new biotechnology companies and researchers with interesting ideas into contact with representatives from the world of industry and finance who are in a position to help them raise the funds they need.
Once a company reaches a certain stage in its development, it becomes impossible for the researcher-entrepreneur to run the business single-handed. At this point
a specialist must be brought in to take control of business and financial management. Some of these become business angels, stepping in when needed to make their experience available to young researcher-entrepreneurs, while others become serial business creators. As Donny Strosberg explains, 'When you notice you are becoming less useful in a company because the research has reached the development stage you then have to know how to step aside and make your skills available to another organisation.