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Why Scientists Can’t Do Business

Everyone knows there’s only one place for scientists ­– and that’s in the lab. Ever been to a dinner party with one? Nowhere is a scientist more easily identifiable than in a social situation. They’re the one with the nervous twitch, the soup down the shirt, the one who rambles incomprehensibly. There is no place for these awkward creatures in the world of business. They lack the social finesse, the gift of the gab, but most importantly, they lack the basic knowledge. They don’t teach you sales in chemistry class.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this kind of thing said, by teachers, by businessmen, even by other scientists. But there are a few who have disrupted the status quo – myself included. While working on research into sugar-sensing molecules, I recognised the opportunity for commercialisation and co-founded a business, Ziylo. After eventually outgrowing the university labs, I realised the need for scientific infrastructure in the city, and formed another company to develop lab space in central Bristol. The outcome is Unit DX, a science incubator that will allow other scientists like me to commercialise their research. We set out with the mission to help seed a new scientific ecosystem in the South-West, and this is already starting to flourish.

So many people told me that this wasn’t possible. Besides my sweat-inducing fear of dinner parties, there’s also the fact that the commercialisation of a scientific idea is complicated and involves a lot of people, time and money. To raise investment you need to prove the research, to prove the research you need investment. It’s a catch 22, and it’s the reason so many science start-ups fail. We call it the Valley of Death.

But I have never been one to listen to someone tell me “can’t”. At home, when my parents told me I couldn’t do something, I asked them why. It was the same at school, and it’s been the same in my professional life. I was told that we couldn’t get a patent for the tech we were working on – turns out we could. I was told we couldn’t build Unit DX on our budget. Guess what? We could. To blindly accept perceived facts is to miss out on a whole world of opportunity. We must question everything and everyone – especially those in authority.

There is no one better placed to recognise the potential of a scientific breakthrough than the people who have discovered it. If we empower scientists by teaching them to be entrepreneurial, we can increase the benefit of research to society. We can turn that research into jobs and new technologies that will improve the lives of millions. To say that scientists can’t do business is not only ignorant, it’s dangerous.

I’m not saying that these scientists all need to be CEOs. Some people may not like the idea of pitching to investors, or they may simply want to continue in academia. And that’s fine – the reason Ziylo has been so successful is because of the team that has been built around it. All that matters is that researchers have the confidence and the understanding to spot an opportunity. Otherwise that research is unlikely to get any further than the pages of an academic journal.

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About the writer

Harry Destecroix

Harry Destecroix co-founded Unit DX after struggling to find space for his chemistry start-up, Ziylo. He is passionate about lowering the barriers to entry for scientific entrepreneurs.

Unit DX is a flexible, high-spec laboratory space available for rent in Central Bristol, catering for start-ups, SMEs and industrial teams. Its modular layout allows space for expanding companies across an array of scientific disciplines, focusing on chemistry, biology and quantum technologies.

Partnered with the University of Bristol, Unit DX brings scientists, academics, and entrepreneurs together to create a cluster of scientific excellence, enterprise, and collaboration. Alongside laboratory space, expert support is on hand for early-stage companies to help develop, accelerate, and grow their technology and business. Contact them to learn more.

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