More than 40 physicists and engineers from 20 developing countries, including Algeria, Belarus, Cameroon, Indonesia, Nigeria, Togo and the Philippines, were selected among 165 applicants to attend the five-day 'Workshop on Entrepreneurship for Physicists and Engineers from Developing Countries' at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste. The workshop, which ran from 23 to 27 April, was the fourth edition to be held in Trieste of a total of eleven workshops held since 2006, and is a joint initiative of ICTP, TWAS, the UK's Institute of Physics (IOP) and the American Physics Society (APS).
Scientists from developing countries often have very little experience or knowledge in business, and find it difficult to know how and where to start to translate their scientific ideas and projects into marketable proposals. Most developing countries have no training programmes in this area. For this reason, TWAS was very happy to be among the sponsors.
"People think of physics as a basic discipline, made up of research and abstract calculations", commented Beth Taylor, director of Communications and External relations at IOP. "That is only true in part. Physics, in fact, lends itself very well to applications that can offer enormous benefits to people and society, especially in the developing world. We like to call it 'Physics in Action'."
The five-day crash course in entrepreneurship covered a broad spectrum of topics ranging from the relationship between scientific research, inventions and products, to the concept of intellectual property and its significance in developing countries, to looking at how to take science to market and work with industry, as well as examining the timelines and processes necessary for turning an invention into a product.
"The workshop's programme was very ambitious as we expected students to produce a full business plan by the end of the week", commented Joseph Niemela, head of ICTP's Applied Physics Group and director of UNESCO's Active Learning in Optics and Photonics Programme.
To go about preparing this business plan, participants were divided into six groups, each assigned a tutor. "Choosing the tutors was a critical part of the whole organization", confirmed Peter McGrath, TWAS's Programme Officer. "We selected professionals with a sound background both in science and in entrepreneurship, to ensure that participants got the best advice from both sides."
Among the tutors were Surya Raghu, founder-president of Advanced Fluidics (USA). Raghu holds a PhD in mechanical engineering from Yale University, and has a strong background in aerospace, automotive and biotech applications. With 11 US patents already approved and another 10 pending, he was able to give the students invaluable feedback and suggestions.
Meanwhile, Richard M.Q. Brooks, director of the London-based company FD Solutions, shared his long-standing experience in offering financial advice to small businesses. Likewise, Tony Bunn, director of the Innovative Centre of the South African Medical Research Council, offered his insights based on his involvement in five start-up companies.
The fifth – and last – day of the workshop was dedicated to ten-minute presentations of each group's product and business plan, to be judged by a panel made up of the 6 speakers and tutors who had been present throughout the five days. The panel had given very clear guidelines:
- What is your product or service, and why will it be commercially successful?
- What stage are you at, and how much cash will you need to get to the next stage?
- Who are your customers, and why will they buy your product or service?
- What return are you projecting for investors, and when?
- What is the market size and scalability for your product or service?
The standard of presentations was in general very high, demonstrating clearly that the tutors and participants had worked together very effectively. Some of the presentations were utterly convincing (even though they were based on products that didn't actually exist yet). For example, Group B proposed a nanotechnology-based fire-resistant spray for wood that would be totally transparent, non-toxic and very economical to produce and buy. The spray would protect wooden houses from burning down, could be sprayed onto trees in vulnerable forest-fire regions, and also be applied onto antique furniture ("a good market for the wealthy", enthused the temporary CEO).
The winning invention, according to the panel, however, was a 'digital fetal stethoscope'. "Low-cost, accurate, easy-to-use, durable and patentable", said the group leader, simply. Usually reading a fetus heartbeat accurately requires the presence of a trained expert who has to assess if the heartbeat is abnormal. If so, the mother is followed up at a clinic where she can receive preventive advice and the appropriate therapy to prevent a stillbirth. This small device, however, would even allow non-experts to check the heartbeat of a fetus and get an absolutely accurate reading. In the hands of midwives, for example, it could help save many lives, significantly reducing the high rates of infant mortality and childbirth-related deaths in developing countries.
The group's presenter was Chandana Gamage, senior lecturer in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka (second from right, photo above). When asked if anything concrete might actually come out of his group's collaboration, he said, "Oh sure. The guys from Cuba and from Cameroon are working on the sensory aspects. I have the business experience. Richard Brookes, the tutor from FD Solutions, is interested. We're collaborators now. We're going to take this to market. Watch this space."
For more information about IOP's Entrepreneurship workshops, including the application process for countries interested in hosting workshop, please go here.