Building business skills as a scientist

5th May 2023

Dr Nick Thomson is a Research Scientist at the Quadram Institute and recently spent time working with our Business Development team, alongside his research. We spoke to Nick to find out more about his experience.

Dr Nick Thompson smiling, sat next to Dr Roberto Zanchi, with a laptop in the foreground.

I’ve been interested in the business aspect of science for some time. I started off my career studying a Biotechnology undergraduate degree, where I chose to do a minor component in business management.

Since then, I have focused more on research in academia. I’m currently a Research Scientist working in Professor Rob Kingsley’s group understanding why some Salmonella strains cause disease and some don’t. Before that, I was working in Professor Mark Pallen’s group on building smart probiotics.

Like a lot of people, I started reflecting while I was stuck at home during the pandemic. I thought maybe I should return to exploring business and industry.

I get the most satisfaction from science when I am driving towards producing a tangible product that people might want to buy. I have previously taken part in programmes like iTeams, which gave me some insight into the commercialisation process. I wanted to understand that process better and to explore career options outside the lab.

I reached out to some companies to see if I could organise a placement with them. It was tricky because restrictions were still in place so I couldn’t find anywhere that could offer a placement at the time.

The Business Development team was supportive and suggested companies I could contact. The team works on innovation, commercialisation and technology transfer of research at the Quadram Institute. They suggested doing a placement with them internally in the Business Development team, which sounded like a great option.

I started working 20% of my time in Business Development alongside my research. My Group Leader was understanding of gaining this experience. I worked flexibly. Some weeks I spent more time with the Business Development team, other weeks I was working more on my research project.

Breadth of Business Development

Before my placement in the Business Development team, I thought that their work was mostly focused on selling technologies and patents to companies.
I quickly realised that the team’s work is much more varied and includes looking for funding opportunities and working with Group Leaders on translation and innovation grant applications.

I saw how the Business Development team work with people across the Quadram Institute, including researchers and the Communications team, in addition to external customers, collaborators and investors.

Learning more about licensing

As part of my placement, I had two projects to focus on. One of these was looking for licensing opportunities for research tools developed at the Quadram Institute.

Research tools are discoveries or inventions that can solve problems and make life easier for other researchers. They are valuable and a good example of how research can generate revenue without going down the most high-profile route of starting a spin-out company. I was finding opportunities that could be licensed through the CancerTools platform, run by Cancer Research UK, which shares tools across the world. Some of the revenue goes back into science at the Quadram Institute, while the rest goes to Cancer Research UK.

I canvassed Group Leaders to build a list of potential opportunities and then met with them to learn more about their research tools, how ready they are for licensing, what demand or market size they might attract and what intellectual property is attached to them. I identified three tools that were ready for licensing immediately through the CancerTools platform.

Through this process, I learned about conducting patent searches, contract negotiations, and less obvious aspects of licensing such as trademarking, rewards to inventors, and the technicalities of production and distribution.

It was interesting to learn about other areas of research going on in the institute too. When working as a Research Scientist you are focused on a specific project in a specific area. Working to identify licensing opportunities was a great way to learn more about all the different areas of research happening at the Quadram Institute.

I think the ability to quickly learn new areas of research is useful, for example for going into a technology transfer role in a university.

Inspiring innovation through insights from business

Another project I worked on during my time in the Business Development team was initiating and working with colleagues in the team on an internal seminar series called Business Insights.

The aim of this series is to raise awareness to researchers and support staff of how business works, how their work can appeal to industry and careers available.

Only around 0.45% of PhD students will become professors. So, as researchers it is important we are aware of other career opportunities, including in industry.

For the seminar series, speakers are invited from a range of companies and roles, including from startups, multinational companies and investors. So far, there have been several seminars, which have generated some interesting discussions between researchers and speakers and set up some possible collaborations between the Quadram Institute and companies.

Along with the seminar, researchers can have one-to-one discussions with the guest speakers. As an organiser, I sat in on some of these discussions.
I really enjoyed and benefited from mediating the discussions, seeing how companies evaluate collaboration or investment opportunities and I gained valuable experience in investigating market potential and pitching technologies to investors.

I have learnt a lot from just seeing what questions people ask and what problems they need to solve, whether they are a venture capitalist, startup or from a multinational company.

Networking on Norwich Research Park and beyond

Norwich is a real hub for innovative science. It is an exciting place to be and there are lots of opportunities across Norwich Research Park for networking with companies and start-ups.

I grew up in Norfolk. My research career has taken me across the world, including to Japan, where I met my wife. It is great that there are so many startups in Norwich now.

I have always been interested in synthetic biology. In some ways I think I am more of an engineer than a biologist because I like to play with how things work and build new things.

There used to be very few synthetic biology companies in the UK. Now there are lots more around, all over the country and a high concentration here in Norwich.

During my placement, I have expanded my network through events like the One Nucleus Genesis conference in London. I have learnt that there is a big ecosystem between industry and academia, which is complex and always changing.

Bringing business insight back to the bench

My placement in the Business Development team was a useful experience for CV building and networking, and it has changed my mindset as a researcher too when I am reading papers and planning experiments.

I now think about research differently. I think about how reliable the science is, is there a market, is there potential for making revenue that is larger than the input initially.

I think it is useful to have that awareness in the back of your mind if you are working in a lab as a postdoc. It’s good to think beyond what is an interesting question and also think about how it affects the world, at an early stage of research.

At the time of my placement, I was working on a research project using TraDIS, a powerful method sequencing platform to look and test for functions in genomes. It made me think about how that technique could be used in industry.

There is more to science than just writing papers, and I believe it’s important to think about what impact our science will have on the world.”

Related Research Groups

Microscopy image of Salmonella with a genomic map overlaid

Rob Kingsley