Professor Andy Hopper FRS and Dr Paul Webster of Ubisense gave an audience of 400+ at Cambridge University (21st October) a canter through why they started their company and what has kept them going through the roller coaster ride of a new venture.
Paul was introduced to Andy via a common connection and found himself in an environment which was open, flexible and encouraging of enterprise. So he referred to this as motivation through mentoring. The basic idea of the lab in Cambridge was to take an idea, deploy it around the lab and if it worked try to commercialise it. This approach resulted in several companies, the biggest of which was probably Virata.
Other motivations included what we might call “Motivation through motoring” – in other words having an aspiration to be less poor and to buy a nice car! But this came later when the lab that was sponsored by AT+T was suddenly closed and the choices were between taking another job and starting a company with an emerging technology in 3 dimensional location systems (GPS for indoor applications). Paul did not fancy the 9 to 5 routines so he got together with some others in the new venture.
A fortunate meeting took place, through which the team was able to arrange for an internship with a venture capital firm where they did their market research and started to build confidence in the idea, however there were some tough business questions. Was this a GPS system or an RFID system? And who else was doing something like this? So it was difficult to value the company and raise money. They then met Richard Green who had founded Ten Sails as an incubator for ideas in “space and time”. The results of the market research and finding a CEO restored their confidence and motivation to stay the course.
Other forms of motivation included the quality of team that had started to join the company. The Board, the management team and the business angel investors are all described as world class and aligned with the objectives of the .
Ubisense and the team there are part of the wider Cambridge ecosystem – a whole group of companies in wireless, GPS, telecoms etc., So they can measure their own progress and see IPO and trade exits from time to time. They are in good company and this reassures the team. They also compete with firms that are much better funded and have evolved technology that is far superior and this too makes them feel good. There is a sense of urgency to stay ahead of the game. The links with the University and a continous source of talent makes it all the more exciting.
For Paul then – his motivations were varied and included the desire/need to earn; but as can be seen it was not just about “toys” and “technology” but included a desire for affiliation with top people, a desire to be recognized and to achieve success.
Andy Hopper has been an academic researcher for many years and has supervised over 50 PhDs, earned a Fellowship of the Royal Society for his research and the high levels of citation of his work. So he is a hard core academic. Why does he get involved with business?
For Andy – while the University provides that pillar of security he where he has caught the bug for intellectual stimulation – whether nourished by the need for citations or personal ego – it is none the less a compelling pull to continue in academia. The University environment also provides for being kept up to date on international work, new ideas and one of the benefits of this in business is that it reduces surprises of anything that may be going on in a similar field.
As Andy said – In business you can’t get any real insights due to the need to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements and follow tight protocols. But in academia it is possible to learn about new developments due to a very different culture (and you only have to deal with egos!)of publications, peer review and conferences.
There are further debates that rage between academics and entrepreneurs about whether the knowledge is to be exploited for universal gain, national gain or personal gain and if as an academic you want to step into business you need to be comfortable with the arguments.
One of the motivations as an academic engaging in business is that you get to see the practical or tangible output of your research, but if you are at the leading edge and dealing with disruptive technology with uncertain outcomes and timescales it is really hard to raise money. You need to learn about how to do this and what motivates venture capitalists and how they work. You also need to figure out how not to lose your shirt! Without these insights if you do try and embark into business you will soon lose your motivations.
Andy is also motivated by having people around him that he regards as trusted parties, people with whom he can recombine from time to time to start companies, have and share new ideas and who can share in the pain and the pleasure of the roller coaster ride of new ventures. His own labs in Cambridge have become a hive of activity in cutting edge research and from which many postdocs/faculty and staff have moved into business or combined it with academia. He has tried to create an open, flexible and an aspirational climate so that people can thrive.
In the current climate Andy’s advice is to keep doors open and maintain contacts because when the economic conditions change it will be easier to get going sooner. And by way of example Andy highlighted how his lab at Cambridge is changing direction to a different big question:
What can technology do to address the big problems of going green? What will be good for the planet and what will regulators ask technology to deliver in the future? By seeking answers to these questions it may result in commercial opportunities as well.
In a few final words – If you want to mix academia with business remember – it is possible; but if you were focused only on academia or only on business – you might go further in each case. In other words although you can have your cake and eat it – the experience can be a tough one.
(These are notes derived from the lecture rather than notes of the lecture)