SETsquared Blog

The reluctant entrepreneur: from academic to innovator

When I was asked to contribute to the growing set of blogs on the SETsquared website, my starting point was to reflect on my own career path, which has navigated its way through academic, technology start-ups and back to academia.

I am currently developing and delivering an enterprise education programme with SETsquared. Called Researcher to Innovator, it aims to help academics think and behave more entrepreneurially and creatively. Researchers often have a real fear of failure and are very risk adverse, so through this course we are aiming to increase their self confidence and self efficacy, in order to help them make bolder choices, potentially see more commercial impact from their research and be more comfortable with business language and environments.

As someone who has sat on both sides of the academic and business fence, I feel I can offer a unique insight into both worlds, but what specific advice can I offer?

Well, all I can offer is don't try too hard. I guess I have been successful in my random walk through life but I really cannot say there has been a plan. I found when I was at university that I loved the lifestyle. What could I do to maintain this? I found passing exams quite easy - well easy enough to maintain my continued involvement in academia. So degrees and pieces of paper flowed. Sadly there came a point when I ran out of grants, scholarships, bursaries - I had to get out. So I took the next best thing - a job in a major engineering research group. Phew that was close, I almost had to apply for a job.

Entrepreneurial? I have always been able to suspend making a decision. I can always cope with uncertainty, ambiguity and confusion.

Imagine then my surprise when I found myself involved in what we might these days call a business start-up. NO plan - just a group of "lads" that needed a technically literate fellow traveller to help with some thorny technical problems. That wasn't really a job, more an opportunity to leave what was becoming a job and follow a hobby/passion.

As with all good random walks through life, that roller coaster came to an end by mutual agreement. But the end came just as my private life presented me with two wonderful little bundles of joy and a wife who looked to me to provide some security.

I had to get a job that paid a mortgage. So I ran back to university. Found a lecturing post and started another career - as an academic!

Entrepreneurial? I built up knowledge, networks and experience that could be used. I spotted opportunities in education and set about exploiting these from within a huge organisation.

Twenty plus years as an academic and I have had a blast. I love working with colleagues across the world. I love developing new curricula and programmes. I love the excitement of challenging convention, pushing the quality teams to the edge. I love seeing the students embrace challenges and show how resilient they are, and how easily they learn when trusted. How I wish I could go back and push the boundaries even further and faster!

Entrepreneurial? Don't listen to those who say it can't be done. Trust your own gut, your own experience and your own judgment.

I have never written a single business plan. Apart from one when I joined my first university as a humble lecturer and I wanted to build a silicon processing facility from scratch. I wrote a short business plan but I didn't need to. The department didn't know what to do with it - as they had never had a business plan for a teaching programme before. I am not sure if it helped me get the go ahead but I did build the silicon processing facility and that was a fun few years. I knew nothing about processing silicon and making integrated circuits – but how hard can it be to learn all you need?

Entrepreneurial? Know what you know and be honest about what you don't know. Build teams to assist you. I have always built teams because my knowledge is very limited.

I have never chased money either. Yet I have been funded to develop and deliver some amazing programmes and events. My belief is that if the idea is irresistible; money and resource will find it. If you convince people that your idea is a certain winner, you will get people to follow you. I have been just so lucky in my fellow travelling companions. Is it likeminded people I travel with? I don't know - but they are all great fun and see life in the same way as I do. I suppose we all say - "what is the worst that can happen? can we cope with it? if yes, then let's do it". Life is too short to worry about making the wrong decision. There will always be decisions to make and if you go down one path, there will be another interesting path appear very soon that you can follow.

Entrepreneurial? Lucky or do I make my own luck? I work very hard at enjoying myself and you never know what may come from that chance conversation.

I set myself no goals apart from doing only what I want to do. I have never worried about salaries (which does scare my wife, every job I have taken has required me to take a pay cut, not usually a good plan!) I make my own career choices.

Entrepreneurial? Probably not in the truest sense when you compare my career to those of all the brilliant, entrepreneurial people on the SETsquared blog.

However if you are like me - and don't know what to do with your life - learn to embrace uncertainty and suspend judgment. Create a route that you can follow and take that first step because what's the worst that can happen?