Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Learning to Turn University Research into a Business

Lachlan Blackhall
Greetings from the Australian National University where I am attending an Innovation ANU workshop on  "Business Planning Canvas", by Dr. Lachlan Blackhall, noted entrepreneurial educator and engineer. This is a program complementing "Innovation ACT", which ANU runs jointly with University of Canberra. The Innovation ANU program is option for ANU research students. In my view this should be compulsory for all research students, as their discoveries will be worthless unless they can be turned into useful products and services to benefit the community.

The workshop used a simple "Business Planning Canvas" one page quad chart. This was to emphasise that a new business idea needs to be clear and not hidden behind a large amount of complex jargon. The product has to focus on solving a problem for one customer, not the world in general.

The first workshop exercise to state simple what the customer "problem" was and what the solution is. Of interest to me at the moment is research supervision so I used that:
  1. Problem: University researcher supervisors generally have poor people skills, but do not what to acknowledge this and are reluctant to undertake teacher training. As they have a higher degree and have done research, supervisors assume they know how to supervise students. However, most supervisors have had no formal training in teaching and so do not necessarily have good people skills. But as highly technically qualified people they are reluctant to acknowledge this and will not attend teacher training courses,
  2. Solution: Have a highly respected researcher, such as a Noble prize winner say how important it is to have people skills training this could be in person at research conferences and an on-line video. Have trainers go into the lab, dressed as a researcher (white lab coat not a business suit) to introduce the concepts also have on-line videos of the person in the lab coat. Offer on-line courses which do not mention teaching, but instead use research terms.
  3. Value Proposition: Access to leading researchers and people who are your sort of people. A graduated process to help research supervisors.
  4. Competitive advantage:  Exclusive access to Nobel prize winners and other leading researchers. An understanding of how research is done. Associated with Australia's leading university and one of the few in the world with national government endorsement. Looking from the supervisors point of view, not the student (as teacher training does).
  5. Channels: Provide documents on the web written in scholarly language formatted simply like research papers, so that researchers will find them in a search for academic material and find it credible. Write formal academic papers which discuss the development and testing of the product so this will be found in formal searches by researchers.
  6. Partners:  Have the university media unit help promote the product. Put links to the product web site from the university web site (which has a high web search engine ranking). Promote via the university cafes and bars (which were where scholarly discourse had is origins).
  7. Cost: Capital expenditure (Capex): preparation of online materials and negotiating deals with talent. Operational Expenditure (OpEx): web site maintenance and paying talent.
  8. Revenue: Web advertisements on "free" on-line materials. Universities can pay to have their own branding on the materials, in place of the ads, for their own staff to use.

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