It is a well-known fact that many of innovations made within academic labs fail to make the leap into the market and general circulation. We approached Praveen Vemula, a researcher-entrepreneur whose team has recently developed a face mask with germicidal properties, to learn about some of the key factors that influence successful translation of a technology developed in the lab.
So, your research idea took off well, passed a set of rigorous tests, and is now approved by the review committee. Much to your glee, you notice that your idea has the potential to hop from the lab to the marketplace.
What next? Would it suffice to publish a research paper and stay put, waiting to be approached by a prospective investor? Or would it be better if you took the plunge and explored the business possibilities yourself? Understandably, you are in a dilemma, and the prospect of venturing into entrepreneurship unaided is a daunting one. Many researchers who come up with brilliant ideas with good market potential are often perplexed about the way forward.
At this juncture, inputs from someone who has gone through the rigours of the process would be invaluable. To this end, we approached Praveen Vemula, Associate Professor at the Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (inStem), Bengaluru. He is an innovator and an entrepreneur with five startups (based in India, USA, and France) to his credit. Vemula’s decade-long experience in the field enables him to offer astute pointers on the translation of a research idea into a product, which may help aspiring scientists to become successful entrepreneurs as well.
Vemula’s team has recently developed the technology for a germicidal fabric called G‑fab which shows potential to inactivate several bacteria and viruses, including SARS-CoV‑2. They then translated the G‑fab technology into a commercial product by manufacturing economical face masks called G99+, which give advanced protection to the user.
Here are Vemula’s guidelines for successful science entrepreneurship.
Pick the right idea
An excellent scientific idea need not be a good entrepreneurial idea. According to Vemula, in academia, a complex solution to a research problem is often considered more intelligent and indicative of thorough efforts being invested. “However, for translational science, the simplicity of the solution makes it lucrative to convert into an adaptable product,” he says. The critical element here is to minimise complexity so that the product can quickly jump from the lab to the production line.
Further, the crucial step for any innovation is identifying an unmet need and understanding the specific gap that needs to be filled. Here, it is also essential to look at the attempts made by others earlier to solve the problem or the reasons why those attempts did not succeed. Such an investigation gives valuable clues for developing a simple solution, says Vemula.
Taking an example from his work, Vemula points out that masks only act as physical barriers for microbes and are ineffective in destroying them. Usually, following use, masks are disinfected for reuse (posing health hazards) or discarded (burdening landfills). To address these issues, the team came up with the idea of fortifying the fabric with germicidal agents. “Our technology called for minimal additions to an already established industry of mask making and seamlessly fit into the production schedules,” Vemula says.
However, he also cautions against designing a one-off product. He emphasises that the technology must be versatile and leave room for refinements and upgradations to keep the product alive and in demand for a long time. Also, the modifications should be such that they are scalable at the industry level. For example, G‑fab technology can be used to make not only masks but also gloves and PPEs.
Protect your Intellectual Property
There is no dearth of piracy, counterfeiting, or theft of ideas all around us. Such malpractices not only devalue a product but the businesses that have invested in the original technology suffer heavily due to the unfair competition. It is, therefore, essential that before taking the leap to convert your idea into a manufacturable product, you take steps to protect the Intellectual Property (IP).
It is the usual norm in academia to immediately publish a paper once one obtains the research results. However, Vemula advises caution, “For a startup, IP is money. So filing for a patent in place of publishing a paper is more lucrative.” Opting for this route, Vemula’s team chose to transfer their technology which is being commercialised by Van Heusen from Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited.
Getting the IP rights in order ensures that the innovator can reap the full benefit of the research. It also protects the business from the risk of fake goods circulating in the supply chain. IP rights can be in the form of a patent, technology transfer, or licensing. At the same time, products can also be protected by design or trademark registrations, which must be considered at the appropriate stage of the translation. For translational scientists, Vemula points out that it is an excellent investment to train oneself in writing a high-quality patent application and working with legal experts.
Stay abreast of the latest regulations
Any product must go through rigorous regulatory screening before being accepted for commercialisation. Sometimes, lab standards and optimisations may not meet the existing regulatory standards. Vemula suggests that it is advantageous to get preliminary information about specific tests the product has to pass before the technology leaves the lab bench. “If the lab assays can encompass the protocols of regulatory levels of testing, then one can avoid being surprised later. The transition to production becomes much easier, also saving valuable time,” he says.
Build the best team you can
Whether it is a startup or an industry collaboration, Vemula highlights that it is imperative to build an excellent team for the progress of the venture. It is crucial to find people who share your vision and commitment. Building a team of people who have complementary skills to yours and dividing up tasks based on expertise will bring professionalism, and add value to the product while minimising oversight errors. To successfully build a core team, effective communication, nimbleness in decision making, critical thinking, willingness to take risks, and ability to motivate the group are critical.
Also, many innovators find themselves at a loss when it comes to marketing strategies or the financial aspects of a business. Here too, teamwork plays a vital role in minimising difficulties you may encounter. An aspiring science entrepreneur will reap rich dividends by having market experts on board or consulting them to get a ‘feel’ of the product idea by way of their feedback. Moreover, presentations to investors and industry experts are essential. Enhancing one’s skills in marketing, communication, networking, and fundraising go a long way in effectively translating an idea for a business, says Vemula.
When life throws lemons…
Challenging situations like the current pandemic inevitably pose several setbacks for budding ventures, and Vemula’s team was no exception. The lockdown disrupted their schedules due to lack of transportation and unavailability of raw material. However, several factors, like crucial institutional decisions, dedication, and team efforts, helped them overcome each hurdle one by one.
On the other hand, the situation had the advantage of allowing the team to learn from the adversity. “It spurred the opportunity to work with a diverse group of people beyond our team who generously shared all available resources and contributed to advancing the work,” Vemula says.
Although these are the essential aspects to aggressively pursuing a research idea into a marketable product, sometimes the actual situation may present several unexpected nuances. In such a scenario, Vemula believes that learning always trumps knowing, and an innovator should be alert to such changes, improvising plans as the necessity arises. “It is important to cultivate an open, flexible mind as translational science is a continuous learning process,” he sums up.