What can 29 willing particle physics and astronomy PhD students learn in four days? The natural creativity of just such a group was unleashed on the topic of business creation at PPARC’s second Exploring Entrepreneurship summer school in Derby this July. Participants worked long into the night, learning about finance, establishing a small business, team working, self-awareness and business planning. The culmination of the week was a business plan competition, in which teams worked on the commercialisation of a range of ideas including novel interfaces for laptop computers, traffic management systems and disposable tents.
As a visiting tutor on the course, I was not surprised to be meeting a bunch of clever physicists. What amazed me was that their intelligence, numeracy and collaborative problem-solving skills could be so effectively transferred to the world of business decision-making. No wonder City firms and consultancies are so eager to recruit PPARC graduates.
The strengths of the students were clear. The five teams soon built up their own momentum in establishing the various aspects of their enterprises. Tasks were divided amongst team members as they struggled with the concepts of a business model, marketing strategy and financial plan. The submissions were in the format I’ve been used to in the venture capital world, with a written plan followed by ten minutes for presentation and questions. The students showed clarity in explaining their concepts and most teams used their best presenters for the judging panel. The plans showed a focus on meeting real customer needs, including environmental benefits of their business models.
We are so often being told of the virtue of entrepreneurship without being given the basic tools. This summer school is an important contribution by PPARC to the process of learning these vital skills, opening opportunities for individuals at an important point in their careers.
A number of participants asked me what they should do to improve their chances in business after finishing their doctorates. Three topics come to mind:
Develop personal confidence – physicists are very employable and the skills gained in a doctorate transfer very well to the world of business. Many of the participants hadn’t realised this.
Be open to the business world – listen to company news on the radio, buy the Economist or Financial Times and learn what’s affecting today’s economy
Learn a bit about business finance – there are plenty of good books explaining finance for non-accountants. This will aid understanding of a company’s basic financial drivers, the profit and loss account, balance sheet and cash flow forecast, as well as the profitability of a company’s product or service.
One of the groups has been in touch with me several times since the course, and I understand that a new business may be born as a result of their plan. I’m sworn to secrecy, so just look out for the product – but I hope they’ll credit PPARC for an inspirational week.
Nathan Hill is Managing Director of Qi3 http://www.qi3.co.uk/ and works as PPARC Industry Co-ordinator.
Please visit PPARC’s web site at http://www.pparc.ac.uk/ for further information on this course.