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The innovation fellowship emphasising ideas over experience

The Royal Society of Edinburgh has been offering Enterprise Fellowships since 1997. These commercially focused grants provide an academic salary for a year, £10,000 in business support funding, specialist training, mentoring and network opportunities. 

The RSE usually runs its fellowships twice a year, with deadlines in the spring and autumn. However, due to Covid-19, it has yet to finalise its deadlines for 2021, says enterprise officer Hannah Chater.

In recent years, the scheme has had about 40 applications per round, with a 20 per cent success rate. It is geared towards researchers who have developed an idea or prototype but need a little support and breathing space to bring it to market. 

Partner power

Simon Bennie, a senior research associate at the University of Bristol, began his fellowship in April. His fledgling business uses virtual reality to help researchers understand and manipulate 3D models of molecules. His interactive molecular simulations respond to users’ movements, meaning users can “solve new types of problems, or solve them faster or more effectively”.

“There’s real physics underlying what happens in the VR,” he says, adding that it’s “like a Molymod, but dialled up to 11”, referring first to the brand of molecular models used in UK schools and then to Spinal Tap. 

The RSE calculates the fellowship package to be worth up to £100,000 in total. That money comes from either the society itself or partner funders including the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre, the petrochemical giant BP, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. It was the BBSRC that funded Bennie’s fellowship.

Each of these funders usually supports up to two fellows per round. The research councils will only fund fellows whose business is related to previous work they’ve funded, although those earlier grants need not name the applicant. With the exception of fellowships linked to the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre, no special link with Scotland is required. Applicants need only demonstrate that their projects have UK-wide relevance. 

Bennie clearly believes in the product he’s developing, but what else helped him scoop the grant? “I think it was always keeping in the back of my mind the question: ‘So what?’” In other words, it was important to remember that his idea could cut through with businesspeople because of the benefits it could bring.  

This approach “forces you to simplify your writing”, Bennie says, admitting that this is not something that comes naturally to him. “I can write quite complex sentences, but I write them incorrectly much of the time,” he says, referring to his dyslexia, a diagnosis he received as an undergraduate. His solution, is to run all his writing through spellcheckers and other writing tools before finally using Microsoft Word’s text-to-speech function “to make sure the language says what I think it says”.

Entry level

Applicants do not need to have any previous experience in business: Bennie calls this his first “serious” stab at commercialisation. Nonetheless, Chater is quick to remind applicants that they “are expected to have validated their commercial opportunity through data and market validation. It is important that they demonstrate there is evidence to show their innovation works, and that there is demand for it.”

Meeting these assessment criteria was made easier for Bennie thanks to the contacts he has built in the world of VR during his career. “Effectively, for the past three or four years, I’ve been taking a suitcase of VR equipment around the country with me, travelling to companies, a bit like Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses.” 

This persistence led to short-term academic-business contracts to help companies use VR to solve chemical problems, which in turn inspired the idea for his company. It also meant his contacts within those companies let him see the letters of support they provided to the RSE beforehand, so his mind was at ease.

Admin and approvals

But applying for the fellowship itself still required some significant preparation. “I read all the material I could find on it. I then took it to the technology transfer office and talked them through it to make sure they approved,” he says.

“Because it’s a commercial­isation fellowship, it’s a bit more complicated than a standard application. That’s not to say it’s hard—it’s just there are more people who need to approve it before it can go forward.” Accordingly, Bennie advises applicants to allot more time for all the administrative procedures to come together than they would for standard research grants.

Bennie is clearly satisfied with how his project is going, adding that he’s also recently secured a follow-on grant from the BBSRC that carries “a very specific remit to drive this technology forward within the biosciences”. 

He doesn’t quite say that he’s ready to turn the dial up to 11 already, but he might as well. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com