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John Innes Centre training links with South Africa

2 December 2010

The Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES) - an annual business plan competition for PhD students and early career postdocs - has proved to be a successful model for introducing young researchers at the John Innes Centre (an institute of BBSRC) to the world of business and entrepreneurship. Recently, a team of scientists from the John Innes Centre has helped to establish something similar in Southern Africa.

Biotechnology YES is organised by the Business and Innovation Unit of BBSRC and the University of Nottingham Institute for Enterprise and Innovation (UNIEI) and was developed to raise awareness among postgraduate students and postdoctoral scientists of the commercialisation of ideas from bioscience.

Four scientists from JIC shared their experience of the BBSRC's Biotechnology YES with a student group from the University of Pretoria. Sponsored by the British Council, the JIC team acted as mentors for the first-ever Biotechnology in the Workplace competition that was held at the University of Pretoria in November, 2010.

The JIC scientists were Dr Michael McArthur, co-founder of Procarta Biosystems Ltd, a successful spin-out company from JIC science, Dr Lesley Boyd, JIC's International Research Manager for International Development, Eva Thuenemann, a PhD student who recently entered Biotechnology YES and Prof Nick Brewin.

After an intensive weekend of seminars and mentoring sessions with South African and international entrepreneurship experts, four groups of students competed by pitching their business plans to an independent panel of "investors".

"Fruit Loot," the winning hypothetical company, was an agricultural biotech firm targeting the fruit growing market of South Africa. Their key product "Branchstop" was a biologically produced strigolactone spray which could be applied to trees to stop excessive lateral branching, thereby increasing the fruit yield of orchard trees up to 80%.

The company had a strong intellectual property portfolio and an impressive marketing strategy targeting their customer base through print ads and fruit growers' unions. The presented business pitch included a realistic financial plan, expansion routes and exit strategies which greatly impressed the panel of judges.

"Having the chance to pass on some of the knowledge and insight I gained during my own UK Biotech YES experience has been very rewarding," said Eva Thuenemann, who competed in Biotechnology YES in 2008. "We were able to give the students a better understanding of biotech entrepreneurship, and I believe that the experience has opened up a new career path for some of them."

The British Council supported this project through an Education Partnerships in Africa (EPA) programme involving JIC, the University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park Enterprise, and in South Africa the University of Pretoria, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Sylvean Biotech and Inqaba Biotechnical Industries.



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