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Chocks away as entrepreneurial students launch business

Visit John Innes Centre website

2 December 2011

PhD students Stuart King and Simon Lloyd, who won the UEA Eureka Business Plan competition, have returned from an internship at Hotel Chocolat's base in St Lucia with a greater perspective on the world of business. They are now developing their business idea, based around protecting crops from disease. The prize also included start-up support, which, with a grant from the Biosciences Knowledge Transfer Network (BKTN), and advice and encouragement from the JIC, is enabling them to head into proof of concept trials.

The seed of their entrepreneurial spirit came from taking part in the Biotechnology YES competition in 2010, where their team won their regional heat to reach the national final. The Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme, which is organised by BBSRC and the University of Nottingham Nottingham Institute for Enterprise and Innovation (UNIEI), is an annual competition for PhD students and early career postdocs to develop a business plan for a product or service that is imaginary, but may be based on actual research.

"Having taken part in Biotechnology YES, we felt like we wanted to do this for real. We gained a new perspective on science and innovation that we wouldn't have got solely by studying for our PhDs. It gave us confidence and told us what it took to be an entrepreneur," said Stuart. "The Eureka competition gave us the chance to develop one of our ideas into a business."

Simon Lloyd with a cocoa grower. Image: JIC

Simon Lloyd with a cocoa grower. Image: JIC

At the Eureka competition, they had to present their business plan to a panel of local business leaders from Barclays Bank, Lovewell Blake, The Click and Mills and Reeve. Part of their prize also included help and support with financial, legal and public relations matters from them.

Simon and Stuart also credit the environment at the John Innes Centre, and the Norwich Research Park, for helping in their success and in inspiring them to start up their business. The JIC, which is strategically funded by BBSRC, is a world-leader in research into pests and diseases of plants, and is home to many experienced researchers in this area. It also has experience in promoting the uptake of science by industry through partnerships or in setting up new spin-out companies, through its business development activities and Plant Bioscience Limited (PBL).

"We received a lot of advice from our colleagues at JIC, as well as the support of our PhD supervisors. We have also been able to tap into PBL for informal advice and encouragement." said Simon. "The JIC is an inspirational environment for science and also provides specialised training and opportunities."

The students have signed up for the recently-launched East Anglian Startup Masterclass, which is supported in part by JIC.

Stuart King in the nurseries. Image: JIC

Stuart King in the nurseries. Image: JIC

The internship at Hotel Chocolat gave the students a much greater overview of business operations. They spoke to growers and visited their nurseries. Hotel Chocolat's Ethical Engagement programme involves developing high quality cocoa saplings to sell to local growers, at a price cheaper than the growers could previously buy seeds.

"We learnt that their ethos of reaching out and bringing boosts to the local economy provides benefits for all. The programme will guarantee quality and benefits other growers across the island," said Simon. "We also saw that their farmers have different priorities, with half of what they produce going to feed their own family, a very different priority from that of UK growers. But they have the same problems with pests and diseases, so we could see how the technology we are developing would fit in to this very different farming system, which was encouraging."

Supported by JIC, Simon and Stuart wrote a grant application to the Biosciences Knowledge Transfer Network, who funded a Strategic Projects to Access Research and Knowledge (SPARK) Award that has allowed the students to move into proof of concept trials of their technology and develop prototypes. The next steps for the company are to seek further funding for later stage development work, but this will only be after they have both completed their PhD studies.

"It is fantastic to see how far Simon and Stuart have progressed in the development of their business idea. They have used the opportunities provided by BBSRC, JIC and the UEA to start their journey as entrepreneurs. The recent SPARK award will provide financial support for their proof of concept and prototyping work and the Start-up Masterclass will link them with a support network of local businesses" said Jonathan Clarke Head of Business Development at the JIC.

ENDS

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .