Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Can they Co-exist in the Bio-economy?

Should a Bio-economy company hire a plumber to do its taxes? Or, more to the point, one of the bigger challenges facing Canada’s Bio-economy is whether or not a clever scientist can also be a shrewd business leader.

There is a reason why scientific innovation requires so much education. Simply put, you have to know the rules before you break them. This is truest in the realm of science – innovators must understand the nature of the molecules and systems they are working with in order to discover how to manipulate them in new ways to create a new bio-product or process. “Learning” the rules often takes scientists to the PhD level – the Bio-economy is one of the world’s most educated industries. These creative scientific minds drive the Canadian bio-economy where Small-To-Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs with typically less than 50 employees) constitute 80% of the companies in Canada’s Bio-economy.

So, as it should be, the smartest, most educated scientists are the creators of new bio-products. One wrinkle: Just because you can zip and unzip a double helix doesn’t mean you can build and grow a business. Often, a different expertise is required for that.

The corporate history of the majority of the larger North American bio-economy businesses shows that non-scientists are often hired into the corner office. However, ten to fifteen years ago, there was a return to the CEO-scientist trend for many companies that wanted to shift their focus back on research and development. With recent economic trends, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way again, and so the debate continues.

The key issue is whether the skills that make up an innovative scientist (curiosity, meticulousness and skepticism) and those of a business leader (ability to manage, inspire, and sell) can co-exist within the same person. If not, then the industry can maintain the status quo and continue to switch from the scientific to the business community for candidates to best run the company.

Some academic institutions believe it’s possible to train the scientist to be a business leader before or after s/he is ushered into the corner office. Programs like the University of Calgary’s combined MBA/Master of Biotechnology Program and McMaster University‘s iSci Program envision a world where scientific innovators and entrepreneurs can be one and the same. The challenge lies in potentially adding a several years of an MBA to an already prohibitively-long long academic career. The alternative of shortening some of the science program presents the challenge of deciding what science to cut out.

Academic programs like the University of Calgary’s could solve the problem longer term, but what about science leaders already working in executive positions in the industry? The Executive MBA programs provide a solution, but they require a massive time commitment over a shorter term and are prohibitively expensive for CEOs of smaller businesses and start ups. Enter Anil Dilawri, who forms part of an innovative program that Invest Ottawa, the economic and research development champion for the national capital region is spear-heading. His company, “Save it Like Sully,” is part of Invest Ottawa’s Business Acceleration Program, designed to mentor, train, and coach the entrepreneurs in Eastern Ontario from early stage knowledge-based companies, including biotech. Each company in the program is assigned an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR). The EIR works with each company on a specific service plan and helps the company with various mentorship needs – In Dilawri’s case, presentation skills, which is what his company does. The program is popular, and addresses a challenge not unique to small biotech firms.

With innovations at the core of the success of Canada’s Bio-economy, and the world’s need for accessible and practical science to feed and heal growing, this challenge will have to be met head-on by governments and industry associations if Canada wishes its Bio-economy to remain competitive globally.