BiotechYES – Let the Challenge Commence!

“So that’s how fleas are going to revolutionise the sport-shoe industry!”

The dragons didn’t look impressed. Impervious to our enthusiasm, they shuffled their papers and scribbled a few notes. “interesting….” a particularly fierce looking lady began “…so tell me about your patent strategy?”

If I had known what a roller coaster would have been involved in getting me to this moment, perhaps I would have thought twice about taking on the 2015 BiotechYES challenge. Every year, hundreds of bioscience researchers from all over Britain compete in this prestigious entrepreneurial competition, where each team has to design a business plan for a novel biotech start-up. During the heats (each with a different theme, e.g. bioscience, agriculture), the teams are mentored by top industry professionals to help finalise their pitches before they face the judging panel. The winners of each heat then go on to compete for the ultimate prize – £2,500 and CV enhancing glory – at the glittering final in London.

Ever since I had heard about it, I had dreamt of doing it. So when the email came round inviting PhD research students at the University of Sheffield to a Biotech introduction event, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. Although I didn’t know anyone else entering, I soon found myself in a group of similar wannabe entrepreneurs. Although mostly strangers, we became highly acquainted over the following months, meeting up in the library as often as our diaries allowed. The hardest part was coming up with a new idea; so many times we thought we had finally hit on something only to find that someone had got there first and already filed a patent! Then came the task of researching the markets, sourcing quotes and statistics to see if our potential business could be financially viable. Meanwhile, the University of Sheffield Enterprise (USE) Academy provided us with invaluable training covering everything from costing, intellectual property and business planning.

We could easily have used several more months preparing but all too soon it was time to make the trip to Edinburgh for our heat. Although we were there to work, it was difficult not to enjoy the sumptuous accommodation at the Holiday Inn (all expenses paid!), so close to Edinburgh Zoo that you could see the chimpanzees from the conference suite. But social activities went out the window with the blur of events over the next few days. In between the training sessions with our mentors, hours whirled by as we fiercely argued over which idea to present to the panel, crunched numbers into spreadsheets and rehearsed our pitches. This wasn’t a game – everything would be as realistic as possible; even business attire was called for. The atmosphere reeked of stress and we barely left the building over the three days, other than quick, five-minute forays to remember what fresh air was!

We finally decided to go with our idea of a new, highly absorbent rubber material based on an elastic protein that allows fleas to jump so high. After staying up till the wee small hours scrabbling together the final slides, I was fighting both nerves and exhaustion as we took to the floor. Fortunately, the adrenaline saw me through but by the end of the questions, I was soaked with sweat!

We didn’t win our heat – but completing the Biotech Challenge was a reminder of how far I had come. A year or so ago, I wouldn’t even have dared to say “Hello” to the Dragons, let alone pitched to them! I don’t regret it for a minute; I have emerged stronger, more industry-savvy and with a prized collection of business cards.

My advice for anyone considering BiotechYES is to go for it! You will get out as much as you put in, so prepare as much as possible beforehand and at the event itself ask questions, network and keep your eyes open for new career ideas. Also, don’t be tempted to try and research everything on the internet; instead, try to use the expertise within the University itself. Talking to real people who are experts in their fields can be a very effective way of overcoming a brick wall. So work hard and enjoy every minute…but perhaps don’t go for an idea based on fleas…


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