Show report: NanoEntrepreneurs workshop (London, 28 Jan 2014)

“What does it take to commercialise micro- and nanoscale research and development?” is a tough question to answer in a one-day meeting, but the UK’s NanoKTN managed to pack plenty of advice into the latest in its series of popular NanoEntrepreneurs workshops – held this time in partnership with law firm Covington and Burling (C&B) in London.

The event began by looking at the some of the first steps in the translation pathway from concept to commercialization, which includes tasks such as creating a company and developing an intellectual property (IP) strategy.

IP is a key consideration for any start-up, as the strength of a firm’s IP portfolio is likely to be an important factor in raising funds to grow the business.

In her talk, Morag Peberdy from C&B looked at the different ways a company can protect its ideas, namely – patents, trademarks, copyright, trade secrets and through design registration.

There are some useful questions to ask to identify the most appropriate route to take, for example:

– How easy is it to reverse engineer your product?
– Will you be required to disclose materials details to regularity authorities or via product labelling (a growing concern for developers of nanomaterials)?

It’s not a simple exercise, but there are benefits to thinking about IP sooner rather than later.

“The right strategy will allow you to spend your money wisely and bring savings over the long term,” Peberdy told the audience.

To guide their thoughts, she emphasised the need to focus on the competition – who are they, where are they based, and when will their products hit the market?

In the second half of this introductory session, Peberdy’s colleague James Halstead simplified the starting-out process by distilling the business proposition into a series of key elements –

People (innovators, implementers and investors)
Property (IP and physical property)
Relationships (contacts and contracts)

Like Peberdy, he encouraged firms to begin their strategic thinking early on, in this case to make sure that the interests of innovators, implementers and investors are aligned to head off any future bottlenecks and speed up decision making.

For example, what are the objectives of the company:

– to sell the business,
– out license,
– or to sell technology products and services?

For more details on the workshop, which also included talks on creating trustworthy and dynamic teams, and public support mechanisms for the commercialization of emerging technologies – view the full programme on

MRS Fall 2013 highlights – part three

Entrepreneurial excellence was the focus of Technology Innovation Forum VI and Matthew Norden, who co-founded market analyst Lux Research and is now vice-president at venture capital (VC) firm Venrock, began the session by spelling out the formula that VCs use to evaluate start-ups –

technology + market + team

Everything has to add up, but even then it might not be enough. Winning VC funding is tough if you’re pitching against firms that require much less investment and offer quicker returns, such as internet start-ups.

For this reason, early-stage companies working with advanced materials are more likely to go through specialist funds, or use corporate backers to raise capital. Another way to develop the business is to form strategic partnerships.

And it’s here that James Ashman of SouthWest Nanotechnologies (SWeNT) – a spin-out from the University of Oklahoma, which has developed manufacturing processes for carbon nanotubes – took up the discussion.

Driving growth through partnerships

SWeNT has benefited three times from this approach. Its first partner put new applications on the table, a second alliance opened up distribution and provided new sales channels, and then the firm’s latest collaboration is helping to expand operations by bringing in a production partner to generate material (in this case a plastic/multiwalled-carbon-nanotube composite) in volumes that would have otherwise required a huge investment in scale-up infrastructure.

“Strategic partnerships are a much more fertile area than institutional investors for the materials sector, but it takes time so plan ahead and start negotiations early,” Ashman told the audience, adding that for SWeNT its partnerships had each taken 6-12 months to set up.

Protecting your ideas

After lunch the discussion switched to patents and Chinh Pham of law firm Greenberg Traurig had some useful information for developers.

Pham works regularly with the Harvard innovation lab and made the point that patents can be expensive ($10,000 – $15,000, or even up to $20,000 in some cases). The costs can soon add up, so you need to have a strategy.

“Don’t just file away, file early and around your core technology,” he advised.

Video snapshot

Further reading on TMR+

MRS Fall 2013 highlights – part five (final)
MRS Fall 2013 highlights – part four
MRS Fall 2013 highlights – part two
MRS Fall 2013 highlights – part one