17 Feb 2010   |   Viewpoint

Born or made?

Is entrepreneurship innate, or can the requisite skills be taught? Speakers at the Science|Business ACES awards had differing views, writes Michael Kenward.

Michael Kenward, OBE. Science|Business Editor at Large

Is entrepreneurship innate, or can the requisite skills be taught? Speakers at the Science|Business ACES awards had differing views, writes Michael Kenward.

In one sign of a new innovation landscape, French PhD students can now acquire business skills as they do their research.

Of the 500 or so students each year who sign up for a PhD at one of ParisTech’s constituent schools, around 10 per cent take an intensive four-week crash course on business aspects of research, learning how to start-up companies, for example.

ESADE, the Spanish business school based in Barcelona has also gone down the same road. It runs a programme for scientists where the idea is to, “bridge the gap and produce mini MBAs,” Alfons Sauquet, Dean of ESADE, told delegates at the recent Science|Business Academic Enterprise Awards Europe (ACES) conference.

Souquet believes that most PhD students would benefit from some understanding of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Courses should include studying the management of innovation.

But this is not easy when heads of laboratories object to having their students whisked away. They face this problem at Paris Tech, says Cyrille van Effenterre, President of ParisTech. It may be just four weeks in a three-year PhD programme, but the business section, which involves company visits, adds significantly to the 80 hours of formal training that PhDs usually undergo.

Three years into the programme, there is now a band of alumni that sees one of its roles as persuading lab heads to cast aside their objections to the scheme. The business world did not need convincing. Each year, ParisTech has succeeded in meeting the costs of the programme through sponsorship from businesses such as Thales. The most recent sponsor was a Chinese company with aspirations to establish R&D centres in Europe.

Enthusiasm for business training has even penetrated such august bodies as the Royal Society in the UK, one of the world’s oldest and most respected learned societies. The Royal Society’s University Research Fellowships scheme – designed for the rising stars of research – includes a Business of Science Executive Programme, to help researchers to understand the relationship between science and industry.

The programme, taught by the Innovation Studies Centre Imperial College Business School, includes a module on scientific entrepreneurship, which explores what is involved in the commercialisation of science.

But not everyone is sold on the idea of training in entrepreneurship. “You are born with genes for entrepreneurship,” believes Jacques Lukasik of the French National Academy of Technologies.

Well, yes, but they can be recessive genes that need the right environment to manifest themselves, argues Philippe Pouletty, founder and partner at the venture capital firm Truffle Capital. Take 100 French people. Leave them in Paris and five per cent would be entrepreneurs, said Pouletty. Put the same 100 people in Silicon Valley and 30 per cent would entrepreneurs.

“You cannot teach the drive that an entrepreneur needs, but you can teach some recipes for success,” Pouletty said.

For Denis Payre, founder of the software company Kiala, the best way to convince young researchers to become entrepreneurs is to show them role models that they can relate to. People who have been through the same institution can be the most persuasive advocates of the entrepreneurial way of life.

“Shedding light on those role models is what it is all about,” says Payre. Better role models, he adds, could have given him greater confidence when he made his own entry into entrepreneurship.

Fifteen years ago it was not ‘respectable’ to be an entrepreneur. “Everybody told me why it would not succeed,” Payre said. Family and friends gave him reasons why he would fail. By contrast friends in California told him why he would succeed.

The Americans were right.

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