British inventors hampered by lack of enterprise

Posted on 29 Jun 2009 by The Manufacturer

A recent discussion held by The Royal Institution has revealed that shortcomings in entrepreneurial skills are thwarting the potential success of British inventions.

The discussion panel, headed by Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, included James Caan, CEO of private equity firm Hamilton Bradshaw, Phil Willis MP, Prof Julia Goodfellow and Doug Richard, former Dragon from the popular television show Dragon’s Den.

The discussion topic, ‘How do you make a great inventor?’ revealed a consensus among the panel that the key to inventing lies in the practice of successfully taking a product to market, rather than in the creative process.

“We don’t need to encourage invention — what we need to encourage is entrepreneurialism,” said Richard, who was in the original Dragon’s Dens’ panellist line-up. “Our challenge is not a lack of inventiveness. We don’t need to support invention, we need to support the exploitation of innovation and there is a huge gaping difference between the two. The difference is, if I’m an inventor, I seek to solve a problem and there is nothing wrong with that. But if you seek to change the world then you are not an inventor, you are an exploiter of innovation. You are an entrepreneur.”

Combining inventiveness with entrepreneurialism is obviously important. However, according to Phil Wills MP and Appointed Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the business side of marketing an invention is significantly more important than even the invention itself. “There are no shortage of good ideas but I think we overvalue ideas and we don’t encourage execution. Because to me, success lies in the ability to execute that idea and to turn it into commercial reality,” said Willis. I constantly say that only five per cent of success lies in the idea and 95 per cent is in your ability to execute.”

According to Prof Julia Goodfellow, vice chancellor of Kent University, the current lack of support for inventor entrepreneurialism lies in a lack of entrepreneurial education. “We are very very good as innovators,” said Goodfellow. “I agree entirely that we don’t take it to the next stage. I think at universities, you need create the environment in which people can, want to and think about this issue. If you want innovators and you want new ideas in research, then I think the system serves us quite well. If you actually want entrepreneurs. I think we need to create the culture to allow them to know that they can do it.”

Tim Brown