Flying before you can run – Innovation-aligned PhD projects

So the saying goes that every PhD is unique – a mantra that is repeated at all academic institutions around the world. Today I’d like to share with you some of the challenges I faced going into my PhD and my (just like everyone else’s) unique experience that led me to my current project. I realise that I may touch on certain elements that I have previously blogged about, but I hope to present the ideas from a different angle so that the insights and learnings become clear.

The issues of intellectual property and the associated impacts on a postgraduate student’s project is a very tricky area to navigate. Often, if a PhD project is a sustaining research project, the project may lead to discovery, and not to invention. If a project is disruptive, it may lead not only to discovery, but also invention.

Depending on the context in which the project is developed, ownership of the invention is usually with the organisation where the work was undertaken, such as a university, research organisation or an industry partner.

Within the timeframe of a PhD, invention tends to occur towards the end of the candidature, as the student and or the team has had the time to incubate the discovery to a point where the invention (be it a product or service) can be envisaged. In an ideal world, the invention would be disclosed to the commercialisation team of the organisation that owns the intellectual property rights, and further steps be taken to assess and protect the invention’s opportunity. If deemed to be valuable, the product/service becomes an asset which can be used to leverage other funding, collaboration or industry opportunities.

For a PhD candidate this effectively means that issues of discovery and inventorship can be managed within the candidature, provided the right processes, resources and framework are provided. Issues of patenting and publishing can be identified early, and strategies put in place to ensure that publications are put out after sufficient protection has been established.

However, one tricky area that I’ve come across is when invention takes place before the commencement of the PhD by the prospective student, and what follow-on effects come in to play should the organisation owning the intellectual property chooses to take the invention down the commercialisation pathway. In effect, what happens to the PhD student  and the project during the innovation phase when the PhD student is one of the inventors, and had disclosed the invention before candidature commencement.

The phase where the invention takes its first steps to becoming a product/service is entirely different to everything that has led to its realisation. Innovation and subsequent commercialisation is a totally different ballgame, involving various forms of intellectual property, business models, investment and specifically in biologics and medical technologies, regulation and re-imbursement; factors that run on timelines well beyond the time frame required to complete the PhD. Depending on the scope of the proposed PhD project, all these elements have a role to play in how the project and the student proceeds.

To best exemplify how these elements interact with each other, I’m going to wind back the clock to a point where I was feeling confused, a bit lost and unsure of how things were going to pan out, then take you through what I did to get to where I am at this point in time.

I had just finished my undergraduate studies, and my descriptions of a technology were picked up by my organisation’s business development team as part of an overall opportunity – one that was being pitched to an early-stage life sciences investor. There was some discussion about a PhD project, but the scope of the project was still very broad. Entire research projects were discussed at length between my supervisor and myself, and we often found that many of our questions could not be answered as we did not have sufficient information – information that we could not wait for as it was only going to be available 2 years down the track. Often, these conversations felt “incomplete”, even after a few hours of solid discussion. The technology was envisaged to be used in the home, but required strong scientific proof to show that the technology and its therapeutics claims were grounded in a solid evidence-base – a key requirement in order for key opinion leaders in the field to recommend the technology as part of a therapeutic regime.

While I waited for my PhD application to be processed (it took about a year) I spent the time working on project ideation and trialling particular methods that would be needed as part of the PhD – I was looking to see if they worked and if they didn’t, I wanted to ensure I was failing fast. A particular method I had placed some bets on turned out to consume a high level of resources and didn’t deliver reliable data, so we dropped it – this took a year. Another method never got off the ground, while an outside candidate that looked somewhat promising was eventually chosen after technical issues were overcome. There were other experiments that went through the same process. So a little over 2 years for me to trial 5 minimum viable solutions, where 3 failed and 2 were selected. By the time this was all done I had consumed one year pre-PhD, and one year of my PhD.

Pre-PhD, I also had lengthy discussions with my supervisor about the scope of the project, and how it fit into our overall objective of getting our technology to market. I used a program called ProjectBrain to map out the key concepts of my project, and all the factors that influenced my project (that I was aware of at the time). It was useful initially to identify the complex interactions between various elements of my project and move my headspace from being in the “unknown unknowns” box to the “known unknowns” box, but as the tool was rather qualitative, I wasn’t able to cluster the elements that I knew would interact closely with each other. It would be another 15 months before I would discover the Design Structure Matrix tool to put this process into a cohesive framework, and by then, I had already done most of the concept ideation the long and hard way.

Pre-PhD, my supervisor and I could see that there would need to be some research and development to answer scientific questions, but also realised that if our technology was deemed to be worthwhile investing in, the company would also require other R&D questions to be answered, outside the scope of my PhD. My previous PhD scope analysis had not factored in the business requirements for the technology, and as we were still in the due diligence phase with the investors, I took the opportunity to use my networking activities to discover mentors in the medtech sector, learn about the major elements of the medical technology environment (regulation, re-imbursement, venture capital in particular), and went to biotechnology conferences so that I could meet other like-minded people. Having realised that I knew that I didn’t know about many things, I started to read blogs on entrepreneurship, meet my mentors and asked them to challenge my thinking in order for me to discover all the unknowns so I wouldn’t have any nasty surprises during the PhD.

Though a lot of the aforementioned thinking occurred quite slowly, and I began to realise that having contributed to the intellectual property, there were challenges and opportunities that came along with it. Challenges in the sense that I needed to balance a lot of elements in my project (technical and inter-personal aspects especially), but also opportunities where I could really make myself a part of the technology development alongside the PhD if we were successful in getting venture capital investment.

A major turning point was when I was lucky enough to attend INNOVATIVITY about 5 months before I was due to start my PhD, a course on structured innovation run by the Advanced Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (AMCRC). Here, I learnt about the concepts of sustaining and disruptive innovation, identifying needs and wants of customers and stakeholders, more general concepts around intellectual property, licencing and negotiation, value identification, Design Structure Matrix tools and how to put it all together. The term “enlightenment” really springs to mind. What I realised was that in the 18-months leading up to doing this course, I had incubated and executed an outcome-driven thought process (in a somewhat unstructured, inefficient way) to find the best path for my PhD that would balance all the competing elements that would affect me during the candidature.

Having been enlightened, I reviewed my progress to date using the tools we had learned to validate my current position. One question I asked myself was “Had I known about the tools that I learned about during INNOVATIVITY, would I have reached the same point that I’m at now, a point that I’ve reached without knowing those tools?” Turns out that I was very close, but I had done it in a very inefficient way. By mapping out the knowns and unknowns in my project using a sub-optimal tool, developing scientific techniques prior to PhD commencement, networking and attending industry conferences, I had gone a long way into stakeholder identification, mapping out their needs and wants, what their drivers were and where potential roadblocks existed.

Having been exposed to a new approach and new tools, the path for my PhD had become much clearer. In the past, I had played a role in the early development of some aspects of the business opportunity from an engineering perspective and knew that my organisation owned the intellectual property. Initially, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the loss of control over the invention as we moved through the early stages of innovation. Now, I no longer felt insecure; I was very comfortable as I knew what my unknowns were, even though I didn’t know how they would affect my project during my candidature or beyond – I knew that if I were going to be surprised by them, I knew which direction they would be coming from and I could modify my course of actions accordingly. I was no longer uncomfortable with the invention being whisked away from our team – the opportunity had to be critically assessed from a business perspective as part of proper risk management processes. I also knew that my PhD’s work would contribute in some way later on, so I would have a certain level of involvement in making the technology a success.

So what my supervisor and I did was to delineate my PhD projects from the R&D work that the company was proposing to do, so that I could also publish papers. By this stage, we had secured investment and it was clear that we would have R&D milestones to reach before further tranches of money would be released. I realised that by making some small tweaks to my technical methods, there was an opportunity where I could effectively kill 2 birds with one stone – the methods I was developing and scaling up would be used to answer scientific questions within my PhD, but were also developed in such a way that it could be ported over to the R&D program of the start-up. This symbiotic relationship would diversify the research team’s research portfolio and funding sources, as well as give me an important role as a scientific advisor to the start-up. The opportunity I saw was that resources could be shared between the two projects, making it very efficient. It would also mean that I would have a continuing role in the development of the clinical technology, something that I hold very dear to my heart as a co-inventor.

Being able to be part of the start-up opens up a lot of career opportunities as well in terms of funding and further training. I’m very lucky in the sense that I have extremely supportive supervisors and mentors throughout this on-going journey; I’ve had opportunities to learn about innovative ways to think and make a real contribution to the commercialisation of the technology. Most importantly, I’ve learnt a lot about myself, my capabilities and my shortcomings.

Having a PhD project run in parallel to the innovation phase of an invention presents some highly complex interactions, especially when the candidate is a co-inventor, but with the right framework, it too, can be managed effectively. Flying before you can run really is possible, so long as its nurtured and managed in the correct way.

So what are the key learnings for PhD’s that are lined up with the innovation phase of an invention/discovery?

  1. Identify your stakeholders and find out as much as you can about what their needs and wants are, well beyond your PhD. Diversifying your knowledge of the entire environment in which your project operates within is a great way to identify unknowns.
  2. Unknowns are both risks and opportunities.
  3. Understand where stakeholders and elements of your PhD are in conflict, or in alignment. Potential for conflicts present risks, potential for alignment present opportunities.
  4. Turn unknowns into knowns – it’s good risk management practise.
  5. Give yourself enough time incubate all your possible minimum viable solutions/options, and pick the best one to run with. It will take longer than you think. Factor in the risks and see whether they can be turned into opportunities that can add value to everyone’s goals and objectives.
  6. When faced with potential conflicts that are difficult to resolve, try and find a way to provide value so that everyone involved has “negotiation currency” and can achieve a minimum viable solution.
  7. Prepare yourself for failure.
  8. Fail, but do it quickly.
  9. When you do fail, take stock, work out what went wrong so that the same mistakes aren’t made again.
  10. Find mentors to guide you. Don’t be afraid to find mentors well outside of your field – innovation requires very out-of-the-box thinking and bouncing your ideas off people outside of your area gives rise to new unknowns that can be dealt with as per points 2,3, and 4.
  11. Constantly re-evaluate and validate your position, verification of your processes is key to ensuring that you hit your goals later on.
  12. Never lose sight of what you are trying to achieve, especially when the going gets tough.

I’m sure there are more key learnings, so I’ll add them as they come to mind.

Otherwise, I hope you found this musing useful. As always, thoughts and comments welcome.



4 thoughts on “Flying before you can run – Innovation-aligned PhD projects

  1. Hi Andre. Thank you for sharing this with us. It’s nice to know others doing a PhD also don’t follow a nice smooth, pretty path! I really like no. 2 – ‘Unknowns are both risks and opportunities’ – so true! Can you put a link to follow your blog?

    • Hi Emma, thanks for dropping by – I’m glad that someone has found my late-night ramblings meaningful!

      More than happy to put a link up, but I’m not sure how to do it! Do you mean an RSS link?

  2. Hi Andre, very interesting read! I find it very cool that you invented the idea yourself! What was it like looking for a supervisor? Did you disclose your invention straight away? I’ve heard of students whose supervisors patented their invention behind their student’s back… cruel, but it happens. Were you worried about this? Your project could have easily gone down this road.

    Sounds like your PhD has been some journey! You had a year pre-PhD? Our first year of a PhD is literature review anyway; sounds like you did this on your own before you even begun! Were you working at the same time? When do you expect to finish?

    I found it particularly interesting how you had to separate your PhD from the R&D. Of course this would be the case… it was something I hadn’t thought of before. I guess you lose the rights to publish if you enter commercialisation. Very interesting, definitely a twist in your project. It must have been difficult to let go of your concept as it entered R&D.

    I don’t know how you feel about your PhD, but for me, I have a different take on things. I feel as though I am doing the research, still learning (that will always be the case), but I know how to design projects and research and apply for funding. So I am doing the research, and the PhD is almost just like paperwork. I’m doing my thesis by publication, so I am just finishing my experiments, publishing my work as a post-doc would, and then at the end I am going to compile my papers and submit. Its almost like the PhD is a pesky bit of paperwork (which I can’t wait to get off my desk!) because my PhD is guaranteed as soon as I get my exps done. I consider the work itself part of a bigger picture, but the PhD is just a bit of paper I need to get paid properly LOL. It definitely does not define my research, but it is a healthy side benefit!

    • Lots of great follow-up questions! I talk about how I came to be in my situation in some detail here ( but in brief, I had already been working with my supervisors before I’d helped contribute to their discovery by defining a invention.

      My PhD is the “What” of 3 key questions: “Why? How? What?”

      The why: I want to see the discoveries move beyond publications and into the hands of people (by whatever way) so that will benefit from it.

      The how: Develop a technology (somehow, get help if you can’t do it) and support it with good evidence.

      The what: Commercialise the technology (get investors, start a company, prototype, run clinical trials, then commercialise – leave it to the people that do that best) and keep doing research. As an undergrad, the next step is the PhD.

      So for me, the PhD is a great opportunity for me to support the start-up to make the technology stand more solidly on its own merit.

      But of course, it’s a lot more detailed than that!

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