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Medici Fellowships: 
Translating ideas into reality

In September a new round of Midlands Medici Fellowships were awarded within the University, offering funding, support and training to four more researchers, who can now take a research idea with an application in bioscience or medicine and develop its commercial potential. Participation in the Medici Fellowship programme can provide a variety of advantages. Below, this year’s Medici Fellows write about what it means to them.

 

The Postgraduate Experience

There is no stereotypical Medici Fellow. Gavin Whyman, Department of Molecular Medicine and Cancer Studies, for instance, did not come to Medici with a great idea he wanted to commercialise.

“I was coming towards the end of my PhD in the Breast Cancer Research Unit, and was applying for a post as a technician to pay the bills while I wrote up. 

“One of the posts I applied for was in Clinical Biochemistry with Professor Alison Goodall, and it was she who introduced me to the Medici programme. Her own company, Haemostatix, is in the process of spinning out from the University, but she did not have a PhD student to take part in the Medici scheme, and so she offered to be my sponsoring academic.

“The more I learned about the programme the more I was interested in it. And now I’m really enjoying the three days a week I work as one of the fellows (giving me two days to write up my PhD). I tend to spend two days a week working for the Research and Business Development Office (RBDO), and one day a week working for Haemostatix, with Alison Goodall and Sarah Middleton.”

Gavin’s RBDO days involve work with EMIN (East Midlands Incubation Network, http://www.emincubation.co.uk/) as cluster manager, responsible for all the healthcare related content on the soon-to-be-launched EMIN web portal.  

Another of the roles of  Medici Fellows is to carry out a technology audit of their own departments, interviewing as many (willing) research staff as possible about their research, and looking for possible routes by which the research could be commercialised.  The RBDO had already begun an audit of the Faculty of Medicine and Biological Sciences so Gavin and his ‘fellow Fellows’ have come just at the right time to work through this as a joint RBDO/Medici objective.

At Haemostatix his day is very different: “There I’m working more as a management trainee, shadowing Sarah Middleton (one of the founders). I’m also currently redesigning the Haemostatix website, and have helped prepare presentations amongst many other things.

“As I hope you can tell I very much enjoy my three-day week as a Medici Fellow. As to how this well help my career, quite simply it’s given me so many more options to chose from. Should I wish to continue the standard academic route of post docs through to lecturer, this experience and training can only increase my employability. Through Medici I now have the option to take a new focus, whether that be working for a technology transfer company/university office, or a small BioScience company, or to move into industry. No doors have been closed and so many new ones have opened.”

The Spin-Out Experience

Dr Primrose Freestone, Department of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, has been associated with a University/US spin-out biotechnology company since its creation several years ago, and recently became its Scientific Director.

Dr Freestone explained: “The company, BioNutrix, produces a novel bacterial growth stimulator and resuscitative agent called Bacxell (for Bacterial Accelerator of Growth). This growth stimulator has the potential to massively improve microbial diagnostic techniques, as well as being a potential new antibiotic drug target.

“I was awarded the Medici Fellowship because of my experience and interest in the processes involved in commercialising primary academic research (I am an inventor on several patents) and my involvement with my biotech company generally.  

“I was a member of SONG (Spin-Out Network Group) before I became a Medici Fellow,” Dr Freestone commented. “While I am not by any means a flag-waving pro-commercialisation evangelist, I do believe that with correct and adequate support – usually financial – scientists can balance traditional research programmes and commitments with commercial development of their research.”

Dr Freestone’s objective in applying for a Medici Fellowship was to gain more formal business instruction as an entrepreneurial scientist, with the aim of becoming more effective in her existing role, rather than turning into a ’business person’.  

As a researcher and lecturer she also has to balance a full programme of University commitments with her commercial concerns, so the Medici stipend pays for a useful extra pair of hands that frees her from some more routine laboratory work.   However, she remains a practising biochemist who “loves experimental work”.

To date, she is favourably impressed by Medici. “The programme of training is flexible, very useful in the topics covered and has the potential to be tailored to individual needs, which is excellent. So far the Medici experience has also been very interesting and enjoyable. I am confident Medici will enable me to become more knowledgeable about the business side of my company, which will assist BioNutrix to become a huge commercial success. I also hope the training will allow me to assist more effectively my colleagues who may also wish to explore the commercialisation route.”

The Researcher’s Experiences

Sarah Munson is an Experimental Officer in the Biochemistry Department. She runs the Embryonic Stem Cell Facility which provides a gene targeting service to both internal and external research groups, building on the success in knockout technology established at Leicester. 

She explains her interest in becoming a Medici Fellow: “Over the last two years my primary objective has been to oversee the transition of the Embryonic Stem Facility from a grant-supported unit to a semi-commercial, self supporting venture, which now generates its own income from contract work undertaken.

“I was therefore delighted to be accepted on to the Medici Fellowship programme. It will provide an ideal means to learn the key business skills in which I am lacking after 15 years of academic training, but which will hopefully enable me to run the Facility more effectively on a commercial basis.

“However, more than simply filling the gaps in my entrepreneurial knowledge, I feel that Medici has given my work a third dimension, allowing me to view my research from a new perspective.

“I have had the opportunity to meet and interact with 30 other Fellows who ooze enthusiasm in all their fields and ambitions, which is infectious and refreshing. We have also had the chance to meet some inspiring contacts from the biotech industry who are happy to offer a wealth of advice and experience.  

“The Medici Fellowship Programme is a unique initiative and one which I am really excited to be a part of. Given the tangible benefits to both the University and staff on a personal level, I hope it will continue beyond its initial two-year trial.” [The University is seeking further support from HEFCE to continue Medici, through the Higher Education Innovation Fund.]

The Budding Entrepreneur's Experience

Dr Andrew Lee first heard of the Medici course through his work as a Healthcare and Biotechnology Consultant at Bridgehead Technologies in Melton. Since being awarded a PhD by the University of Leicester in 2001 he had become increasingly interested in commercialising an idea for a low-tech, low-cost and high speed method for diagnosing leukaemia which came to him whilst writing-up his thesis. 

He commented: “When I found out more about the Medici programme I realised that this would be a tremendous opportunity to learn all of the steps and skills required in forming a start-up biosciences company in a hands-on manner. The programme would instruct me in a variety of key business areas, such as management, finance, marketing and intellectual property issues; foster networks amongst the East Midlands Biosciences community; and open up access to business and scientific expertise within the University.

“Since starting in September I have been attached to the University’s Research & Business Development Office, where I am currently involved in auditing the newly restructured School of Medicine.

“I have high hopes for what I can achieve through Medici over the coming year. It has already focused my efforts and has given me the confidence (and back-up) to get things started. In addition to the first-rate instruction that I have already received I have had tremendous support and encouragement towards developing my idea. 

“I am being allowed time to investigate and develop my technology, and early-stage funding is being sought for proof-of-principle tests and the development of a prototype device. Medici really does offer a unique opportunity for the budding entrepreneur!”  

Medici Fellows may benefit from patenting, creating a spin-out company, or establishing a consultancy or commercial service. They may also achieve a level of commercial expertise that enables them to review on a regular basis their group’s or department’s ideas to assess their commercial potential.

Run by the five Midlands universities of Leicester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Aston and Warwick, the Midlands Medici Fellowships offer successful applicants a maximum of £20,000 to buy in extra help over one academic year and thus free some of their own time, which can be devoted to the commercialisation of their research.  

Academics, research-active staff and PhD students who have finished their course of study are all eligible to apply for a Midlands Medici Fellowship. Further details are available on the website: www.midlandsmedici.org, or from Dr Clare O’Neill, Research and Business Development Office, ext 3333, email cmo4@le.ac.uk

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Last updated: 5 December 2003 12:15
Maintained by: Barbara Whiteman

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