Giving entrepreneurship a boost

Experienced entrepreneurs are creating new companies with researchers from Denmark’s universities under an award-winning entrepreneurial project. To date, it has led to the creation of 26 new companies.

In a new, nationwide project, experienced business people from the private sector are being paired up with researchers with the latest knowledge from the universities. The initiative is called ‘Open Entrepreneurship’. It is being supported by the Danish Industry Foundation, and is based on collaboration between DTU, Aalborg University, Aarhus University, Copenhagen Business School, ITU, Roskilde University, and the University of Copenhagen, and a number of private companies and international partners.

“”Researchers are typically not good at business, and business people are generally not good at research. But combining the two groups creates a unique environment for new businesses, prosperity and innovation.””

Jes Broeng, Project Manager, Open Entrepreneurship

The aim of Open Entrepreneurship is to develop and test a new collaboration model that will allow Danish universities to get much better at commercializing research, and create more research-based startups.

The model has now been tested during a two-year pilot phase. The result is that 26 new startups have been created, and numerous collaboration projects may develop into even more companies in the coming years. The project received an EU award for promoting entrepreneurship last November.

“We can see that the interplay between business people and researchers increases the number of research-based startups, and creates a stronger business foundation compared to traditional university startups. The model therefore appears to have the potential to raise Denmark from our current middle position in the international spectrum, to being a country that is at the forefront of commercializing research,” says Jes Broeng, Director of DTU Entrepreneurship and head of the Open Entrepreneurship project.

Experience from USA

He had the idea for the project during a stay as a visiting researcher at UC Berkeley, California, where he witnessed the work of the university’s Sutardja Centre for Entrepreneurship & Technology. He noted how Berkeley brought research, teaching and entrepreneurship into play in a way that matched his own previous experience as a professor at DTU Fotonik.

“There is evidence that universities like MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley are better at innovation and entrepreneurship than other universities. The key difference is that they have an ecosystem of entrepreneurs who return to the universities and serve as mentors, participate in the teaching, and discuss new technological opportunities with the researchers,” says Jes Broeng.

His experiences from USA have now been incorporated into Open Entrepreneurship, which began in 2017. Under the project, a business unit has been established at each of the seven Danish universities, led by a business unit manager with an entrepreneurial background and insight into the universities’ fields of research.

The business unit managers and the researchers jointly identify research that has commercial potential. They also put together teams made up of researchers and external entrepreneurs, who work together to mature promising ideas for new companies. The project is led by an ‘Open Entrepreneurship Hub’, based at DTU Entrepreneurship. The hub facilitates collaboration across the universities, and is responsible for establishing a nationwide corps of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs (people who start up new business areas in existing companies)—an ‘E-corps’. The researchers meet with experienced professionals in the E-corps, but have neither clear results nor new technologies at the outset. It usually takes a few years before a new startup can be established.

Early dialogue is critical

“We can see that early dialogue between business people and researchers is a key factor in the success the Americans have in nurturing more startup opportunities than us, and in creating companies. I would say that the earlier you begin dialogue, the better you can make a match. There is evidence that entrepreneurs help inspire researchers, and see opportunities the researchers do not see because they typically specialize in niches,” says Jes Broeng.

As an example, he cites the company Norlase—a startup from DTU Fotonik. Seven years ago, this company was part of DTU’s ‘Bridging the Gap’ programme—a forerunner of Open Entrepreneurship. Norlase’s initial focus was on developing ‘the world’s best laser technology’, that other companies could use in their products. But the idea proved difficult in practice. With the help of business professionals, Norlase switched focus, and instead created a laser-based product that ophthalmologists can use to treat patients. A business area where there is demand for cheaper and sharper lasers. Norlase recently established cooperation agreements with a number of European distributors, and is now paving the way for agreements in the Middle East and South-East Asia.

“Researchers are typically not good at business, and business people are generally not good at research. But combining the two groups creates a unique environment for new businesses, prosperity and innovation,” says Jes Broeng.

“I think that we sometimes do researchers a disservice by asking them to commercialize their research. While some researchers manage to do it themselves, there remains a huge potential where researchers are not interested in heading up the business side.”

After a pilot phase at DTU Fotonik, DTU Compute and DTU Space, the project will now be disseminated throughout DTU, complementing the rest of the university’s innovation ecosystem.

Faster microchips

Three questions for Kurt Stokbro:

What does SiPhotonIC work with?

“The company develops optical microchips that use light particles—photons—instead of electrons to transfer the information in a chip. Whereas optical technologies previously required a table with lens arrangements and other components, these setups can now be built in microchips the size of a pin head. One application is faster and cheaper Internet. It is predicted that Optical circuits will be of great importance in optical telecommunications, quantum technologies and biomedical diagnostic devices.”

What has Open Entrepreneurship meant for SiPhotonIC?

“Business unit managers from Open Entrepreneurship encouraged Dr Yunhong Ding to establish a business based on his extensive knowledge of optical microchips. Knowledge that might otherwise have remained an academic project.”

What has the early dialogue meant for the startup?

“It meant that we could discuss how the company’s business concept could be expanded at an early stage. We want to move from being a kind of consulting company, where each customer gets their own product, to becoming a store with general products, that produces microchips on a large scale.”

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Optics for medical devices

Two questions for Sonny Massahi:

What does CHEXS work with?

“Researchers from CHEXS (Centre for High-Energy X-ray Systems) use a reflective technology developed at DTU Space. While DTU Space uses the technology to perform detailed observations of space objects that emit energetic forms of electromagnetic radiation, CHEXS uses the technology to develop optics for medical devices that use X-rays or gamma rays. This results in a higher resolution and less radiation.”

What has the early dialogue meant for the startup?

“Open Entrepreneurship helped us set up a startup company, supported us in making initial contact with potential customers, and guided us in drawing up a solid business plan.”

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