On the face of it, David Cameron’s announcement of a £1m prize for solving a ‘grand innovation challenge’ is good news for UK science and industry. The competition will look at the biggest issue of our time (as selected by the public) and then be judged by an illustrious panel, chaired by Lord Rees, the English Astronomer Royal. The Prime Minister likened the competition to the 1714 Longitude Prize which was created to solve the problem of navigation at sea, and which spurred unknown Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison to develop much more accurate marine timepieces.
All well and good – anything that stimulates debate on pressing problems for mankind and supports scientists and engineers is obviously welcome. Even Cameron’s idea of a ‘Britain’s got talent’-style show to identify the key issue that scientists have to solve is an attempt to put engineering and research back into the mainstream.
But there’s three main problems I can see – and unfortunately they run through a lot of the coalition’s thinking on science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship.
Firstly, £1m is a pitifully small amount of money for an idea that will solve ‘the biggest problem of our time’. The annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and tech investor Yuri Milner) has distributed $33m to 11 winners. And that’s just in one year. The new Longitude Prize is being funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and it appears (from what I’ve read) that the £1m is not new money, but is from the TSB’s existing budget. Hardly an expansion of government investment in science and engineering.
Secondly, like all politicians Cameron is driven by short timescales. Solving the problems the world faces can’t be accomplished in a single term in office. Research simply does not move that fast. If the Prime Minister checked his historical facts (perhaps he needs to speak to Michael Gove), this has always been the case. The original Longitude competition began in 1714 but Harrison’s clock was not successfully operational until the 1760s. And even then he was judged not to have won the official prize itself (though he was awarded multiple grants during his lifetime to recognise his achievements).
Thirdly, modern research is a global undertaking. Scientists work with their peers across the world, collaborating to solve problems across disciplines and countries. Look at the Human Genome Project – while the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge made an enormous contribution to sequence human DNA, it was a truly global effort, involving scientists from across the world. So if Cameron expects his prize to be won by a 100% British entry, he’s likely to be proved mistaken.
I really hope that the new Longitude Prize takes off and increases interest in science, engineering and technology. But, like investment in championing Tech City, it smacks of a short term, PR-led approach by the Prime Minister – aiming for headlines, not the lasting breakthroughs that take decades to unlock.
It used to be that failing in business was a potentially catastrophic black mark in the UK – essentially the end of your career. But over the last decade attitudes have changed, driven by a more American view that it is better to have tried and not succeeded than to not to have bothered at all. There are a thousand and one reasons that a venture might fail, many outside your control, and as long as you learn lessons you can bounce back stronger.
This more relaxed attitude to failure is reflected in the growth of startups in the UK. Rather than leave university and go and work in corporate Britain, setting up on your own is a viable choice – if it doesn’t work you can always try the 9 to 5 in a few years time. And as the Seth Godin quote goes, “If failure isn’t an option, neither is success.”
But if the stigma of failure has been removed it brings another big question – when do you give up on your idea/business? Do you shut up shop at the first signs of trouble or soldier on when all chances of success are gone? That was the topic of an entertaining discussion at last week’s Pitch and Mix in Cambridge, which got me thinking about the whole topic.
It is easy to look at businesses or individuals where it would have been easy to give up when they hit the first roadblock. Harvard made Mark Zuckerberg take down the first version of Facebook and nearly expelled him – but he learnt from the experience and moved on. In Cambridge, ARM was essentially created within Acorn as Intel wouldn’t sell the computer manufacturer the chips they needed. The business pivoted and is now a multi-billion dollar world leader.
What came out from the discussion were two main ways of helping you to know when you’ve really failed and it is time to give up.
Firstly, set realistic objectives and goals for your company/project, with a timeframe attached. It shouldn’t be a hundred page business plan that controls your life but an idea of what success looks like and the time it should take to get there. Whether as simple as “we need to have made our first sale in 18 months” or more complex, use it as a guide to when to stop. If you get to 18 months and there’s no sign of a customer then you should probably give up, but if you’re negotiating with a couple, then extend your timeframe. Build a plan to get to your objectives – what needs to happen for you to make that sale/launch the project within your timeframe.
Secondly, get independent advice. Everyone involved in startups must have passion – if you aren’t enthusiastic about the idea you won’t put in the hours to make it work. However perspective is more difficult – you are simply too close to the coalface to provide an objective view of reality. So find yourself an independent mentor, who understands your business and what you are trying to do and give you advice and perspective on the way forward.
More businesses fail than succeed, but don’t take it personally, learn and move on. And marry passion with perspective to work out when to throw in the towel and start again.
What brings success? Is it hard graft or can you short circuit the years of work by just being a bit lucky?
That was the topic of a recent CfEL Enterprise Tuesday, where entrepreneurs Rahul Vohra and Shamus Husheer discussed what makes some businesses succeed when others fail. For the lazy amongst us, the unfortunate conclusion was that you need hard work as well as opportunity if you’re going to make it big. But you do need both – as Shamus pointed out, if hard work led to success, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire, and unfortunately they’re not.
Essentially you need to put yourself in the position to be lucky – so make sure that you are in the right place at the right time, and then grab the opportunity. For me the perfect example is Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. He took an existing idea (a paper directory of students) and wrote an initially simple computer program to put it online solely for Harvard University students. As any programmer will tell you, Facebook itself isn’t the world’s most complicated piece of code, but it attracted users and the rest is history.
But look a bit deeper and there’s more hard work involved – Facemash, the first version of Facebook, was closed down by university authorities for breaching security, copyright and individual privacy and Zuckerberg was lucky not to be expelled. So he persisted, refined his idea and tried again. From Rahul and Shamus’s experience iteration is a key part of success – things aren’t necessarily going to work first time, but that doesn’t mean your idea is worthless. Other people came up with Facebook-like services but through hard work Zuckerberg’s got the users it needed to take off.
So, while it is an easy response to describe someone successful as ‘lucky’ you make your own luck in this world. Aspiring entrepreneurs need to make sure they are looking for opportunities, making intelligent guesses about what might be a success and then working hard to develop a product or service that customers actually want. Like a swan, ‘lucky’ people may look calm, but underneath the surface their legs are paddling very hard………