Science competitions can help to catapult your science into the real world

Geometric pattern of first place rosettes

Credit score: Getty

Private and non-private establishments around the globe are making use of science competitions to faucet the brains of worldwide abilities. For essentially the most high-profile contests, such because the ‘Feed the Subsequent Billion’ problem from the XPRIZE basis and the Earthshot Prize, awards can run into thousands and thousands of {dollars} — a life-changing quantity for aspiring researcher-entrepreneurs.

Nature spoke to contest organizers, traders and winners about their take-home messages, ideas for rising victorious and methods to make use of competitions to get a head begin in innovation and entrepreneurship.


Chief government and founding father of ImaginAble Options in Hamilton, Canada.

Once I was a biomedical and mechanical engineering undergraduate pupil at McMaster College in Hamilton, Canada, I received the Canadian Nationwide James Dyson Award 2021 — which goals to encourage university-level college students to resolve societal issues utilizing engineering designs. My successful concept was an assistive medical gadget that permits people with restricted hand mobility to write down, draw and use a touch-screen gadget. This undertaking began in my first yr after I met and was impressed by Elissa James — a proficient painter with cerebral palsy. After we met, her situation had deteriorated to the purpose the place she wanted assist to proceed portray: so I began serious about what gadget I might develop.

The Dyson competitors pushed me to suppose laborious about my designs. I knew that I used to be up towards different proficient inventors, and to have an opportunity of creating a real-world influence (one of many judging standards), my design needed to be ergonomic. Over the previous three years, the design of my gadget has gone by way of six iterations, and I’ve had a number of consultations with health-care professionals and other people with restricted hand mobility. From the primary prototype, made from sponge, straws and pipe cleaners, I now have a product, named Guided Fingers, in the marketplace. We’ve offered 64 gadgets to this point.

Profitable the competitors considerably enhanced the publicity of my start-up firm. On the day the end result was introduced, there have been greater than 1,000 guests to my firm’s web site, and over the subsequent 3 months the site visitors remained excessive. I didn’t have the experience, time or cash for plenty of advertising and marketing, however as a winner I might now experience on Dyson’s advertising and marketing effort and channel my very own valuable assets into constructing different points of my enterprise, reminiscent of hiring employees and prototyping.

Most significantly, because the winner of a prestigious competitors, I do know that my innovation gained quick credibility. I’ve health-care organizations from all around the globe contacting me for collaboration and to check our product. The folks we intention to achieve and their caregivers are additionally extra keen to strive our product and provides us suggestions, which we are able to use to enhance our design.

I’d advise researcher-entrepreneurs to first apply for a patent to legally defend their concepts earlier than coming into science competitions. There’s loads of details about these competitions on-line: you can begin by looking out key phrases which can be particular to a area or subscribing to mailing lists of entrepreneurship societies to remain up to date.

Nevertheless, discovering contests and coming into them can distract from different points of getting a start-up. Time is commonly quick, particularly whenever you’re making use of to participate in competitions: many require additional info and stories, which could take focus away from the day-to-day operations of a enterprise. However total, I’d say for me the time funding has been value it.

Lianna Genovese

Lianna Genovese received the Canadian Nationwide James Dyson Award in 2021.Credit score: James Dyson Staff

ULRICH BETZ: The enterprise particular person

Vice-president of Innovation at Merck, Darmstadt, Germany.

The Merck Innovation Cup brings graduate college students and postdocs from around the globe into our pharmaceutical firm for per week. They develop revolutionary concepts and enterprise plans to resolve unmet medical wants with assist from skilled professionals. We’ve been operating the competitors since 2011. As soon as within the programme, the individuals are chosen on the idea of revolutionary concepts they submit, after which grouped in groups of 5, and mentored by an alumnus of the problem. The individuals then resolve which of the submitted concepts they want to pursue over the week to win the grand prize of €20,000 (US$22,700).

Becoming a member of competitions is usually a helpful manner for researcher-entrepreneurs to study what appeals to traders and corporations — coaching that many educational researchers lack. We choose winners on the idea of 4 standards: innovativeness, likelihood of success, alignment with the corporate’s focus and the staff’s efficiency in pitching. Contributors have instructed me they’ve turn out to be extra assured working in science and enterprise after collaborating.

For my part, the perfect final result of a science competitors is the constructing of collaborative spirit and camaraderie. Not like many competitions, during which organizers finish their interactions with individuals after the principle occasion, the Merck Innovation Cup tries to keep up hyperlinks after the competitors. We regularly join with alumni on social media and invite them to alumni symposia. We typically additionally provide individuals an opportunity to affix us as paid consultants, or to be concerned in our analysis tasks as trade postdocs or educational collaborators once we want to additional develop the successful concepts in Merck.

Over time, we’ve had alumni go on to turn out to be profitable educational scientists, firm managers and entrepreneurs. The networks that the individuals create with one another in the course of the competitors are helpful to faucet into all through their careers. Just lately, I additionally learnt {that a} successful staff from 2020 determined to create a bioelectronics start-up, INIA Biosciences, that goals to make use of ultrasound to work together with the immune system to alleviate persistent inflammatory illnesses.

Extra firms and foundations are seeing some great benefits of science competitions and are organizing innovation challenges. The organizers profit from recruiting proficient folks, gaining recent concepts and selling a picture of innovativeness. The individuals are rewarded with coaching, community constructing and prize cash. Along with the Innovation Cup, we additionally set up occasions such because the €1 million Future Perception Prize, which is given out yearly to honour and allow scientists fixing key challenges of humanity.


Chair of the Worldwide Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Entrepreneurship Program Innovation Neighborhood (EPIC), Cambridge, Massachusetts and PhD Pupil at Leiden College, Leiden, Netherlands.

iGEM is a science contest during which roughly 350 worldwide groups compete yearly utilizing artificial biology to resolve societal challenges. I competed in 2018, and the constructive expertise motivated me to proceed as a decide and mentor from 2019. iGEM groups determine issues distinctive to their area, reminiscent of rising sea ranges within the Netherlands, or international issues reminiscent of antibiotic resistance, and provide you with revolutionary options. The staff I mentored was the general winner for the ‘Overgraduate’ class in 2020. The researchers’ undertaking, known as Rapidemic, aimed to develop a point-of-care diagnostic software for future infectious illnesses.

iGEM has been profitable in coaching researcher-entrepreneurs. There have been no less than 175 start-ups primarily based on iGEM tasks, and we observe these firms and publish updates on them in quarterly stories. A number of the extra profitable firms embody Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston, Massachusetts, which produces industrially helpful micro organism, and Opentrons, in New York Metropolis, which develops robots to automate organic experiments.

Many individuals develop sturdy possession of their concepts after iGEM and want to see these concepts to fruition, however they won’t get sufficient assist from their educational establishments. That’s why two years in the past, we began iGEM EPIC, which has a world committee of 21 members. After iGEM contests, if individuals want to additional develop their concepts into start-ups, they’ll apply to EPIC, which goals to hyperlink individuals with mentors from their native areas, in addition to offering coaching programmes on learn how to write enterprise proposals and pitches. Though we don’t but present direct funding, we’ve an in depth community of entrepreneurs and enterprise folks, and we intention to supply connections to top-tier early-stage traders and accelerators around the globe.

For my part, crucial reward from coming into a science competitors is gaining early insights into issues that our society will face sooner or later. A few of these issues are native challenges now however have the potential to finally have an effect on your entire world. Constructing and being a part of a neighborhood of like-minded, proficient folks from around the globe may help us to generate inventive options.

HUICHN ZHAO: The educational

Affiliate professor at Tsinghua College, Beijing, China.

I used to be certainly one of 10 winners chosen as a 2021 DAMO Academy Younger Fellow out of 365 candidates. The award, which comes with a prize of 1 million yuan (roughly US$158,000), is organized by Chinese language expertise large Alibaba annually to advertise scientific and technological innovation by encouraging younger Chinese language researchers to embark on socially impactful tasks. The prize cash can be utilized for numerous functions, together with laboratory renovations, hiring employees and embarking on analysis in line with the wants of the award winner.

After receiving the prize, there was large curiosity from traders and other people within the trade to translate and convey my expertise to market. My analysis is within the area of soppy robotics — robots which have mild, dexterous parts, which have big potential in areas reminiscent of rehabilitative medication and manufacturing. Particularly, my lab is growing comfortable supplies to be used in prosthetics and synthetic muscle mass.

For now, my choice is to proceed working within the lab; I don’t have concrete plans to commercialize my expertise. Nonetheless, the improved visibility is nice. I get to develop my networks past my typical educational circle. Sooner or later, these connections shall be useful when my college students and I think about entrepreneurship. And since the award comes from an internationally acknowledged firm, this would possibly appeal to extra curiosity from proficient collaborators and college students overseas.

A bit of recommendation I’ve for folks attempting to win science competitions is to have a supportive community that features folks out of your skilled and social circles. For this award, I submitted two letters from my mentors, who’re pioneers in my area. Their assist most likely satisfied the choice committee of the potential influence of my analysis. I additionally practised my presentation to my household a number of occasions. This may be useful as a result of there are sometimes non-experts on the award panel, and you must pitch your presentation at a degree appropriate for them.

Your loved ones members may even be your strongest critics, which is helpful. My household weren’t shy in telling me what a part of my presentation was dry or the place I wanted to elucidate myself higher.

TING YAN LECK: The investor

Accomplice at TRIVE Enterprise Capital, Singapore.

As an investor, there are a couple of key elements I search for earlier than investing in an concept or start-up. The primary is how properly the product matches the market, considering who the particular person of an concept or expertise goes to be, the challenges confronted by that person and some great benefits of the proposed expertise over current options. That is adopted by an investigation of the market measurement, enterprise technique and pricing mechanism.

The expertise itself is subsequently solely certainly one of many concerns. But, when researcher-entrepreneurs pitch to traders, they usually give attention to how helpful their applied sciences are, on the expense of different necessary factors. I as soon as listened to a pitch from a staff of engineers about how their knowledge server design might assist to enhance warmth circulation and cut back server temperatures. However the staff didn’t know the way buying of servers in knowledge centres works, and the way regularly knowledge centres change their servers. The pitch was unsuccessful: they wanted extra consciousness of how the product might work within the wider enterprise context.

Science competitions are useful as a result of they sometimes drive individuals who wish to succeed to think about industrial viability at an early stage of their enterprise, earlier than they significantly have interaction traders. That is how innovation begins — when an actual drawback is correctly outlined. I’ve volunteered as a decide, mentor and speaker at innovation challenges and have skilled first-hand that competitions can prepare researcher-entrepreneurs to turn out to be extra inventive and sharper in shaping narratives round their enterprise concepts.

Begin-ups must be conscious that competitors organizers would possibly look out for various successful elements. In competitions organized by large firms with established advertising and marketing and gross sales groups, extra consideration is given to the core of the expertise, whereas in smaller scale competitions, the expertise and enterprise plans normally have equal weighting. Begin-up founders should additionally stability taking part in competitions and constructing their firms: there are benefits to taking part, however every competitors takes time away from the core enterprise, which ought to stay the principle aim.