From science to business: The untapped potential of doctoral theses

The atmosphere in one of the meeting rooms of Wissenschaftszentrum Bonn is relaxed and busy at the same time. 25 junior researchers, DAAD scholarship holders and DAAD alumni alike, have just spread out their materials across a number of tables: Lego bricks, cardboard and straws. They now have half an hour to create a prototype that might solve a big (or small) societal issue. A model for making the world a little better or at least pointing in a possible direction, so to say. What may look like innocent crafting is really crucial work in the workshop, in which the participants can see, how quickly an idea or scientific finding can give rise to the outlines of a concrete concept, and why a team is needed to realise a sustainable solution.

The term entrepreneurship has emerged as a key component of the academic knowledge transfer strategy in recent years. The concept provides for researchers to contribute their discipline-specific expertise and the results of their work to a product, to develop it further and eventually launch it on the open market. The goal of related workshops is to give researchers the required tools. In its role as the world’s biggest funding organisation for international exchange among students and academics, the DAAD is now planning to strengthen this field through its own activities. The event from the ‘Young Entrepreneurs in Science’ (YES) programme of the Falling Walls Foundation in Bonn was an experiment in this regard. And it proved overwhelmingly successful.

Enormous interest among alumni

The DAAD and the Falling Walls Foundation, who are both dedicated to knowledge transfer and academic communication, are cooperating in the area of entrepreneurship for the first time. ‘We have been involved in the Falling Walls Labs for many years, in which students and young talent from academia and the practical sphere are able to present their ideas for tackling major problems of humanity,’ explains Heidi Wedel, Head of the Alumni Section of the DAAD. ‘We want to show perspectives for the future also to those, who do not seek a career at a higher education institution. Based on our experience, this applies to around two thirds of our alumni.’ She continues to say that the DAAD agreed right away, when Falling Walls suggested holding a workshop about entrepreneurship.

The strong interest among scholarship holders and alumni showed that this approach was right on target: ‘After a YES call for applications, there is usually an application phase of several weeks, until about 30 potential participants have gotten in touch,’ Heidi Wedel points out. ‘For this event we had more than 130 registrations within just two days, so we stopped the call and offered an additional digital workshop. We were still unable to accept everyone. Besides the strong interest, we were also pleased to see that academics from a wide range of nationalities and disciplines applied.’

  • © DAAD/Martin Magunia

  • © DAAD/Martin Magunia

  • © DAAD/Martin Magunia

‘We want to encourage a different way of thinking in these workshops’

The prototypes have meanwhile been completed in Bonn. The brief was to create ‘quick and dirty’ draft versions to allow for feedback that is as honest as possible. The teams are now presenting their products to a number of test persons to find out, whether they are on a promising track or must go back to the planning stage. All five groups have opted for an app: one of these is dedicated to special event tips to help people weather winter in Germany or the trip to the immigration office, another one is designed to pool low-threshold assistance services, a third one is all about incentives for choosing the most sustainable route when travelling from one place to another. The final two ideas are dedicated to waste disposal.

Diversity as an asset: participants from 22 nations

None of these concepts is very polished, but that was never the goal. ‘We want to show the participants how quickly and easily they can put their specialist knowledge to entrepreneurial use,’ explains the presenter Dr Julia Rummel. ‘There is incredible potential in almost every doctoral thesis, but this potential remains untapped far too often. We want to encourage a different way of thinking in these workshops, and help participants to see their own expertise from another angle.’ What does it take to achieve this? ‘Mostly communication, any form of exchange,’ says Rummel. ‘Entrepreneurs usually need a team to succeed. Here in Bonn we can see very clearly, how many participants take on certain roles without realising. However, there is often one person who takes on a leadership role and produces ideas, while others are acting as critics. Some participants take on an observer role, while others are holding the team together.’ She points out that diversity is always in asset. ‘We have participants from 22 nations, including many researchers from application-oriented disciplines, but there are humanities scholars, too. These different perspective are motors for creativity.’

Developing visions in a playful way

The workshop participants confirm this assessment without hesitation. Many are excited about having developed and substantiated a shared vision in a playful way in this casual yet industrious atmosphere. ‘It was a lovely experience for me, because we do not have this type of thing in our normal academic lives,’ explains the psychologist and political scientist Beatriz Besen de Oliveira. ‘Visualising ideas in the context of design thinking was really interesting and it might become a part of my work.’ Kurstin Gatt, a literary scientist and specialist in oriental studies, had an even more profound experience: ‘This weekend made me re-assess my own skills and see new opportunities,’ he explains. ‘I also learned about better ways to communicate my research work to the public.’ Is he planning to stay in the field of higher education or willing to take the step into the free market? ‘We will see,’ he says and laughs.

None of the participants can say today, whether they will eventually venture into entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, some of them have taken the workshop as confirmation that they could. This is the case for Hadil Alshurafa, who is currently working at Heidelberg University. ‘I am a chemist and I love the academic environment,’ she stresses. ‘However, I do not want to spend the rest of my life only working at a laboratory. I have now learned a few techniques that are opening up new possibilities for me.’

The DAAD is always delighted to receive this type of feedback. ‘This confirms that we are on the right track with our new approach to expand our alumni work towards career promotion,’ Heidi Wedel says. ‘It is a meaningful and sustainable way to complement our existing strategy. At the same time, we saw that our scholarship holders and alumni appreciate personal exchange and the feeling that they can accomplish something together. This is why we would be happy to continue our cooperation with Falling Walls in this area, too, provided that the Foundation continues to receive appropriate funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Talks about this are currently taking place.’

Author: Thomas Kölsch

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June 2022

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