The 2Blades Group at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) runs a master class to help scientists to take leadership roles in industry or to become successful entrepreneurs in start-up companies. Group leader Peter van Esse says that initiatives such as GROW, which encourages entrepreneurial thinking, are vital for the agricultural enterprise.
Why do you think researchers in your institute should be interested in agri-tech – i.e. what sort of applications are of particular interest?
It’s very striking that many of my colleagues are interested in applications of plant science. We work on understanding plant diseases, which cost billions of pounds each year to control, and using this knowledge to develop solutions to diseases of important crops. The natural applications for this know-how are in plant breeding.
Do you have any current projects in the institute that would be of interest to the agri-tech community?
TSL does cutting edge research and is a world leader on plant-microbe interactions. In addition to an interest in the fundamental science, there is a strong drive to see discoveries reach the field. I work for a non- profit organization, the 2Blades Foundation, that helps to bridge the gap from lab to field. Together with my collaborators, I am developing a soybean plant that is resistant to Asian Soybean Rust, a $2 billion disease problem in Brazil. Similarly, colleagues at TSL have developed a potato that is resistant to potato blight and tomatoes that are more resistant to bacterial diseases. The technologies we are developing will benefit British farmers, however a strong UK based high-tech breeding industry that could bring the technologies developed at TSL and advanced by 2Blades to market is lacking.
Setting up such an innovative high-tech industry is a huge challenge. Much of the knowledge from research is going to non-UK based companies at the moment – our group leaders want to pursue innovation opportunities in the UK, but the questions are always “How can I do this? Who will be the partners?” For plant breeding there are very few UK based partners. An initiative such as GROW can be a vital ingredient to jump-start the industry, but for the plant breeding industry there is such a vacuum that more is needed.
What support does your Institute give to potential entrepreneurs?
We are always open to learning about new and exciting ideas to understand crop disease and to deliver solutions. The 2Blades Foundation has a track record of brining innovations to market, for example the TAL Code genome editing technology. This expertise and the close relationship between 2Blades and TSL provides a strong base to support potential entrepreneurs
If researchers want to get involved with GROW how would you recommend they proceed?
GROW’s support of innovative, commercial concepts is an opportunity for entrepreneurs that have a novel businesses concept. Within TSL, I would recommend researchers contact their group leader about their interests in an entrepreneurial path. We could explore if an idea has some mileage and help prepare an applicant for a GROW opportunity.
Are there any big success stories from the institute – spinouts / technology developments – that are relevant and you would like to highlight?
Again the need for setting up a high tech innovative breeding industry in the UK is vital. One thing I am really excited about is our newly launched masterclass course for post-docs. This course is co-funded by TSL and 2Blades and aims to prepare scientists to take on entrepreneurial and leading roles in industry. We anticipate this approach may be a boost to start-up companies, identifying market opportunities and supporting a high tech breeding-industry in Britain. The course is only in a pilot stage with five people at the moment, but it is really interesting to see the interest and enthusiasm of researchers to pursue this career path.