IOP workshops offer a guiding hand to scientific entrepreneurs

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All through my career as a computer scientist, I had no chance of being trained on entrepreneurship or how to start and manage a business.

These concepts were also conspicuously missing all through my early years of school in both primary and secondary school. So, unless I had enrolled into the Business School in college, I would have had no idea what entrepreneurship entails. And, unfortunately, I enrolled for a science course.

By virtue of being a computer scientist, what was sensible to throw on my plate were technical courses such as programming, database design, algorithms and data structures. Perhaps the only cross-cutting course that I was allowed to take was communication – for obvious reasons that I would not evade from communicating with others even with those within my field.

Anything to do with entrepreneurship, financial management and intellectual property seemed to be exclusive and only reasonable to business students. And I thought, and was meant to believe, that surely that was the norm – that I belonged to the lab, and that I didn’t have to bother acquiring such knowledge and skills.

Over time, I started to realise the fortune that people like Mark Zuckerberg, Brian Acton, Jan Koum and others were making out of their innovations in technology. It was interesting to note that most of these have a strong technical background yet were able to set up a business and are so far managing well.

I set out to start a technology hub that would champion the development of local technology solutions in my country. The hub would also become a co-working space for young technology entrepreneurs.

I had no formal training on entrepreneurship and what was required. I read widely, but it was mostly scattered, unstructured reading. I made a lot of assumptions when starting out – some right, and some wrong. For example, I started off with way more staff than I should have until in the second year when I had to reflect and restructure.

I did not know what the difference between a business plan and a business model was, or what constituted each. I had to ask a friend to develop those for me. Then I learned from those drafts.

We developed software for some client who demanded to have the sourcecode after we had delivered the software – something that was not in the very vague contract they had developed. I had no way to defend myself that I was not obliged to give out the code, as I had no grounded knowledge on issues of copyright. Neither did I have proper agreement templates for my business, such as nondisclosure agreements, copyright agreements or client agreements. I had to go by what clients would develop as contracts. Often these would not ably capture elements of protecting my work on software developed.

Often I was asked to pitch our company and its products to would be-investors, and I had to use the internet to coach myself of what would constitute a pitch. The pitch evolved into many forms and has since undergone another metamorphosis the past week courtesy of the workshop on entrepreneurship for scientists held at ICTP in Italy.

Through the workshop, for the first time fellow scientists and engineers and I were taken through the steps of taking a product to the market, developing business plans, pitching for investment, and understanding intellectual property rights. I also had the opportunity to network with other great scientists that have become entrepreneurs. They have become a great part of my social capital of likeminded people that I intend to make use of in leveraging partnerships and sharing knowledge.

This is the beginning of the rest of my business.

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Rachel Sibande

Rachel Sibande

Rachel Sibande is CEO and founder of Malawi's first technology hub, mHub, which champions the development of technology solutions and incubates young technology entrepreneurs. Rachel has been named one of 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa by Forbes Magazine. She is a Google Scholar andwas named one of Africa's Next Einsteins by the Next Einstein Initiative. She is also an alumna of President Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative Program of 2012. Rachel is currently a PhD candidate in computer science at the Rhodes University in South Africa. Her research focuses on the use of mobile-based technology for citizen engagement.
Rachel Sibande

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