‘The founder’s journey is rarely straightforward, mistakes will be made’

23 Oct 2019

David Murphy. Image: NUI Galway

David Murphy of NUI Galway’s Innovation Office talks about the key areas of science and tech focus in the west, and the ‘magic potion’ of start-up success.

David Murphy leads the Innovation Office at NUI Galway, which provides knowledge transfer and entrepreneurial expertise for the university’s academic, student and business communities.

Prior to joining NUI Galway in 2014, Murphy had his own start-up experience and various technical and leadership positions with software and financial services companies such as Microsoft and Fidelity Investments.

‘When we are working with a campus spin-out, we advise the founders to value the journey and learn from the experience regardless of the outcome’

Describe your role and what you do.

As director of the Innovation Office, I have a broad remit to develop the innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem within NUI Galway in support of regional development.

We work with a spectrum of our research community, from undergraduates to senior investigators, to identify, protect and commercially develop university intellectual property through licensing agreements with existing companies or through the creation of campus spin-outs.

We also have a broad responsibility to support entrepreneurial activities including training and the provision of incubation facilities and acceleration expertise to over 50 start-ups on campus.

In your opinion, which areas of science and technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

NUI Galway is world-renowned as an expert research-led university. We emphasise inter-disciplinary research programmes and collaborations with industry and community partners in areas of strategic importance, both regionally and nationally. Regionally, we have significant technical expertise in biomedical, computational and physical sciences, as well as marine, energy and the environment.

The field of artificial intelligence (AI) offers amazing opportunities in developing AI platforms and applying that AI in any number of fields. At NUI Galway, we are working on technologies to support autonomous driving – this is an example of AI technology with potential to have a profound, widespread societal impact.

Quantum physics has contributed greatly to our technology advancements and continues to produce exciting new discoveries. The development of quantum computing offers significant opportunities to create breakthrough applications in life sciences, financial services and logistics. Developing the expertise and tools to work with quantum computers is in itself an entrepreneurial opportunity.

In the region, we have a lot of interesting activity in life sciences through the exploration and commercial development of new biotechnologies and medical devices including convergence with information technology systems.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

A good entrepreneur has vision combined with the confidence and the determination to realise that vision. The entrepreneurial commitment is significant, typically requiring a large promotion of one’s focus, time and money.

That combination of vision, determination and confidence to take on risk is most likely a combination of natural attributes and learned values.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Determination balanced with humility and acceptance. The founder’s journey is rarely straightforward, mistakes will be made and circumstances will seem to contrive to produce obstacles at the most inappropriate times! There will be times when a founder needs to accept their limitations and seek professional or personal help to reset their plans or expectations.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Have a clear message that articulates their vision and an operational or communications plan. The message is your pitch and consistently reminds you, your team, your investors and your potential clients why you care enough to do what you are doing, ie the vision.

One of the greatest assets an entrepreneur has is their time. The operational and communications plan keeps everyone involved focused on doing the things that absolutely need to get done to progress goals despite the sometimes chaotic environment a start-up operates in.

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?

Typically, only experienced founders will themselves be knowledgeable on all of the disciplines and skills required to build a strong company. It is important to build relationships to access good legal, financial, corporate and regulatory professional advice when needed.

Cost can be a restriction but our experience is that providers will often provide some level of consultation free with a view to developing a lasting mutually beneficial relationship as the company prospers. Having the right mentor(s) to offer advice and to provide access to expertise, funding and potential clients cannot be overstated.

How do you assemble a good team?

Look for diversity, expertise and positivity. With a small team in a dynamic environment, the founders need to add complimentary skills and approaches at the right time. The team need to be encouraged to challenge the founder(s) and do so based on their expertise in a positive solution-oriented manner.

While diversity can be a challenge for small teams in start-ups, research shows that having diversity increases their ability to overcome obstacles and identify new opportunities.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

The magic potion!

One of the most interesting and credible perspectives I have seen on this topic comes from Bill Gross’s 2015 Ted Talk. He evaluated timing, the idea, the team, the business model and funding as critical factors in the success or failure of hundreds of start-ups.

His conclusion is that timing is crucial to success. This doesn’t have to be left to serendipity alone but can be built into business plans by identifying changes in regulation, latest technologies, market changes, etc as competitive advantage. 

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

Trying to do it alone and investing too much of one’s own identity, time and money into the venture. Passion and determination are prerequisites to be a founder but sharing the risk and reward will ultimately benefit both the founder and the venture.

What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

Founders should seek two types of mentor, one who has broad experience and can give general advice, brainstorm business ideas, and provide a safe environment to share concerns or sentiments. Sector-specific mentors will brainstorm technical and product areas and provide meaningful introductions to entities that you need, finance, expertise, partners etc.

Good mentors will invest in the relationship but only if you invest first by preparing well for your meetings, being focused and treating their time, experience and any introductions with the appropriate respect.

What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

When we are working with a campus spin-out company we advise the founder(s) to value the journey and learn from the experience regardless of the outcome. It is important for a founder to accept the potential for failure of the venture and equally important to realise the experience, expertise and relationships gained as a successful outcome to be used on the next venture.