How to Head a Virtual Company: The Business of Science: Elizabeth Hopkins Is One of a New Breed of Business Savvy Scientists-A Role She Reckons Women Are Well Equipped to Perform. She Talks to Vicki Jayne about Microbe Management and Virtual Companies

New Zealand Management, April 2006 | Go to article overview

How to Head a Virtual Company: The Business of Science: Elizabeth Hopkins Is One of a New Breed of Business Savvy Scientists-A Role She Reckons Women Are Well Equipped to Perform. She Talks to Vicki Jayne about Microbe Management and Virtual Companies


When you lack a science background, there's a degree of challenge in having to chat about biopolymers or the properties of microbes. But Elizabeth Hopkins, CEO of Encoate Technology, makes it easy.

A couple of quick jargon-free sentences and you get the gist of the leading-edge science behind her company. You also understand why a technology that basically prolongs the shelf life of microbes has a whole bunch of potential commercial applications in the food, health, agricultural and other sectors.

Which is what Hopkins' role is all about--commercialising science. And she has both the scientific know-how and business nous to bridge the gap between lab and market.

Not all scientists are happy to make the leap because at some stage, you do have to curb scientific curiosity and get single-minded, says Hopkins.

"It's really important to do a whole lot of due diligence first to make sure you're on the right track--that you've chosen the right application in terms of potential commercial success. But then you can't afford to be distracted. Secondary applications can follow but you'll have burned all your cash if you try to do everything ...

"You have to be committed to a single track to get your product out there and some people find that frustrating."

She also reckons the skills needed to commercialise science are more relational than technological.

"You do need to have a logical mind so you can see all the steps involved, the pitfalls along the way and hopefully how to mitigate those. But the key skill is not necessarily what you know about the technology but how you can pull together a team and get them working toward that common goal. Everyone has to be really clear about what they're doing, what role they're playing in the process."

That's particularly challenging when the company you run doesn't have a traditional structure.

"I run Encoate as a virtual company. I've got a couple of core business development people who work for me directly, then I use scientists at various institutes on a contract basis. I'm a customer but their accountability is usually somewhere else, so keeping them motivated and focused toward a particular goal when they perhaps want to answer the interesting questions is a major challenge."

Part of the trick is being really clear about how and why things need to be done a certain way then motivating and managing people through the process. These sorts of soft skills are often where women have an edge, reckons Hopkins.

"I recently worked with a guy from the US on an entrepreneurship course and he was saying one of the core things that makes companies successful is having a CEO who has no ego. And while you can't generalise too much, I think a lot of women have been in roles where they have to use all their influencing and interpersonal skills--without having to be top dog."

British-born Hopkins hasn't trod a typical career route. Her drive to get out there and make some money prompted her to leave school at 16 to take a job as a trainee technician at Oxford University. That involved part-time education sponsorship, which she used to gain a degree in applied biology. In her 20s, she got married, started a family and took eight years out as a fulltime mum--during which she added a computing degree to her credentials. …

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