Why we need to reinvent the PhD

Fuelling Innovation

If science is the engine of human progress, research is the fuel. While both have always been essential in driving breakthroughs and meaningfully advancing our understanding of the world, the stakes have never been higher and the weight of expectation that rests on scientific endeavour has never been greater: instead of a general promise of progress, science now has to contend with solving some of the biggest challenges and existential threats facing humanity. 

For that, we need the fuel and the engine of progress to optimally work together. 

Academia must heed this call. While a beating heart of research, a wellspring of ideas and innovation, and a huge repository and magnet of talent, academia is also often home to misaligned incentives and structures that prevent it from delivering the best fuel for the rapid and drastic progress that is needed. 

The depth of scientific knowledge and practice required to consistently generate sector-dominant deep tech products is acquired through doctoral research and PhDs. And if some of academia’s incentive structures are sidestepped or, better yet, directed more effectively, academia can make the most difference in tackling the crises we collectively face. This is also echoed in a recent report by BEIS. 

When it comes to science commercialisation, talent is the critical bottleneck. And while there is certainly no shortage of talent or knowledge, our systems from academia through to our innovation infrastructure do not “talk to each other” - not, at least, with a view to identifying, training and directing the most talented individuals towards solving the problems they are best suited for. And certainly not with a view to identifying the best, shared outcomes of such research, and attaining them. 

Describing the inconsistencies in our innovation system, George Freeman MP put it quite concisely: “This is nuts.”

The upshot is that while scientific knowledge is being rapidly proliferated, we are not equipping those best placed with the means or opportunities to apply that knowledge where it’s most needed. The world’s crises urgently require a much greater number of science entrepreneurs - individuals and teams who can take up these challenges, investigate them, and create the scalable and sustainable solutions across the health, climate and cyber sectors that are needed. In his book, Speed & Scale, John Doerr argues we must “bottle their [innovators’] entrepreneurial energy and distribute it as widely as we can - to governments, companies, and communities worldwide."

If the aim is to power that change and to do so at the drastic rate that is required, PhDs are demonstrably not fit for purpose. But that of course is not the inherent aim of a PhD: doctorates are not designed to generate new science companies in deep tech. They are designed to reward and uncover novelty, not to similarly incentivize the creation of ideas that can blossom into scalable ventures. 

Instead, the pursuit of new knowledge is core, with tech transfer being, at best secondary, at worst accidental. Some PhD students end up owning the resulting IP, while on completion, a small proportion of PhD students spin out or licence their research findings as a new product or service. 

Relatedly, a large number of science companies are spun out of university labs, with the top 5 patent-producing universities in the US producing one-third of new biotech companies. However, this tech-push approach does not reliably target success, given that 47% of those companies have already failed. 

This might also be the result of an industrial PhD, which focuses studies on real-world applications and impact in business, but keeps outputs at the product or service level, and necessarily predefined or influenced by the sponsoring organisation. Rather, what is needed are outputs or shared outcomes aimed at reorienting entire sectors towards solving the world’s most pressing problems. 

Being able to achieve that is also, at least in a sense, a numbers game. Consider the decarbonisation of hard-to-abate sectors such as commercial airlines, chemicals, shipping and construction materials. This momentous feat requires parallelised innovations and application within and between multiple disciplines as well as a new cadre of applied scientists to pioneer these innovations. To put that in context, the UK alone urgently needs at least an additional 150,000 researchers by 2030 and for its businesses to train and hire these new researchers, if it is to sustain 2.4% R&D intensity. Meanwhile, the “scientist”, in the conventional sense of the word, is no longer necessarily sufficient: as highlighted by William B. Bonvillian, in his capacity as advisor to the US’ industrial strategy, what is required are innovators who can create, demonstrate and scale technologies as well as navigate politics. 

PhDs and our education systems are not only reliably failing to deliver or churn out as many science entrepreneurs as are needed, they are also failing to do so in an inclusive, equitable and accessible way. In the words of John Doerr: “A PhD is for the few but the world needs thousands of innovators.”

More specifically, there are strong reasons to design our institutions - and their ability to service humanity’s problems through innovation - such that they reflect and value the diversity inherent in society. Doing so will strengthen our ability to generate scalable and meaningful solutions for all. 

A few years after graduation, 80% of STEM PhD-holders are no longer working in the science and technology sector - a sobering statistic that can only suggest deep-seated underlying challenges. But this is an issue of attraction as much as retention. Currently, a large proportion of people from under-represented groups are deterred from pursuing PhDs programmes in the first place. BME students comprise 30% of UK engineering students but only 8.3% of engineers are BME. Similarly, when there are few, if any, role-models in science entrepreneurship across gender and intersectional lenses, we must be collectively losing a great deal of talent. These norms must be challenged. 

The Venture Science Doctorate

With all that in mind, we are pioneering a new flavour of PhD here at DSV, explicitly diversity-first and venture-focused, focused on building global climate resilience and advancing healthcare through venture creation. 

The Venture Science Doctorate will create a new type of talent, providing a whole new pathway: accelerating the transition from undergraduate to deep-tech science founder. Our approach puts inclusivity front and centre - sourcing and attracting people into the worlds of research and venture creation that would not otherwise have the opportunity to be there. Our prospective founders will also be hyper-mobile; a venture scientist will be embedded in both worlds - made intentionally porous throughout their careers - simultaneously. 

Crucially, we are not trying to replace the PhD but offer an internationally recognised and rigorous alternative route for those who might be excluded. In an academic system that has not prized diversity or inclusion for centuries, it is difficult to attain anything close to meaningful diversity. 

The program is designed for combinatorial innovation and science company creation from initial recruitment through to personalised, experiential learning experience design. VSD awards daring individuals unprecedented degrees of freedom. The graduate shapes the research program over 12 months of their own bottleneck analysis which in turn is informed and powered by DSV’s outcome-first methodology: globally decentralised, intellectually independent.

The long-term impact of the VSD

In the UK alone 70,000 STEM PhD-holders are trained annually. If 1% of them produced science companies they would transform and create innovation clusters across the nation. Pouring hundreds of deeptech job creators into the innovation ecosystem is a scalable way to make high-value jobs. More importantly, we have already trained hundreds of thousands of skilled PhD holders, many of whom have drifted into non-science careers and as a result, have not realised their entrepreneurial potential. To reverse this process, PhD candidates must be presented with a more holistic, pragmatic and enticing offering. 

Meanwhile, we must also attend to the societal perceptions and norms that are attached to academia and even terms like academic achievement and ‘scientist’. Helping engender more meaningful and inclusive connotations to those terms - through direct action and initiative - and creating role models that reflect society’s diversity, is a surefire way for the UK to tap into its enormous talent base. This would not only attract a more diverse range of candidates - and benefit from the richness of their attendant strengths and perspectives - it would also strengthen the UK’s overall academic outputs and render it more easily translatable into solving real-world, pressing problems. 

These changes of course require scale - and urgency - and our ambitions reflect that. By 2026, at DSV we aspire to have trained our first 10 PhD candidates, who will in turn incorporate 10 graduate-led healthcare and climate moonshots, aiming to create $12,000,000 of economic value, engaging tens of academic labs and 500 other users of VSD training systems and materials. Within a decade, VSD will scale to train 1,000 Venture Scientists per year.

The VSD aims to equip graduates with cutting-edge innovation methods and coach their ability to take themselves as seriously as their science. The program is also an opportunity for academic institutions. The technologies the students will develop are poised to create multiple high-impact publications and motivate prestigious collaborations. 

If this is of interest, reach out and join a network of the world’s most entrepreneurial professors, whilst benefiting from knowledge being systematically logged across cohorts of students in a searchable database. At the same time, institutions stand to grow a network of industry-shaping entrepreneurs conducting cutting-edge research long after they graduate and attracting corporate partners to your research program.

To become involved in the Venture Science Doctorate as a potential candidate, please apply here. If you are interested in involvement as a supervisor, research partner, industry partner, funding partner, government/policy specialist or advisor, please contact us using this form!