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BLOG: A journey into innovation, networking and grant-winning strategies for researchers

Holly Tibble reflects and provides top tips from a recent researcher trip to Obergurgl, Austria

By Holly Tibble | Chancellor's Fellow

Team Edinburgh: Researchers in Obergurgl, Austria

On 20 November 2023, I travelled from Edinburgh to the alpine village of Obergurgl, with five (former) strangers from within the University. In Obergurgl, we met with researchers from universities in Innsbruck, Cambridge, Paris, Berlin, Graz and from AstraZeneca. We were from a wide variety of topic areas, including environmental science, computer science, geology, teaching and, of course, health.  Over the next three and a half days, we undertook an intensive (truly!) workshop organised by p2i (postdocs to innovators) in a variety of facets of innovation - including developing business models, intellectual property, networking, and pitching.

I have been fortunate to have engaged with similar initiatives before, and am always amazed by the incredible opportunities for networking and learning, and to visit some incredible places. I always wonder if some people are put off applying by labels like innovation, commercialisation, and entrepreneurship,  but the knowledge you can learn here reaches far beyond setting up a company.

Firstly, one of the biggest ways that research can impact society is by developing it into a self-contained and accessible package. For that to be sustainable, there is typically a cost-reclaim model in place, even if it is not for profit. Thinking about who is going to pay for the service is crucial to refine your product and your evidence base. Return on investment is a crucial consideration for this - how can health care practices, trusts, hospitals, boards etc demonstrate enough benefit to justify your costs. Health economists are your friends!

Secondly, grant applications are a lot like a business pitch. Your idea for a research project could be fantastic,  but without a clear strategy for impact, future development, stakeholder engagement, etc. the funders can't be confident your proposal will be a good investment.

So, here's some of the top tips I learned, which you can use to strengthen your project proposals and  grant applications.

  1. If you want to network with someone intimidating or had to contact, use someone they know as a stepping stone, and get that person to introduce you. It's much easier to start the initial conversation, and you're more likely to get something out of it.  I’ve heard a lot of talks about networking, but Edinburgh’s own Laura Bernal Vergara delivered an outstanding talk with genuine no-nonsense advice and tactics. 
  1. The end of your pitch should include a 'call to arms’ -  how can that specific audience help you? Too many pitches are left vague and open-ended, and without asking something of the audience they are easily forgotten. Even if the topic doesn’t interest everyone in the audience personally, or they don’t have funds and resources for you, they can still be useful,  so take the opportunity to think of how.  Are you looking for collaborators, or specific knowledge? Ask the audience to share your details with their network! Again, this talk was actually by Edinburgh’s own Christina Starko!
  1. Leverage tools and systems from the world of start-ups and entrepreneurship. Tools like the Business Model Canvas can really help to structure your plans and they've been tried and tested in pitches for much larger investments than most researchers dream off.
  1. Finally, the best networking you can do is with your internal innovations team. Edinburgh Innovations are stacked with knowledge, tools, and guidance, but you have to make the first move – they don’t have the time to learn about every single one of us, so get yourselves on their radar.

Further resources

Business Model Canvas - Wikipedia