Get talking: Practice makes pitch-perfect

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2017

Dr Lien Ngo describes how materials scientists and engineers can meet their business needs by learning to pitch their ideas succinctly. 

When Innovate UK last ran a Collaboration Nation in October 2015, 71 small and micro UK businesses had two-and-a-half minutes and one PowerPoint slide each to pitch their companies, technology, ideas and, most importantly, ask for what they needed to grow their businesses. The audience had handheld devices allowing live voting on how clear the pitch and how good the technology was.

Those who were in the audience that year remarked that the overall pitch quality was noticeably better than in previous years. Why? That year, all the projects attended one of three ‘pitch bootcamp’ workshops and the results spoke for themselves. 

It isn’t easy. I remember one pitcher working on software to enable large interactive touch screen displays, who had an uphill struggle to pitch his work and company without descending into jargon. The workshop trainer and the audience gave him feedback and suggestions. On the day itself, I was thoroughly impressed – a massive improvement over his practice.  

Learning to pitch is not something that many running SMEs put at the top of their long to-do lists. After all, a large portion are scientists who have got where they are by delving deep into their subject areas and their exceptional technical expertise – not, understandably, by explaining how their businesses deserve attention and support in two-and-a-half minutes.

But you know what? I see short pitches required everywhere. I’ve sat on an EPSRC competition panel where engineering projects were pitched – other funding bodies such as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory use short pitches as part of their competitions. I’m currently organising companies we’ve supported in Advanced Materials to pitch at a conference in front of potential investors and partners, and pitches are an integral part of the very successful nationwide network of Venturefests. These are examples of formal pitches given in front of a seated audience, but your conversation in the lunch queue with the representative from a potential collaborator is also an opportunity to pitch.

Learning how to describe your business and what it needs in a punchy and engaging way, and making it relevant to your audience, will dramatically increase your chances of getting your voice heard and your business needs met.

For the Advanced Materials team at Innovate UK, a large portion of our ‘customers’ are SMEs who are discovering, integrating, developing, recycling/reusing or otherwise commercialising new materials. There is a wonderful, rich community of materials start-ups, spin-outs and other small and micro-size enterprises in the UK, so we’re kept very busy visiting, meeting and speaking with them.

We ask them – what do you need to grow your business, and how can Innovate UK help? This is another chance to pitch the business. At Innovate UK, one of the points in our Five-Point Plan is to help small businesses grow. We recognise that once you’ve got the science down, your business will need other support. It might not be money you’re after – it might be customers, or development partners, or you might want to know about how to export and expand into other countries – but learning how to present those business needs and ask for support will help just as much as making sure the science and tech side is spot on. 

I really believe that one of the best ways we can help businesses is to get them together to learn together and from each other. Materials companies often have specific challenges in pitching and learning to pitch with your peers helps everyone. For example, if you have a platform technology, it might be difficult to pick application areas and specific sectors to focus your pitch on. If you are a spin-out lower on the technology readiness level scale, it might be useful to know how to present data in a way that is easily digestible for a general audience. 

So, I’d encourage everyone to look for pitch training, or to take it up whenever offered – and we will keep making sure Innovate UK continues to offer more chances at a ‘pitch bootcamp’.