Driven, determined and ready to create change: how Natalie Chapman is changing perceptions about the essential role of marketing and communication in connecting science with society.
In a lab filled with scientists wearing protective goggles and coats, ground-breaking research is underway. Experiment after experiment, they dedicate their careers to this research.
Finally, a once in a lifetime breakthrough.
Whether it’s a discovery in a lab, a new product engineered in a workshop or software created behind a computer – this is how your everyday person would imagine the process. It’s how new drugs were invented to treat disease, it’s how driverless cars came to exist and even how computers and phones became essential parts of our everyday lives.
But in reality, it’s not that simple. Any kind of science or research is a hard slog, requiring years (decades even) of hard work, jumping through regulatory hoops and a bit of luck. It also comes down to communication – if a researcher can’t get their idea across, it can be tough to secure funding, to connect with industry and to help everyday people use and understand their product or service.
The importance of using marketing and communication to connect science with society is at the essence of UOW alumna Natalie Chapman’s mission.
The Managing Director of gemaker can see there’s no shortage of important research and technology being developed. But, she also asks: what’s the point if industry and everyday people don’t understand it?
Natalie says this is where science meets business.
Research gets published - but doesn't change the world because it doesn't go anywhere.Natalie Chapman
It’s through good communication that many entrepreneurs find success. For example on TV show Shark Tank the world’s smallest portable washing machine grew from a home operation to be sold in hundreds of retail stores and a world-first biodegradable hermetically sealed coffee pod also came into popular use.
But when researchers fail to communicate with industry and end users, that’s when the process of commercialising an idea becomes more complicated. Fictional show Silicon Valley tells this story. A software engineer named Richard creates a new platform with the potential to revolutionise the way people communicate. But when everyday people test the platform, they just don’t get it.
Speaking the same language
For many researchers, the whole point of their work is to make an impact – on people’s health, the environment or even to simply make daily tasks easier. UOW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Judy Raper says for this to happen, everyone needs to speak the same language.
“We want to make people’s lives better. That’s what research is all about. So, if researchers think about this right at the beginning of any project, it will help them ask the right questions,” she says.
“One of the hurdles researchers face is communication with end users and industry. They speak a different language. Timescales are different and expectations are different. They have to work with people from different backgrounds, disciplines and ways of working and that can be difficult. Finding funding for translation can also be difficult.”
Breaking the stigma
Natalie wanted nothing to do with business subjects as she completed her undergraduate science degree, specialising in chemistry. However, she did a stint working for UOW’s marketing department, which is where a change of perspective began to evolve.
“When I went into science, I specifically did not go into business and marketing. I loved science and I thought marketing was fluff,” she says. “But, when I was working in the marketing department, I knew science speak and knew how to write science reports, but I didn’t know how to write marketing reports so I wanted to learn more about it.”
Natalie began her science career at nuclear research facility ANSTO. She worked there for a decade as part of a team that took scientific inventions to market. She says the experience gave her exposure to the whole commercialisation process: from invention, to testing, to market validation, licensing deals and spin offs – which typically takes about 10 years for science-based inventions.
She went on to do a Master of Commerce (Marketing) and her Master of Business Administration at UOW. Through her experiences and education, she began to realise just how important it was to be multi-skilled and have exposure to both industry and academia.
“It’s only through doing what I’ve done over past 16 years that I’ve come to see the importance of the marketing and business element to science, otherwise you don’t get science out of the lab,” she says.
“Research gets published, but doesn’t change the world because it doesn’t go anywhere. One thing I’ve learnt is you can’t just market something at the end of it being invented, you have to get it right at the beginning and take it all the way through.”
It’s this kind of interdisciplinary knowledge, or collaboration, that Professor Raper says can reap big benefits. She says bringing together a range of people with different knowledge and perspectives can bring forward new solutions to problems.
“Putting our research outcomes into practice requires people from different disciplines working together – this can be difficult and time consuming but is very rewarding. Also, often the things that are required to make a difference in the community or in industry are quite simple, but in order to get to these simple solutions, you have to have first done the deep thinking research”
Building the next generation of knowledge-based business
Natalie now runs her own company called gemaker, which aims to translate the importance of what scientists are doing to get funding and realise the potential of an idea. She says she wants to give the technologies the support they need to take off.
“I help researchers and innovative companies take their research out of the lab and get it into use,” she says. “I have a large team with broad commercial skills, including, commercialisation strategy, IP, marketing, PR, digital marketing, communications, market research and so on. Most start-ups or SMEs can’t employ a whole team of commercial expertise,” she says. “Having a larger team means we can supply a start-up or SME with the skills they need, as they need it, and scale with them as they grow.
Beyond that, she has much bigger ambitions.
“If you think big you can change a country,” she says.
“There needs to be a change of mindset and culture across the country to help build the knowledge-based business. This means breaking down that scientist mindset that ‘I do science and commercial is the dark side’. We need to get over that outdated mindset and appreciate that both are crucial for innovation and changing the world for the better.”
Driven by this underlying mission, both Natalie and gemaker have earnt recognition in a variety of forms.
She won a Stevie Award in 2013 for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and was a NSW Finalist in the 2017 Telstra Businesswomen’s Awards. Her company gemaker was also awarded the 2017 NSW Telstra Microbusiness of the Year award and won 3 innovation awards at the 2017 Stevie awards for Asia Pacific.
Natalie believes for a change in mindset to occur, it needs to start in primary schools, and continue in universities through to researchers.
To help promote this change, she takes an active role in the education sector, sitting on the Advisory Board for UOW’s faculty of Business and the Advisory Committee for UNSW School of Chemistry.
Natalie’s business was responsible for driving world-first research to create a capability framework for tech-transfer professionals, which is being used internationally to recruit and professionally develop staff. The business has been rolling out industry engagement training programs for researchers across Australia.
Natalie says her team hopes to play a role in educating researchers, but to also inspire the next generation of students to take an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). More than that, she wants everyone to have an understanding that science degrees don’t just lead to research and academia. People studying these degrees are growing knowledge-based business in Australia.
“We are encouraging kids in STEM, women in STEM and STEM entrepreneurship in schools and unis,” she says.
“I want to make sure students in science are learning about marketing and commercialisation early on and that scientists are talking to each other.
“For me my goal would be that there would be an increase in the number of students studying science, and a change to the curriculum in science and maths to make it more inviting. I’d also like to see more students at university actually taking up the combination of science marketing or science business subjects.
“It’s not just an academic career with science, you can run a company. In the media, I don’t think there’s much visibility of people doing science except for academics. It should be common to be able to move between academia and industry.
“When I was at UOW, I had lecturers who had industry experience or had come from industry into academia. It was so good to be able to ask them questions about how things happen in the real world.”
Making STEM flexible
Encouraging people to get into STEM isn’t just something Natalie promotes externally. It’s core to what she does within her own business too.
From personal experience, and listening to the stories of women around her, she says there can be stigma attached to mothers working in the industry.
This has led to a wealth of untapped potential – women who have the knowledge, but struggle to find the work.
“I remember chatting with a mother who was an electrical engineer. I asked what she was doing and she said she was packing shelves at Target at night. I asked if there was anything she could do with her skill-set but she couldn’t find anything part-time,” Natalie says.
“Starting my business, I couldn’t employ everyone full-time, so I started asking other women I knew what they were up to – a lot of them had kids and didn’t want to go back full-time. They were women I respected who worked well before kids, so why couldn’t they work well after?
“They are the most committed, loyal, hard-working staff because they only have limited time and have this incredible education and experience that goes to waste if people don’t give them work.”
The idea of transforming an industry, while also empowering women and commercialising technology is no mean feat. The journey certainly hasn’t been easy for Natalie, who admits there have been highs and lows to learning how to run and manage a business.
But no matter how big the setback, she continues to be fuelled by her passion for both science and business – and her recognition that the two rely on each other to make an impact, for everyday people, businesses and communities.