Commercialising your software

Posted by s.hettrick on 2 June 2011 - 5:24pm

NewYork.jpgAleksandra Pawlik, a PhD student from the Open University, has been looking into commercialisation of scientific software. Getting people to pay for your software is one of the many routes to software sustainability, so we asked Aleksandra to give us an overview.

If you’re happy to share your cutting-edge software with other researchers, why not make some money by commercialising it? If academics are dying to get a copy of your code, then your software must be a desirable product. Industry is an equally important customer for software, and if nothing else it’s fun to charge industry the kind of prices they charge you for their products!

Obviously, commercialising your software means overcoming a lot of legal and formal hurdles, like sorting out intellectual property rights, preparing a licence and choosing the type of company you want to establish. It’s always best to seek professional advice. Fortunately, many research organisations will have a Technology Transfer Office who can help.

Now your precious: the software. Academic software has a tendency to lack some of the features that are expected in a commercial product, such as a user-friendly, clickable interface and a comprehensive user manual. Whilst the former may not be required in 100% of the cases (just 99.9%), the latter is essential. You might want to hire a technical writer to help you to prepare documentation, and other experts to turn your software into the kind of shiny commercial package that industry will expect.

It’s time to remember the old adage that the customer is always right. You will start to receive requests from users. Remember that even if some requests appear tedious, they will be essential to your users. Questions from users are extremely valuable, because they highlight information that you might have forgotten to include in the manual or that you incorrectly deemed too trivial to be documented. You will have to be able to handle feedback and prioritise customers’ requests. You will also need to find the best way to reach your potential clients. In the cases of highly specialised scientific software, effective methods are presenting at the industrial conferences and relying on word of mouth.

Maintenance of commercial scientific software might involve a handover to new researchers or developers. This is where detailed technical documentation comes into its own, because it greatly simplifies any handover. After all, you do not want your shiny new commercial offering to disappear just because it is a spaghetti FORTRAN 77 code that nobody understands.

Commercialising scientific software kills two birds with one stone: it not only generates extra income, but it can also be a route to software preservation.

For more information about some of the issues raised in this blog post, see our guides: