Student dragons

Students are increasingly thinking about entrepreneurship as a career option, says Robert Phillips of the University of Manchester’s Alliance Manchester Business School. But what support can they find in their universities?

Entrepreneurship has a rising profile, with popular TV shows Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice showing the best (and worst!) side of entrepreneurs, with many other entrepreneurs and their companies also household names – and starting a business now accepted as a genuine career option.

Universities and students both gain from entrepreneurship – universities benefit from well-known alumni entrepreneurs raising the universities’ profile, attracting new students and as a source of donations, whilst for students, the university is a safe, low-risk place to test ideas whilst still having a qualification to fall back on. Successful alumni entrepreneurs say practical measures rather than academic are most useful, and these tends to fall into three general areas. So what’s available?

Students are gaining skills for themselves with ‘side hustles’ such as eBay trading, website development, running nightclub events and language tuition

Inspiration and skill-building

This builds the pool of students who might seriously think of starting a business for themselves. Headline-grabbing famous entrepreneurs attract big numbers of attendees, and recent alumni speakers are highly relatable for students – showing that this could be them in few years’ time!

Many subjects offer entrepreneurship in the curriculum at the recommendation of chartered bodies that oversee degree accreditation, who understandably want enterprising graduates to enter their professions. Assessment often includes business plans, pitches or posters rather than exams, which can involve the students’ own ideas or live company projects and a fair amount of dealing with uncertainty.
Extracurricular activities, such as hackathons, are also encouraging enterprising behaviour, and students are also gaining skills for themselves with ‘side hustles’ such as eBay trading, website development, running nightclub events and language tuition – and learning from both success and failure.

Financial support

You can start by entering business-plan competitions – these provide funding, free space (from hot desk to lab space), publicity, mentors and access to IP lawyers. At the University of Manchester, the Venture Further competition has categories including business, social, creative, environment and technology with a £12k prize for each – so you can enter whatever your idea. The Success programme, run by the Aspect Network, encourages social sciences commercialisation with a bootcamp and a pitching competition for £50k, whilst UnLtd provide small seed funds, and Enactus is a worldwide competition aimed at supporting student social enterprises.

Campus Capital (run by students) provides funding for student ideas – and gives students experience of investing – and many universities have small proof of principle seed funds for early stage ideas.


Four great student entrepreneurship start ups

1. Biorelate was founded by PhD student Daniel Jamieson, using AI to curate relevant data from scientific publications, patents and clinical trials. Biorelate won £10k from the University of Manchester Venture Further competition in 2014 and now employs more than 20 people, having raised £700k in
venture capital.

2. ClickMechanic, founded by Andrew Jervis, allows you to book a car mechanic right to your door (an “Uber for car repairs”). It began in the University of Manchester’s MEnt degree programme, has raised over £1m in funding and now advertises on national TV.

3. Give Me Tap, founded by maths PhD Edwin Broni-Mensah, is a social enterprise which sells stylish reusable water bottles to fund water projects in Africa as well as reduce plastic waste. It has now provided clean water for more than 50,000 people. Edwin was a member of Manchester Entrepreneurs at the University of Manchester and won funding from UnLtd and Shell Livewire.

4. Lunch founder Amy Win was an award winner of the Venture Further 2013 Business Competition at the University of Manchester and, since then, has won numerous awards, including two O2 Think Big awards, and two awards from UnLtd. Amy also won Virgin Media’s North West Pioneers Pitch, and the Shell Livewire Grand Idea award for her cookery training social enterprise.


Material support and network building

There’s a wealth of library-based resources such as magazines, journals and databases, and opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals are abundant, with student societies such as NACUE organising events for peer support – including an annual conference – and most universities have an active entrepreneurship society. Mentoring schemes can connect students with alumni, and alumni have, in some cases, even acted as ‘business angels’ by investing in student ideas.

Accelerator programmes are also becoming more popular – often run at weekends and evenings to allow students to fit them around their studies, they are short and intensive and give you a greater chance of attracting funding and a better long-term survival rate. AccelerateME in Manchester is run by students and provides workshops, mentoring, networking and a Demo Day to showcase your idea to a wider audience, while the NatWest Pre-accelerator lasts eight weeks and can help you solidify your offering before scaling up. Techstars Startup Weekends are popular events held worldwide. If you have some products ready, there are great opportunities to try your hand at selling at student markets, demo days and pop-up shops.

With so much support available, a pipeline of interested students in a supportive ecosystem hopefully allows enterprising businesses to enter the commercial world with a well-tested, robust business run by a skilled graduate founder.


Dr Robert A Phillips is senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester.

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