The secrets of supporting successful student start-ups

Guidance to how universities can support student entrepreneurship and successful business creation, shared by John Lonsdale

John Lonsdale's avatar
17 Nov 2022
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Students working on a project together

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Edinburgh

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Student enterprise at the University of Edinburgh is booming. We launched 105 student start-ups this year, and 102 last year. This year, they attracted £30.5 million of investment, tripling from £11 million the previous year.

Our students are contributing to solving some of the world’s biggest challenges: improved tech performance, cheaper and more sustainable renewable energy and better diagnostic healthcare are in the sights of just three of this year’s projects. Over the past five years, we have made big changes to how we support entrepreneurship at Edinburgh, and here’s how you can do the same.

1. Switch from advisory to programmes

We used to have a one-to-one advisory model, but we realised that we were supporting only a small number of potential entrepreneurs. Although one-to-one is still an important part of what we do, we also scaled things up by moving to programme delivery. The pandemic accelerated our transition to online resources and on-demand programmes that students can access and follow in their own time, especially in the very early stages of their journey. If you offer just a couple of events a year, it’s easy for people to miss them.

2. Target all stages of the entrepreneurial journey

We developed a suite of programmes, a pipeline of support that can take people through from idea to impact – from basics, to builder, to support, financial and otherwise, as the company grows. For instance, our Data Driven Entrepreneurship programme provides funding, education, incubation space, venture building and acceleration support. We run competitions such as the Summer Accelerator and Power Her Up – even just applying for those is useful for identifying and refining an idea. The university’s in-house investment team has its own venture capital fund, Old College Capital, to provide seed funding, and it manages the university’s portfolio as it grows, leveraging investment and sometimes reinvesting at a later stage. It’s important to develop your own funding mechanisms that allow a company to grow, especially through the early stages when attracting investment is more challenging.

3. Build a community

Entrepreneurship can be lonely, so we have an online community that students can access at all times. Now that we’re back in person, we have a physical enterprise hub, too, and lots of networking events – don’t underestimate the attraction of free pizza. We carried out some research that showed that the most engaged entrepreneurs knew more than five other entrepreneurs, so with our communications and marketing team we’ve worked very hard to share success stories and provide opportunities for students to connect with others. Recruit students on to your team – our student ambassadors give shout-outs in lectures and help us connect. Most students don’t come to university to start a company, but actually it’s a brilliant time to do it. Students have time, even if they think they don’t, and what better place to meet your co-founders than at university?

4. Collaborate

Any one team within a university cannot do everything, and should not try to. Find the different pockets of entrepreneurship at your university and get involved. For example, there are several student innovation groups building interesting technical products in our School of Engineering. The HYPED group is dedicated to developing Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept and inspiring future generations about engineering. We developed a bespoke support package for them to help them understand what makes a good business idea, how to develop a high-growth business, how to protect intellectual property (IP) and what investors look for. From that support, the students formed several companies, including Continuum Industries and Lenz Labs.

5. Be prepared to let go of your IP

Our students own 100 per cent of their IP, which isn’t the case at all universities. The PhD stage is a bit trickier – it’s not black and white, and different scenarios where IP is shared between an academic, the university and the student can occur. But we’ve found that if you hold too tightly to the IP, you can stifle ideas – you slow things down too much and put people off. Much better to have the good news stories and positive student experience that result from letting it go. We do encourage people to sign a Founder’s Pledge to remember us, but what we want to see is impact in the world, and the best way to do that is to form a company. Through Old College Capital, we might invest in that company, and that way we have a stake without years of negotiating and sucking the joy out of it. A company is a vehicle to do things, and to pay your own wages while you’re at it – and if you do it right, it should live on beyond those who founded it. If you’re solving a problem for people and if you stay focused on that, then you will ensure a positive impact.

John Lonsdale is head of enterprise for Edinburgh Innovations, the University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation service.

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