UCL nurtures next wave of e-tycoons

January 7, 2000

The Richard Branson of the next century may well be a graduate of University College London.

UCL on Monday launches a new course, Digital Business, that will give students a firm grasp of how to get an e-business idea out of their heads and into the marketplace.

The university has also set up an e-business incubator unit to give student entrepreneurs physical resources for their start-up companies. It has already produced its first success in Damian Dutton, founder of wotnot.net, who was part of a pilot course last year.

The 30-lecture course is the creation of Philip Treleaven, professor of computer science and vice-provost. He said that it seemed a little ridiculous to have well-established student counselling and support services but no structure that responded to changing conditions in the labour market.

Professor Treleaven said: "We need to provide viable career options for our students in the worlds of short-term contracts and looser job structures. The ability to set up your own company is a skill that more and more people will need to have. These skills will be crucial for times when people find themselves out of a salaried job."

Students on the course will not be learning third-hand. Professor Treleaven has pulled together bankers, venture capitalists and internet business leaders to lecture on how to set up a digital enterprise.

Professor Treleaven was part of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and Department of Trade and Industry mission funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation to investigate entrepreneurialism at American universities and is head of a Foresight-funded ecommerce centre at UCL.

Professor Treleaven's first success, Dutton, is a 24-year-old graduate in Spanish from UCL. His company, which is estimated to be worth Pounds 28 million, provides an email-based student union information service. It is still based in the incubation unit at UCL, and Mr Dutton has warm praise for the conditions there.

"We had time to experiment and began a business idea with online shopping while I was doing the electronic commerce course. We soon realised that it wouldn't fly - publicity is crucial to the success of these ventures and we had no money!"

At the time, the cash-strapped student union was about to abandon the printed events guide distributed to all students. Mr Dutton suggested an email version and the idea took off.

The UCL incubation unit supported and advised on the business plan to expand the idea nationally. Within three months wotnot.net was signing up student unions at the rate of three a week.

"We now have all the big student unions on board - 80 of them - and we are continuing to sign more. I think the idea succeeded because I knew the market. The student unions were not as suspicious of me as they would have been of an established commercial firm. I knew how to talk their language and knew their fears.

"We were also sure not to make any ridiculous promises about revenues."

The student unions take a share of the revenues that come from text-based advertisements in the email messages.

Details www.ucl.ac.uk


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