A joint initiative has become a vital source of support for postgraduate students regardless of where they studied or what age they are
Postgraduate students are a valuable source of new entrepreneurs who can bring intellectual property (IP) to the table to create high-growth start-up businesses, and who tend to have a more mature outlook than undergraduates.
Funded by the Scottish Government through the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), Enterprise Campus is a joint initiative between the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Strathclyde.
These institutions act as three hubs to support postgraduate entrepreneurs throughout Scotland no matter where people are from, where they studied, or what age they are. In the two cases studies featured in this issue of Business Insight, EuroBiotix founder James McIlroy, 23, is from Glasgow, studied in Edinburgh, is a current student at the University of Aberdeen and has based his company in Aberdeen, for example. Colin Gray, 36, runs The Podcast Host from Dundee, studied in Edinburgh and Abertay, and is from Dumfries.
“The key message is that if you are doing postgraduate studies, or are a researcher, and have ambitions to start your own company, then you do not have to go it alone,” said Dr Alan Feighery, enterprise advisor for Enterprise Campus North, based at the University of Aberdeen. “You can achieve a lot through collaboration, and Enterprise Campus is a free gateway to do that as you look to take your research or idea from the drawing board to business reality.”
The initiative offers one-to-one business clinics with expert advisers covering topics including, among others, business planning and mentoring; company formation; IP protection and patents; market research and testing; marketing and communications; professional services; prototyping; routes to market; service contracts; support with applications – for example for funding and awards; and visual identity.
Workshops cover all aspects of starting a business. Business bootcamps see fellow entrepreneurs meet to apply their collective brainpower to take forward their business ideas in a practical way.
A key strength of Enterprise Campus is that it the way in which it dovetails with other support organisations. It directs clients towards the annual competition Converge Challenge as a potential source of funding, public relations and marketing, for example.
Converge Challenge, a company creation competition and entrepreneurial development programme, has a prize fund of £150,000 for staff, students, and recent graduates of Scottish universities and research institutes. It is funded by eight Scottish universities and the SFC and Enterprise Campus advisers such as Feighery were busy helping their clients, some of which are recently incorporated companies, with their entries.
“We had 41 applications going in from Enterprise Campus clients across Scotland,” he said. “We also have clients in the running for the Scottish EDGE competition awards, for which judging has been underway.” The Scottish EDGE is a £1 million fund which supports and encourages entrepreneurial activity throughout the country.
In Aberdeen, Enterprise Campus North works with Elevator, a social enterprise dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs, business leaders and employees of today and tomorrow. Elevator delivers the Business Gateway enterprise advisory service for northeast Scotland.
It also provides intensive, business accelerator programmes at its Aberdeen based Centre for Entrepreneurship for business people who can commit significant time over a few months, though this is not always suitable for students who are combining studies with starting a company.
Other organisations which Enterprise Campus clients have been connected to include: EY Foundation; Firstport, Scotland’s development agency for start-up social entrepreneurs and social enterprise; and Social Investment Scotland, which provides loans to other charities, social enterprises and community groups across Scotland. The Scottish Institute for Enterprise (SIE) also works nationally to promote and support enterprise and entrepreneurship in Scotland’s students, though it has traditionally focused on undergraduates, and often refers postgraduate students to Enterprise Campus.
Each Enterprise Campus hub supports postgraduates from universities across a wide area. For example, while Enterprise Campus North Hub is based at the University of Aberdeen, it also covers the local Robert Gordon University (RGU); Abertay University and the University of Dundee, both in Dundee; and the University of the Highlands & Islands, headquartered in Inverness but with colleges and research institutions spread widely over the Highlands and Islands.
Enterprise Campus East, for which the hub is the University of Edinburgh, also covers Edinburgh Napier, Heriot- Watt and Queen Margaret universities in the city as well as the University of St Andrews and the Open University.
Enterprise Campus West, for which the hub is Strathclyde University, includes Glasgow School of Art, the University of Glasgow, and Glasgow Caledonian University; the University of Stirling; and the University of the West of Scotland.
“We are a very flexible service,” Feighery added. “Where there is interest, we can bring additional entrepreneurship support and funding to universities. Where they have fewer resources for entrepreneurship programmes, we can provide more intensive support.”
A model of entrepreneurship support that works at one university may be less appropriate at another, he pointed out. “Strathclyde and Edinburgh have well established student entrepreneurship schemes, whereas Aberdeen has a lot of experience with university spin-out companies, for example.
“So we have had more flexibility to work in the north, particularly with the extensive and variable geography that we cover. What works in Glasgow or Edinburgh may not work in Highlands and Islands, for example.”
While Enterprise Campus and its hubs are virtual rather than physical campuses, the Enterprise Campus North team provides day-to-day management of the ABVenture Zone (abventurezone.com) for the University of Aberdeen.
Opened in May 2015, the facility’s office space, meeting rooms and audiovisual and IT equipment have benefitted start-up businesses and catalysed more student interest in entrepreneurship, Feighery said. ABVenture Zone supports growing businesses, encouraging entrepreneurs to develop new products and services. While particularly suitable for developing ideas in the digital and IT sector, it is open to entrepreneurs targeting other sectors.
Applicants can secure up to six months free occupancy initially, and may then apply for a further six months use of the facility.
“We will support people until they can stand on their own two feet, when we would then encourage them to move on to make space for new occupants,” Feighery said.
“ABVenture Zone has provided a focal point within the university for student entrepreneurs to meet like-minded people. It has facilitated easier access to advisory support from Enterprise Campus, SIE or research and innovation services provided by the university itself.”
The facility is part of the Accelerate Aberdeen programme, which is funded through Aberdeen City Council under the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s Superconnected Cities initiative. Partner organisations receiving funding under the same scheme include Elevator and Robert Gordon University, whose own business incubator, with a strong focus on digital businesses, opened at around the same time as ABVenture Zone, and fulfils the same roles.
The University of Aberdeen’s own, longer-established business incubator tends to be occupied more by staff-led spin-out companies.
“However, we have seen staff from the university and spin-out companies working collaboratively with student startups,” Feighery noted.
Startup companies that have used Enterprise Campus services speak highly of them. Enterprise Campus North provided funding to assist setup and growth of The Podcast Host, for example.
“This was invaluable in getting started up, helping with professional services such as accountancy and legal advice,” said founder Colin Gray. “It has allowed us to work with a really experienced commercial adviser, who has been hugely influential in how we have planned our ongoing strategy.”
Enterprise Campus North has also been a big source of advice and feedback for the firm, particularly in its winning application for an Enterprise Fellowship in 2015, he added.
“The fellowship provides mentorship and funding for the company worth around £50,000. It has been a huge help in setting us up to grow the company this year.
“Without Enterprise Campus’ help, I believe my chances of winning this support would have been much lower. The advice is actually the biggest part of it for me. The support and feedback is invaluable, setting companies up with a much greater chance of success.”
There is certainly demand among postgraduates for entrepreneurship support, Feighery concluded. “We just have to get the message out there that it is available.
“Within the University of Aberdeen, for example, a lot of people and ideas were drawn out when we started marketing ABVenture Zone. It allowed us to tell them about Enterprise Campus and other services. The number of postgraduates in Aberdeen that have come forward with business ideas has exceeded our expectations.
“Enterprise Campus has been a really good programme so far. We have done a lot of work on building relationships with our university partners.
“Whenever clients pitch for Enterprise Campus funding, we always aim to have three or four people on the panel who are drawn from universities and organisations such as Elevator. We try to be as inclusive as we can to spread the benefit of the Enterprise Campus project as far as we can.”
Measurable dividends of social objectives
Aberdeen based EuroBiotix CIC is challenging the status quo by trying to start and scale up a biotechnology firm as a Community Interest Company (CIC).
It aims to expand safe access to faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), in which stool material from a healthy donor is introduced into the bowels to cure Clostridium difficile infection. There is also interest in clinical trials to evaluate FMT’s potential to counter inflammatory bowel disease and obesity.
Founder and CEO James McIlroy learned of FMT while studying for a degree at the University of Edinburgh. “When you read about ‘natural remedies’ in medicine, they tend to be supported by sparse evidence,” he said.
“With FMT, there was a lot of data and even a controlled clinical trial, but little or no infrastructure to support doctors to who wished to perform the procedure. We want to do just that, and to facilitate clinical trials.”
The four-strong company has had “some significant commercial traction” through trial agreements and via partnerships with clinicians, McIlroy said. Eyeing the future, he cited the experience of OpenBiome, a not-for-profit stool bank in America. “I believe they have now supplied more than 10,000 treatments, which is incredible.”
On the legal structure, he said: “Being a CIC declares our strong social objectives, but allows investors to make returns through long-term dividends, or if we are ever acquired.”
He paid tribute to Enterprise Campus North and the University of Aberdeen. “We would not be where we are without their continued support with finance, office space and advice. The medical school has been extremely flexible and accommodating of my situation. EuroBiotix (eurobiotix.org) has also accessed support from the EY Foundation, Firstport, Social Investment Scotland, the Scottish Institute for Enterprise (SIE), The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scottish Enterprise, Converge Challenge and the University of Edinburgh.
“First-time founders can feel rather lost and lonely at first,” McIlroy observed. “Enterprise Campus provides free, impartial one-to-one business advice and support, and its funding pot to help students start up is excellent. I have also made good connections through one of their networking events.”
‘Life-changing’ online learning
The Podcast Host is on a faster growth track since incorporating in 2015 and locating in Dundee, supported by Enterprise Campus North. The start-up has hired a third employee to manage their content output and to ramp up the podcast, video and written material.
Podcasts are like talk radio shows, but delivered online. Listeners subscribe to shows, for free, on their smartphone, and listen any time.
Founder Dr Colin Gray (below) says the mission is to craft “life-changing audio and help others do the same”. Just like its written-word cousin blogging, podcasting aims to attract an army of fanatical fans.
“We help people plan and start a show and find those fans,” Gray explained. “We educate through self-study, online courses, or faceto- face at ‘bootcamp’ events, and through our production, editing and servicing side.”
The company recently launched the UK Business Startup Podcast. Its beginner’s guide to becoming self-employed or establishing a limited company is currently available at ThePodcastHost.com/ startup.
“We launched an extensive audio editing course last month, and there will be a course on conducting great interviews shortly thereafter,” Gray added. “Our first Podcast Bootcamp, in September, will be a one-day course on podcasting, from planning to recording and launch.”
All this activity underlines plans to grow the educational side most rapidly. The services side will continue to work with companies, mostly small businesses, which are committed to content and making it work as well as possible, he added.
“Beyond that, I plan to develop an online application to help businesses process and edit content and repurpose it for distribution across platforms. This is a big barrier to many in creating consistent content. Our production service overcomes it, but many firms cannot or will not afford the price. The app will do most of the heavy lifting, and for a smaller monthly fee.”
The Podcast Host is on course for turnover into six figures by the end of this year, he revealed. “We are growing well. Traffic is up about 10% every month, as are sales. We project that growth will pass £1 million turnover within three years, and £5 million by year five.”