In part two of our look at whether the old guard of UK universities are doing enough for the new generation of entrepreneurs, we turn our attentions to Cambridge.
Sebastian Salek is President of the Clare College Student Investment Fund and News Editor of The Tab, Cambridge University’s most read student publication. He discusses whether Cambridge has what it takes to make the grade…
It’s a funny old time for student entrepreneurs in the UK. We’re technically still in recession, the banks aren’t lending and unless you’re Richard Branson or Alan Sugar, being an entrepreneur isn’t going to win you much kudos from the general public.
It’s no secret that the UK economy has seen better days, but fortunately the current government have all sorts of exciting plans to kickstart it by supporting the growth of startups and small businesses. Among its plans are: EntrepreneurFirst, a coaching programme for wannabe entrepreneurs; the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, which offers tax breaks for investors; and TechCity, the government’s initiative to build London a Silicon Valley of its own.
Although it’s too early to see the potential of these, it’s reassuring to see that the government is supporting the startup movement.
Localised support should come from colleges
But the government can’t do this alone. Help is needed at a localised level, and at Cambridge University I’m pleased to say that this sort of support is available for those who want it. Student societies such as Cambridge Entrepreneurs offer training, mentoring and funding to get student startups off the ground, and initiatives such as Downing Enterprise, open to teams with a member studying at Downing College, provides seed funding to successful applicants. What the UK needs is more of this across the board to foster the attitude that pursuing a good idea is a both feasible and a worthwhile thing to do.
However, despite lots of progress in the right direction, startup fever is yet to catch on among students in the mainstream (disregarding the small number of startup geeks who will do their thing whatever happens), and this attitude isn’t completely unreasonable.
“Grads are looking for a good return on their investment”
For many, starting a business out of university simply isn’t viable. Those student loans aren’t going to pay themselves off, and the sort of bright sparks that could be taking the tech world by storm are often more attracted to the dizzyingly high salaries and flashing lights of the City. And it doesn’t look like this will be changing any time soon: with the tuition fee hike coming into effect this September, grads will be ever keener for a good return on their investment.
But even for those without financial woes, going solo out of uni isn’t seen as an option. Despite the popularity of television programmes such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice, it isn’t emphasised enough to students that this exciting and liberating way to earn a living is within their reach.
Silicon Valley? Well, we have Silicon Fen…
Perhaps it’s a lack of a snazzy tech hubs on our doorstep. Sure, Cambridge has Silicon Fen, home to chip giants ARM and the VC that funded LastMinute.com, but the focus on arguably less accessible sectors such as hardware and cleantech mean that the average undergrad doesn’t even know Silicon Fen exists, let alone views it as a potential place to build their career.
The USA, it seems, is a different story. The omnipresence of the glamorous Silicon Valley and the global super-brands it houses, many of them famously started in their founders’ dorm rooms, make running a startup all the more accessible to our American counterparts. Whilst sharing a room with a recent Berkeley graduate this summer, I learned that sharing startup ideas is a standard conversation topic among friends over there, an approach that just doesn’t exist outside of niche circles in UK universities.
With that in mind, the UK is on the right track to emulating the USA’s success. We need student societies to generate the spark, schemes like EntrepreneurFirst to light the flame, and a hub like TechCity to keep it burning. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but give us time and we’ll get there…
The top 5 Cambridge startups
The Tab – An online student tabloid; started in Cambridge in 2009, it was recently awarded seed funding and will be rolling out to several other universities at the start of this coming academic year. In its early days, The Tab was awarded some funding from Downing Enterprise.
Yearbook Machine – Yearbooks made easy; hardly a new concept, but innovative features such as Facebook integration for importing photos and other media, set this service apart from its competitors.
The Kernel – Online tech magazine spearheaded by the “pitbull” of tech media, Milo Yiannopoulos.
Guestvibe – My own contribution isGuestvibe, the online guestlist network for student club nights. Replacing the current model of buying wristbands that offer discount entry to clubs, students can now get even lower prices as well as other perks by joining the guestlist online instead. The biggest Cambridge student nights are featured and the service will be expanding to Oxford at the start of this academic year.
Buy My Face Something a little bit different: instead of getting “real” jobs, two 2011 grads decided to become human billboards. Painting their face with a different sponsor every day, their year-long project has taken them bungee jumping and skiing courtesy of advertisers such as Ernst & Young and camera retailer Jessops.