11. September 2012–
Oxford and Cambridge are two of the most well-known and respected universities in the UK, if not the world. These institutions have produced countless political leaders and heads of commerce – but are they doing enough to support the new generation of budding entrepreneurs?
In the first of our special reports, Christopher Pruijsen, 19-year-old Oxford undergrad and the youngest-ever President of Oxford Entrepreneurs (the world's largest student-run entrepreneurship society, with over 8,000 members) examines whether the city of dreaming spires can also supporting the dreams of future startups...
In Oxford University support for entrepreneurship is twofold: on the one hand the business school is trying to support budding entrepreneurs, and on the other hand the university does not allow junior members to run commercial ventures during their studies, just as it is not formally allowed to have a (part-time) job during your studies.
Serious business has to wait until graduation or dropout
What it comes down to is that undergraduates are limited to merely pursuing a business as a hobby or waiting to scale until they have either graduated or dropped out, as it is quite unavoidable that your academic results will drop below a 2:1 if you spend all your time on a startup. In addition to this, missing lectures, classes and tutorials when business meetings, conferences and the like take up your time, is not taken lightly and rescheduling for business purposes is not accepted.
However, for graduate, postgraduate and MBA students this is different, as more flexibility is given and the above rule doesn't apply.
In Oxfordshire there are a number of great organisations supporting entrepreneurs, Oxford Entrepreneurs (the student society), OxCEI and ISIS (university institutions), Oxfordshire Business First, the institute of directors, a number of angel networks and VCs and a network of science parks including the European Space Agency all add to the ecosystem.
"If you have an internet startup, you'll move to London"
However, the ecosystem is focused mainly on (bio)medical and chemical innovations and hard sciences – this might be due to the university-enforced ecosystem limitations around undergraduate entrepreneurship and the fact that barriers to entry are lower in the internet industry than in the hard sciences. So most successful Oxford-based ventures are founded by graduate students, and undergrads tend to move to London upon graduation to start their internet-based ventures.
In my opinion, there are many things that could be done to improve the local ecosystem in Oxford, but the main necessary changes are:
• Be more flexible with undergraduate entrepreneurs and adopt the US (Harvard) model of allowing people to take academic leave for up to five years, with automatic right of return. This would enable people to try out a venture, succeed or fail, without having the same degree of risk.
• Teach more practical skills within degrees (a long shot) – So that even undergraduate degrees could teach skills that can be applied to their startups. (Currently degrees are highly theoretical in Oxford, for example, to the extent that less than 30% of CS students can actually write code for practical application).
The Top 5 Oxford Startups
MedoPad – Has developed an information management suite for use in hospitals, which will save doctors several minutes' time everyday. They were on the Le Web startup comeptition in London, and earlier a finalist in the Tata Idea Idol business plan competition in Oxford.
FoetoH – Won the TATA idea idol competition in Oxford. Currently bootstrapped, they were also admitted to the Skoll Centre Emerge Venture Lab, as their foetal health monitor has a clear social application, saving babies' lives at an early stage.
Oxford NanoSystems – Developed a technology for traditional boiler-heating systems. By using nano coating to make the inner lining of the systems smoother, they make heat transmission more efficient, saving the user money on energy consumption and making the system more environmentally friendly.
Prizeo has developed an innovative approach to fundraising, by which people have a chance to win money but can't buy prizes whilst supporting worthwhile causes. They are set to have an explosive launch later this year, registrations for the private beta are already open. Formerly called Let's Go Public, they received significant investment and rebranded recently. I am especially excited about this startup as the founding team is awesome – both business founders and programmers.
TradeChase – Is one of the current Oxford Entrepreneurs Incubation Centre startups, and was recently featured in Wired. They have developed a stock-market trading game and have had a successful private beta in the Oxford community. The founding team includes a former Olympic rower and a serial entrepreneur.
Also, although I have to mention I have an interest in the following companies myself, I also have to express my excitement
Let's VC has the UK launch planned for October, and will bring 'smart money investment' to existing equity-based crowdfunding practices. I am a cofounder of this venture. Letslunch.com will launch in the UK on 22 September, although the global company was not founded in the UK, I am the founding country manager for the UK.
ArtPi will bring equity-based crowdfunding practices to the world of art collecting. The first project is 100dollarpicasso.com and will feature a real Picasso, which has been appraised at €4.5m. Shares will be sold at $100 each, and the painting itself will be housed in a museum. "Art collecting for the 99%" I am a cofounder of this initiative, together with Louis Anslow, who is a UK-based serial entrepreneur - specialising in educational apps, iOS development and design.