Student entrepreneurs are on the rise

For student entrepreneurs, opportunities abound in London. King’s College London’s King’s20 accelerator promises to support 20 students with approximately £60,000 to launch and scale up their startups, with mentoring, grant funding and more. The Hatchery is UCL’s business incubator for startups looking to ‘sharpen their entrepreneurial skills’ by building valuable industry contacts and accessing individual support.

Entering these innovative spaces is a lengthy process, and applicants must prove their idea provides a solution to a problem, or plugs a gap in the market. But for students, growing their ideas into sustainable businesses in the familiar campus environment is made more appealing by the fact that these incubators have no private ambitions and take no shares or ownership.

Alex Kay is the founder of bio-bean, which recycles waste coffee grounds on an industrial scale. He sings the praises of the Hatchery. “Our initial Bright Ideas award of £25,000 was the first real boost in funding which allowed me to commit to the business full-time and helped make bio-bean a reality”, he said. Kay considered how to dispose of waste coffee grounds, and developed a process to turn them into clean fuels. In 2017, bio-bean announced a collaboration with Shell to power London buses with biofuel made partly from coffee grounds.

In a saturated job market where ‘transferable skills’ and ‘commercial awareness’ are all the rage, incubators are one of the ways universities are helping students to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical projects. Bolstered by the success of giants such as Instagram, GroupOn and GitHub, all former startups, students are increasingly willing to forgo traditional career pathways in favour of running their own business. In 2017, the number of company directors under the age of 30 increased to 311,550 from 295,890 in 2015.

Fleurette Mulcahy and Alice Holden of Atollo Lingerie, a specialist plus-size lingerie brand, attributed youth and lack of financial commitments to their decision to start their own company: “At the age we were, we had no liabilities like a mortgage, family or children dependent on us or our income. Therefore we knew financially this was the best time to get cracking with revolutionising the D+ lingerie market!” Following funding from KCL Entrepreneurship competitions and angel investors, the pair initially struggled in the male-dominated market, but were soon back on track. Now they hope to expand into sportswear and mastectomy-centred
pieces. Their ultimate goal? “Global boob domination”.

A university’s global reputation can maximise the social and economic impact of these startups. Imperial College London, the UK’s most innovative university according to Reuters, advocates for a “rich and rapidly expanding entrepreneurial ecosystem” and ventures stemming from within support more than 1,300 jobs, with £900m of investment since 2012. King’s College London’s Strategic Vision 2029 echoes a similar sentiment in advocating for innovation on an international scale.

TRICKNTREAT, founded by Hansa Shree and Kaavya Sridhar, provides lab-like accuracy and speed at diagnosing infectious diseases in rural India. Working with Imperial’s Enterprise Lab helped the pair with funding opportunities and bespoke training, and Shree credits the Enterprise Lab with connecting the fledgling business to potential interns, venture capitalists and advisers. Next, they plan to build a device that can detect and differentiate between any two diseases.

For international students looking start entrepreneurial ventures in the UK, visa fears and bureaucracy are another obstacle. The Hatchery can sponsor individuals under Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) Visas, which enable international students to extend their stay and set up a business, if they have a “credible idea”. Malav Sanghavi, founder of LifeCradle, was a recipient. He developed LifeCradle as a low-cost neonatal incubator, which could widen access to good neonatal care in India. He made the Forbes 30 under 30 List, was a project winner at the 2016 Vatican Youth Symposium and plans to expand his line of incubators across India and into Africa by 2022.

While startups are commonly associated with the tech or retail industries, opportunities abound elsewhere. Martina Eco, founder of 3p Translation, said: “Since working as a freelance translator and interpreter I’ve never thought of myself as an entrepreneur or a business owner”. But a staff member at London South Bank University encouraged her to submit her interpretation business to the Make it Happen competition, where she finished as a runner-up. 3p Translation is now a thriving company focused on refining British products and services for the Italian market. When asked for her advice to young entrepreneurs, Eso said: “Try, fail, and try again while never losing sight of the big plan”.

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