London Tech Week: Should universities be doing more to support student startups?

How can universities support entrepreneurial students and their startups?

As Michael Coward, Programme Director at Entrepreneur First, said “You can’t be a billionaire if you go work for Facebook or Google.” They can however, become billionaires if they create a successful startup. As part of London Tech Week, The New Degree: Startups at University saw university and business representatives come together and discuss how universities educate and support entrepreneurially-minded students.

There was much talk about culture and what universities can and should do, and there was the clear consensus that different universities have different levels of support in their culture – for example Stanford allows students to drop out of their course, try out as an entrepreneur and if it all goes wrong they can come back and pick up where they left off, while many of the universities at the event run startup accelerators or incubators for their students.

Funding is brought up as a common issue for university startups; most are little more than ideas and so finding funds for these pre-revenue companies can be a challenge. All the university representatives said their organizations have grant options available, and all of them provides a network of Angel Investors for the students to pitch to.

Amit Pau, Director at Ariadne Capital, was emphatic that university were about to come under serious disruption and so need to change, saying that institutions  should “provide an environment where students can succeed fast and create a culture of risk taking” or risk softening students.

His comments drew a rebuttal from two other panellists, with Dominic Falcao of Imperial Innovation, Imperial University’s’ technology commercialisation company saying: “You’re not softening if you make it easier to start a company.” Roy Azoulay of Isis Innovation, Oxford University’s research and technology commercialisation unit, agreed, adding: “What you’re actually doing is reducing the cost of failure, which is very different.”

Christopher Haley, Head of Startups and New Technology Research at Nesta found a middle ground, agreeing that universities “have to change their culture to be a bit less afraid of taking risk,” but admitted that “by their nature, universities are a brilliant place to start.”

When asked if the successful alumni of universities – the Facebooks, Googles etc. of the world -  are doing enough to help the universities where they started, the panel all agree that in the US they do, but the UK and Europe are lagging when it comes to looking after and keeping in contact once students leave the campus for good.