Bright ideas

Can you teach what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?

Neither Richard Branson nor Alan Sugar went to university. What is the point of studying to be an entrepreneur?

There's a straight-line positive relationship between one's level of education and one's propensity to start a business. People like Alan Sugar and Richard Branson are the exceptions. They are very visible people and for good reason - they are great advertisements for their products. But they're far outnumbered by graduates who are running very successful business-to-business companies and who don't need to be one-person advertising machines.

Are there enough young entrepreneurs in the UK and are we doing enough to encourage them?

If you compare the UK to other countries in Europe, the number of young entrepreneurs here is very close to the average. But there are fewer than in America and some European countries like Norway or Iceland. The rate could certainly be higher and one way of increasing it would be to provide more entrepreneurship training. In a recent worldwide survey, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report, we discovered that if people have had some sort of entrepreneurship training, they're twice as likely to start a new business.

How has the recession affected start-ups?

In times of recession, new types of businesses with new business models are created because the old rules don't seem to work any more. People are more focused on essentials. It may be more difficult to raise external capital so you have to rely on whatever savings you have. If you don't have any savings then you have to rely on what customers are willing to pay. This makes you even more focused on discovering which problems are so serious that customers are willing to pay upfront. That's how you fund your business.

What do your post-graduate courses cover?

The MSc I teach is focused on technology entrepreneurship. We have four core courses. The first is a technology venture management course. This introduces the students to the issues they would face if they were starting a technology business. They meet a range of entrepreneurs and resource providers in class. Then there's an opportunity identification class. That's very much about understanding potential markets, spotting where customers are hurting and linking that to the potential of future technology. Then we have an accessing resources class: is your venture going to be self-funding or are you going to have to raise money from outside? If so, from whom, and how? Finally we also have placements. Students might want to check out a new technology scheme or they might feel weak in a particular business area, in which case they can take a business course from one of our other masters degrees. There's also a new MSc in environmental entrepreneurship, the first of its kind in Europe. This is for graduates who really want to explore the commercial potential of green technologies.

We also offer training for the Royal Society of Edinburgh enterprise fellowship scheme. That's for post-doctoral students (people with a PhD) who are working on some technology that they think might have commercial potential. The enterprise fellowship gives them a year out, with funding, to gain some training in business and to try to create a company. This helps to commercialise the leading edge technologies which are developed in British universities.

What sort of things do your students go on to do?

All sorts of things. I'll give you an example of a technology company. It was started by a physics PhD student. He was doing research into quantum lasers and came into my class in 2000. He quickly realised there was a commercial potential for this technology and secured the intellectual property rights. He started a company called Cascade Technologies. The products they sell can be used to monitor CO2 emission levels in real time and to scan people and buildings for drugs or explosives. It has already raised £4 million in funding.

Are these courses only for people who want to start up their own businesses?

The courses are geared to people who are expected to start their own businesses. However, not all of them do. Some of them discover as they go through that, though they want to start a venture, they don't want to be the CEO. Instead they might prefer to be the Chief Technology Officer, for example. Some students may not realise what CEOs actually spend most of their time doing, which is selling: selling the vision, selling the future - not just to customers, but to potential management team members, to suppliers and to investors. Often CEOs don't have much time to spend improving the product. One of the big things that people discover on these courses is what the best role is for them.

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