University of Ulster: Nurturing new enterprises on campus

University introduces ‘new venture creation’ module to its business courses


Campus spin-out companies are usually associated with experienced researchers commercialising their work but a growing number are being established by graduates of the University of Ulster.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of graduates looking to set up their own businesses,” notes Caroline McGoran, head of investment and enterprise at the university. “Our careers office has seen this as well.”

The university has responded to this trend by including a “new venture creation” module in its business courses. “The students go through a Dragon’s Den -style competition as part of this module and we are seeing some great quality proposals coming through,” says McGoran.

“We are also constantly looking for other ways to support students who want to start up their own enterprises and this led us to being one of three institutions to successfully complete the pilot Business LaunchPad (BLP) programme which was initiated and funded by Invest NI.”

Business LaunchPad is a platform where students can get the skills, knowledge, advice and support needed to commercialise their business ideas.

The Ulster BLP was a 12-week pilot programme launched last October to help students explore the option of starting a business, social enterprise or develop a new product of service.

“Fifty students took part in the programme and were supported through various mechanisms, including a two-day creative thinking, and ideation bootcamp to refine and develop ideas,” McGoran adds.

“They also took part in practical workshops in marketing, finances and resources, talks by local entrepreneurs and key industry experts, and were given support and guidance from mentors. We also support them by giving them a credit of up to £1,000 to use to buy services from the university in areas such as product prototyping, website development and marketing support.

“The overall aim was to provide students with a toolkit of skills needed to successfully commercialise their ideas. Selected teams were then put forward for further development on getting investor-ready and invited to pitch to investors. Five teams made the final pitch and four of these business concepts are being further developed with ongoing support and mentoring.”

Beating targets
The programme exceeded its targets with one company trading and three potential start-ups being progressed.

The four start-ups are Amigo Studios, a web app development company set up by three IMD multimedia design students – Aaron Colton, Andrew McKenna and Ali Coleman; Pingster, which offers a new concept app designed to bring like-minded people together, set up by marketing student Patrick Catterall and animation design student Fiona McLaughlin; GearDrop Games, a games development start-up set up by Noel Watters, Ryan Wilson and Niall Kinghan who are currently studying interactive media arts; and One Square, the first collection of fashion accessories by MFA multidisciplinary design student Karishma Kusurkar who is currently collaborating with a Belfast-based boutique on a range of handbags based on her innovative origami based designs.

“The feedback we have been getting from the participants has been really great,” she continues. “But one of the biggest challenges we faced was getting the students up to do presentations and be questioned by businesspeople.

“We really need to get up to speed in that area. In the US they start teaching presentation skills in primary schools so we have a lot of ground to make up.”

Get Invited
One start-up which predated the Ulster BLP pilot is Get Invited – a web service for online ticket sales and event management.

Founded by UU graduates Kyle Gawley, Christopher Murphy, and David Turner, the service enables event organisers to seamlessly sell tickets, promote events and perform post-event analysis.

“When I finished my work placement from college I realised that I didn’t want to work for anyone else,” says CEO Kyle Gawley. “After that I did the masters in multidisciplinary design at UU. I met Christopher and David on the course and we saw the opportunity for an online ticketing system.”

Support from the university was critical to the company’s successful start-up.

“We met with Tim Brundle from the university’s office of innovation and he gave us a lot of great advice and helped us with our first fund-raising round.”

Business for the new enterprise is going well. “It’s great at the moment,” says Gawley. “We provided the ticketing system for the Ulster Festival and Art & Design and we are doing an event in Cardiff and now have a client in Italy. Our main competitors are very much focused on ticket sales whereas we build a social platform around the event. This allows people who are attending events to link up with and follow each other and for people to get alerted to events that they wouldn’t normally hear about.”

He is another who sees a growth in entrepreneurship on campus.

“I am definitely seeing a lot of students going into business for themselves. Sometimes it’s starting up their own companies and sometimes it’s to work as freelances. The support from the university and from Invest NI and other agencies in Belfast is phenomenal. There is also a very strong community of entrepreneurs here who are ready and willing to help others just starting out.”

Among these supports is the Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards.

“This competition is part of Santander bank’s corporate social responsibility effort and aims to encourage the development of innovative business ideas and concepts from undergraduate, postgraduate and research students and alumni across the university,” says McGoran.

“Applications have just closed for the latest competition and the winning applications will be submitted to the 2014 Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards with an opportunity to win prizes up to £5,000 for undergraduates and £20,000 for postgraduates.”

Important contribution
She believes competitions like this and programmes like LaunchPad are very important to the current generation of students.

“Today’s students are very focussed and are increasingly entrepreneurial. The level of interest and enthusiasm for the LaunchPad programme from the students was very encouraging; it was wonderful to see the teams take their new ideas from concept to viable business proposition, and for the individuals to grow in confidence throughout the process.”