“We have a Business Incubator on campus, would you like to see it?”.
We’ve met with several UK Colleges and Universities that claim they have a Business Incubator or Accelerator on campus and having visited many of them, we’re often left feeling confused, underwhelmed and, well, sad.
Whilst it’s encouraging that many Colleges and Universities recognise the importance enterprise plays in the student experience, the fact is that many of these enterprise activities and offerings fall short of what they could be.
These academic institutions are doing a disservice to themselves and their students as these Business Incubators could be really special and make the student experience truly FAN-TASTIC!
What Is A Business Incubator?…A Room with a View!
There’s a lot of (quite often boring!) debate around, what makes a ‘Business Incubator and how do they differ from Business Accelerators? However, that’s beyond the scope of this blog. The focus will be on why all UK academic institutions should have one on campus.
Let’s put it bluntly, neither a ‘Business Incubator’ nor a ‘Business Accelerator’ is simply a room with a few sticks of furniture and a bit of tech. Just providing aspiring student entrepreneurs with a dedicated space is not enough on its own!
Business Incubators or Accelerators need: a community of likeminded others, a structured programme of events, mentors and seminars, delivered by people who have ACTUALLY RUN A BUSINESS BEFORE!
Whilst it’s fine to have ad-hoc events and meet-ups, this approach will not create any real breakthroughs and is not the best use of resources.
Academia can add a lot of value to this process, as can, for example, bankers and other external “business experts”, however, this is somewhat limited.
You can’t learn how to run a business by reading textbooks; and you can’t learn how to run a business from people who are employed by a large corporation, that are naturally risk averse, and only see things through a financial perspective.
You need a balanced approach that draws on the expertise and experience from all disciplines.
The Space for the Business Incubator
Putting aside the need for a structured programme, the physical space itself is always very important.
Design and location should be key considerations when deciding where a Business Incubator should be housed on campus, to that end difficult-to-find rooms and uninspiring and dull spare rooms don’t cut it.
The space should be well lit, bright and the sort of place you WANT to go to. It should inspire!
One of the Business Accelerators that Acorn Enterprise runs, for example, is housed in Liberty Business Centres and one of the main benefits is that there is a real community of businesses owners in the building. Many of these people are suppliers, referral partners and friends.
A business incubator cannot operate in isolation, it needs others who are also “in the swim” around it – dare I say an “ecosystem” (yuck! One of our least favourite buzzwords).
Therefore, a dusty old spare room in the attic of an academic institution with little to offer but free space is not a Business Incubator or Accelerator. On the other hand, a purpose built or well kitted out room, without a structured programme of events and mentoring is not good either.
Why Should We Have A Business Incubator on Campus?
For Colleges and Universities that don’t have a Business Incubator or Accelerator on campus yet (or a spare room in the dungeon!), here are three reasons on why you should invest in one:
1. Enhance the Student Experience: many institutions realise they must offer “more than a qualification” and having a Business Incubator or Accelerator on campus is one way to achieve this.
Imagine a hub of students from different disciplines meeting each other, exchanging ideas, sharing connections and resources. Even better if this extends to the wider business community!
In our eyes, Colleges and Universities have an important role to play in terms of enterprise, they should be real hubs for their students, graduates, staff and the wider business community. If every institution had a Business Incubator or Accelerator and it was run properly, we could really start to change Scotland’s entrepreneurial culture (which is Acorn Enterprise’s mission!).
I know first-hand how useful the contacts you make here can be, socially and professionally. We know that many co-founders meet at College or University and often come from different disciplines, what a great way to, increase the chance of these positive “spontaneous collisions”!
Students benefit from this, whether they intend on launching their own business or go on to work for someone else to add value after Graduating.
As you know, employers are increasingly looking for softer skills and claim real gaps in certain areas: problem solving, communication skills (other than on smart phones!), leadership, creative thinking and many more – enterprise covers all of these and more.
We have worked with Colleges and Universities over the last 3 years to solve these problems and you can find out more about that here.
2. Student Recruitment: we know that some Colleges and Universities are struggling to recruit students for their course, and with the added pressure and uncertainty of Brexit, this may get worse.
These organisations must up their game and whether they think this way or not, they have customers not students per se. Therefore, one way to differentiate your institution is to have a successful Business Incubator or Accelerator on campus.
This is a strong message that enterprise is a focus point and by coming here you will benefit from all of the positives outlined in the last point.
However, having one is not enough on its own; like the Student satisfaction scores for these organisations, not all Business Incubators are the same – there’s a scale from a spare room in the attic to a truly-world class one that attracts students from all over the world.
How do you want your College or University to be perceived?
3. Government Pressure for Enterprise: we also know that Colleges and Universities are face increasing pressure from the State to really embed enterprise across all courses.
And whilst there is some existing enterprise provision, there are some real gaps here (which we covered previously in this blog): it’s patchy, disparate and disjointed.
Additionally, no one “owns it” and it is largely led by state-sponsored organisations, run by individuals who have probably never run a business before!
Are they really the best people to teach the next generation of aspiring business owners?
Reasons for NOT Having a Business Incubator or Accelerator on Campus
Generally, there are three broad reasons why an College or University doesn’t have a Business Incubator on campus: you don’t have space, you’d dont have money for one or you don’t feel you need one (it’s not a priority right now).
Hopefully this blog has convinced you of the wide-reaching and very tangible benefits to your students, graduates, staff and the wider community in which you serve, having a Business Incubator or Accelerator on campus would bring.
So, our entrepreneurial (and slightly cheeky!) response to your challenges would be: make space, find money and put it at the top of your agenda!
If you do, you’ll benefit tremendously, however, if you don’t you won’t. And worse, other Colleges and Universities will and you’ll be left behind.
A Business Incubator on campus is not a silver bullet but is certainly one worth having in your chamber!….(I don’t know where the gun reference came from, probably need to go to sleep now!).
If you would like to explore how Acorn Enterprise can help you to design, structure and run a Business Incubator or Accelerator at your academic institution, please get in touch with Team Acorn here as we’d be delighted to help.
We run Business Accelerators for a living and are experts at it. We have successfully run six 20 week Business Accelerator Programmes at our HQ, in Liberty Business Centres, Fife.
And well over 70% of the pre-trading and early-stage businesses we have worked with on our Programmes over the 3 years have decided to launch and develop their businesses – these Saplings (graduates) are continuing to grow and thrive!
You can also find out more about our work with Colleges and Universities here.