Knowledge Hub

The Rise of the Graduate Impact Entrepreneur

We explore the evolution of university entrepreneurship and the increasing focus on building startups with impact.
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A welcome to new readers from universities and entrepreneurial hubs across the UK where its been a whirlwind 2 months; I attended an annual conference for university entrepreneurship educators #IEEC2019 at Oxford Brookes University, #LondonDemoDay a pitch event for student and graduate entrepreneurs across London, a visit to Imperial Enterprise Lab, Misty the Campervan on campus (pictured above) at the London School of Economics where incoming students learnt about more entrepreneurship.. and finally I am finishing up this post from New York. From the beautiful Rose Reading Room in New York Public Library.

For new readers, in the last edition of the Post, I shifted the focus for the remainder of the year to how we can better understand how major global challenges are being solved through innovation from start-ups and businesses across cities and in particular how universities will play a greater role. In this edition, I’m focusing on universities.

The Evolution of University Entrepreneurship

Over the last 7 years, the landscape of university entrepreneurship has transformed itself from the odd few elective entrepreneurial courses to dedicated accelerators and venture funds spinning out start-ups that have gone onto redefine entire sectors.

Below is brief mapping of what I found last year interviewing over 20+ universities from across Europe. European university entrepreneurial ecosystems have come a long way since 2012 with students increasingly seeing this as a viable path post graduation.


But a more subtle part of the evolution has been the changing nature of entrepreneurship, particularly over the last 3 years. Since returning to the UK this year, I’ve met over 50 university startups a majority of which are building ventures that incorporate impact into their business models in various forms.

Media foliage around the topic of impact has been especially ripe over the past year — Marc Benioff stated the obvious recently in a New York Times article with a call for a “new” type of capitalism to value purpose alongside profit.

How are university startups making an impact?

In London at least, I got a good insight into the current and future pipeline of student innovation. I attended a London Demo Day last month organised by three London universities UCL, Imperial and Kings in a theatre packed with attendees.

A stand-out was JellyDrops from Imperial Enterprise Lab. Its founder, Lewis Hornby noticed that dementia patients experienced frequent dehydration because they couldn’t understand how to interact with drinks. Watch this video to see the impact of his discovery…


Another business that presented, Panakeia.ai, are using deep learning, to enhance the precision of cancer diagnostics. Led by Dr Pahini Pandya, Panakeia has won four awards and has raised £2.1m in investment.

The power of both building a company atop of deep research expertise and of inter-university collaboration was clear throughout the demo day. In tandem, there are increasing pools of capital dedicated to student and graduate ventures. The US has a more developed strategy in this arena with two notable funds First Round and Rough Draft Ventures that have invested in over 200 student founded companies. But Europe is catching up.

A record amount — nearly £1.5B — was invested into spinouts from academic institutions in 2018 in the UK and US. For the UK, this figure was £250M higher than in 2017 and the growth bucks the trend seen across the UK’s business population as a whole.

Source: https://globaluniversityventuring.com/2013-17-data-review/


I’ve long argued that the next generation of the most valuable businesses will originate from universities and the increasing investment into university spinout only reinforces my view. And when I say valuable, the opportunity for university startups goes far beyond monetary value…

So it’s no longer all about the Benjamins ££$$?

You may have recently read that 200 CEOs signed a letter changing the fundamental role of a corporation beyond profit maximisation. The narrative reverses a policy in place since 1997 that a company’s primary purpose is to maximise shareholder value. Ironically, Puff Daddy’s “Its all about the Benjamins” was released in 1997, perhaps a sign of the times.

CEOs now say they are committed to delivering value to customers, investing in employees, dealing fairly with suppliers and supporting local communities, as well as generating shareholder value. In other words — responsible capitalism. We’ve yet to see how this will be executed for companies that have smoked the old capitalism for more than 50 years.

For new capitalism to fully take hold, it needs to start at schools and universities. Entrepreneurial programmes at universities in particular have an opportunity to influence the way students build companies at the grassroots. What does wider stakeholder impact mean at a tactical level of business building? How do we measure it ? And more importantly, how do we cultivate this new entrepreneurial mindset to create a pipeline of business leaders that can execute it?

Misty the Campervan was a good start — entrepreneurs pictured at the Van have impact firmly embedded into their startups. I’ll know we’ve reached a true inflection point on capitalism when Puff Daddy’s releases a new song version — “Its all about the stakeholder impact” let me know if you can think of a better song title…

If you enjoyed the Post, please do share with friends and colleagues and if someone forwarded this to you, you can also subscribe below. Until next time, a very Happy Diwali and new year to those of you celebrating!