Emil Hewage had no idea when he started building an environmentally friendly racer with his varsity eco-racing society that it was the start of his journey as an entrepreneur.
“I train our team to develop a project just as you would in a company, which is great but stressful,” said Hewage, 25, studying at Cambridge for a PhD in computational neuroscience and machine learning.
In 2007, the society’s first project was valued at £50,000, based on backing from the university, materials used and sponsorship. Today, its projects are valued at £900,000. All monies are pumped into the society’s ventures.
“University provides the perfect environment to chase your ideas because you are a master of your own time,” said Hewage, whose society is sponsored by Jaguar Land Rover and other car makers. Last year his team, captained by Aleksi Tukiainen, won an award for being the most enterprising student society. The prize, awarded by the RBS-backed Enterprising Student Society Accreditation (ESSA) scheme, was £10,000.
“Winning gave us a massive confidence boost,” said Hewage. Proof of his entrepreneurial flair has inspired him to try to turn a profit for himself.
He is putting his PhD on hold to start Autonomous Electric Cars in Cambridge. With his fellow students, he will focus on building a company from scratch. “Seeing a society as a business completely altered our way of thinking,” he said.
Higher education continues to breed entrepreneurs with the time and resources to test ideas. Both independently and within societies, university students can balance studying with starting a business. Thanks to the schemes and support available, it needn’t be costly. Universities and other organisations are on hand to dish out mentoring and cash.
“University is a fantastic place to start a business,” said Hushpreet Dhaliwal, chief executive of the National Association of College & University Entrepreneurs. “There’s usually great support on offer from the institution itself, which can be anything from office space to start-up finance.
“Students have access to ready-made markets in the other students on campus, as well as the chance to meet up with like-minded people in an enterprise society.”
Dhaliwal, 26, added: “Since we started five years ago there’s been a huge growth in people interested in enterprise and entrepreneurship, with our network expanding from 12 to more than 200 societies.”
James King is head of the RBS ESSA awards, handing out £61,000 in prize money each year to entrepreneurial student societies. “We show them that their society is a mini-business,” said King.
Societies can apply for accreditation via the ESSA website (theessa.com). More than 450 have registered. Last year, 89,000 students took part and 30,000 more are involved this time. “We’re able to explain how the skills they’re developing at university can help them in business,” said King.
Students not in a society can still get funding direct from a university. When Richard Hurtley founded Rampant Sporting, a clothing retailer, while studying history of politics at Exeter University in 2007, Exeter gave him £1,000 to fund early research.
“I had time between lectures, a network of students and a library of materials that made it simple to manage a business,” said Hurtley. “I had the market on my doorstep.” His Watford-based company now has eight staff.
As well as applying for university grants to help get an idea off the ground, there are charities to call on. For example, Young Enterprise, promoting business in education, runs the Start-Up programme for students under 25.
This year, the scheme has 1,700 students from 27 universities taking part in workshops, networking events and lectures that could inspire them to consider going into business after university.
Students apply for awards, and the most successful are eligible for the Brilliant Young Entrepreneurs prize run by car-maker Hyundai. Entrepreneurs from 17 countries compete for cash prizes.
Last year, students at Liverpool John Moores University won €15,000 (£12,000) for The Teabox Company, an online retailer of loose leaf tea.
The students used the funds to set up a shop near campus and help them supply a range of brews to bars and restaurants internationally. Teabox has seven staff and makes sales of £2,000-£4,000 month.
“The competition has had a huge impact on my career,” said Philip Perera, Teabox’s co-founder. The 24-year-old studied business and public relations before deciding to become an entrepreneur. The company started eight months ago and via the competition won a contract to supply Hyundai’s car dealerships in northwest England with their tea. “I’ve always liked the idea of starting my own business and now I’m 100% sure it’s what I want,” he said.