Universities are increasingly focused on their entrepreneurial efforts and, in particular, in encouraging and supporting their students and staff to launching their own businesses. Recently, this has been at the forefront of governments’ business strategies and that of Scotland in particular. In early June, the University of Edinburgh’s entrepreneurial support department, LAUNCH.ed hosted its annual ‘Inspire, Launch, Grow’ awards, showcasing the best of its student and staff business talent. In this, the first of a two-part series, I went to meet the six startups who were selected as finalists in this year’s ‘Enterprise Award’ to find out about their businesses, their inspiration and why they’ve embraced entrepreneurship during their time at the university.
Pavel Mihaylov, Founder of fumeFan First up is Pavel, a fifth year Electronics student who’s invention, the fumeFan eliminates the toxic fumes involved in soldering work. “I solder myself and I think that’s where the idea came from,” he tells me. “What I do is combine three products [a lamp, stool and fume extractor] into one — it’s a single unit station that makes their work much easier and safer.” The product has obviously struck a chord with hobbyists; available in three different sizes costing between £20 and £60, Pavel amassed 309 orders through a KickStarter campaign last year, through which he raised £15,000 for his business. Nevertheless, he admits that taking a product to market wasn’t easy. “It was a huge challenge. Of course, I learned from it — it was like a course you never get at University,” Pavel says. But he plans on continuing with his learning and business, all-be-it on a part-time basis alongside his graduate job, and intends on producing a ‘much-improved’, second generation of the product in the near future. I ask whether or not Pavel can envisage himself running a business full-time, to which he responds, “I’m not a fool and, you know, I don’t think that being an entrepreneur will make millions really quickly so…”
Helen Williams, Co-Founder of Polorum Helen Williams is of a similar mindset regarding entrepreneurship post-University. Since interviewing the co-founder of Polorum — a social enterprise focused on improving communication between remote communities in Africa — a month ago, Helen has decided to take a graduate job as a software engineer, however, she’ll be based in Edinburgh where her co-founder, Oonagh Mannix, will continue to run their business. I ask Helen what progress they’ve made since our last interview; “Oonagh and I have both finished our degrees now and will be graduating soon. I’ve just attended the Converge Challenge training which was a one minute pitch, but there was quite a lot of work involved, learning from the training, etc,” she says. As testing of their technology continues on the ground in Africa, the pair plan to travel and meet the team on the ground later in the month but, in the meantime, are focusing their efforts on selling their product to charitable organisations. They hope that their participation in the ‘Enterprise Award’ will lead to “better connections with the larger customers,” noting that “smaller charities can make quicker buying decisions,” but they hope to expand their sales more rapidly.
Chris Nater & Daniel O’Dor, Co-Founders of Enian Ltd. Next up are Chris Nater and Daniel O’Dor, both graduates of the University and two of the three founders at Enian Ltd., a company who have set out to make the lives of energy decision makers — which includes energy companies, investors, regulators, development banks and other key players in the industry — simpler. “So tell me a little bit about how you’re achieving this,” I ask. “We’re automating and streamlining the data collection and visualisation for their energy projects,” Chris tells me. Their system, which is hosted in the cloud, is customised for every client’s needs, using a variety of private, shared and open data sources to calculate the impacts and trade-offs of potential strategic decisions. The company, which has been under development for a year but was registered in February, is still pre-revenue and sales, however, the pair are confident that the industry partnerships they’ve established thus far will convert into sales in the future.
“So why are you participating in the ‘Enterprise Award’?” I ask the pair. “Well, first of all, the exposure is great because we can talk to people who could be potential contributors or experts to bounce the idea back and forth,” Chris says. “We’re still finding the perfect market fit for our solutions and, obviously, developing it according to that as well.” But the company are also looking for funding partners to help them accelerate their growth and their participation in this award, as well as the Converge Challenge, are two opportunities that LAUNCH.ed have highlighted in the past months.
Runner-Up: Andrew Harkins, Co-Founder of Turtle Pack The first of two runners-up in the ‘Enterprise Award’ is Andrew Harkins, a second year Civil Engineering student who, alongside his older brother and younger sister, has developed the Turtle Pack. “Our business is about promoting an easier way for kids to learn to swim,” he tells me. The trio, who also run a local swim school in Livingston, have concluded that existing swim tools fail to incorporate all of the physical needs for a swimming device. Andrew reaches into his bag and pulls out three pieces of yellow polystyrene, joined together with two red straps. “We’ve got a wee prototype,” he says, “but it is nowhere near a finished product.” Their idea takes a turtle shell-shaped piece of foam which is divided into three sections and strapped to the swimmer’s back. “As they improve their abilities within the water, you then remove parts of the shell beginning with the lower part, that way still keeping the shape of the shell but allowing for progression until the child no longer needs the device,” Andrew explains. It’s an idea which has attracted attention from the likes of the Sports Innovation Challenge and the Scottish Institute for Enterprise.
I’m curious as to why Andrew believes his product will have a competitive advantage over big sports brands. “When a child walks through a toy store,” he begins, “the first they see and want is the coolest object out there. Would you go for a simple float or something that looks like a turtle? It’s fun.” He hopes that the ‘fun’ side to his product will also persuade children to continue swimming, rather than getting bored. “Swimming is so much more than a sport, it’s a lifelong skill,” he argues. “And when can we expect to see the device in use?” I ask Andrew. “We’re expecting them for the summer of 2017. The reason that we’re waiting is we want to take some time with it and give the customer the best product we can offer,” he says, citing advice from experienced entrepreneurs that the ‘worst thing you can do is to rush into things.’
Runner-Up: Hannah Dimsdale, Co-Founder of Teadough As any regular readers of The Startup Interviews will know, Teadough is a company close to my heart after my involvement with the company during LAUNCH.ed’s 3 Day Startup weekend last October. Since writing The Teadough Story, the authentic British doughnut company — run by brother and sister team, Arthur and Hannah Dimsdale — successfully sold their make-your-own doughnut kits during the Christmas season and is now looking to the future. “I’m excited about the future of Teadough and feel like this is just the very beginning,” Hannah tells me. A year ago, she was conducting market research in Durham, having discovered that her great-ancestor invented the sweet treat and today, she has much bigger plans. “I think it would be really cool to have a doughnut delivery service where people could order doughnuts and have them delivered to their office, home, or, for students, the library,” she says excitedly. Although the plan may be a while off yet, Hannah intends on testing it during the summer and, with the winnings from the competition, plans to spruce up the existing make-your-own doughnut boxes, focus more on locally-sourced ingredients and invest in further marketing in the meantime.
Winner: Adam Bennett, Founder of PostRoast.co.uk As if one food and drink company in the top three wasn’t enough, Adam Bennett won the top prize in the 2015 ‘Enterprise Award’ for his ‘innovative’ online coffee delivery service which he plans to launch in the coming weeks. Of course, as any coffee enthusiast in the UK will know, Adam’s up against the likes of Pact who are delivering a tonne of coffee a day, however, he’s unphased. “If they’re selling a tonne of coffee a day, and they’re only working for 1% of the market, how big is the market out there?” he says with a smile. He also feels he has competitive advantage; “most coffee companies at the moment, without thinking, go for that artisan brand but my market research tells me that people don’t want to pay those artisan prices for coffee, which is an everyday consumable. In fact, they’re put off by them.” Adam also notes that he will be the first to provide the consumer with the exact quantity they need, eliminating wasted coffee and money and ensuring that the customer drinks the coffee while it’s at its best.
“So tell me, where did the idea for PostRoast.co.uk come from?” I ask. “I used to work in a coffee shop in Leeds. I was working as a barista and had an espresso going. Some customers were talking about Graze.com, which obviously use the through-the-post method of delivery and I suddenly thought, why can’t we use coffee in the same way?” he says enthusiastically. Adam explains that, although hugely successful, the growing delivery trend is not being utilised properly. “For example, Graze is a novelty item whereas coffee is an everyday consumable,” he tells me. The third year Medicinal and Biological Chemistry student also points at consumers growing disillusionment with Tescos and other supermarkets; “they’re not offering the choice they want and the prices aren’t great either. What people want is a great choice of products and the best value for their money. And that’s the way it works with mail delivery systems.”
Will he continue as an entrepreneur post-University? “I’d love to have a sustainable business that I could come out of university and run straight away,” he exclaims. For him, entrepreneurship is all about doing something differently and exploring new ideas to break away from the norm and that is what he intends to do with the launch of PostRoast.co.uk in the coming weeks.