There can’t be a university in the land that hasn’t spent the last decade or so encouraging its researchers to spin out their cutting edge work into tech startups.
The journey looks something like this. A group of researchers make a breakthrough in the lab – let’s say in a field such as A.I. or robotics – and identify a commercial opportunity. Before too long – aided and abetted by the university – at least some of them will create a company, do a deal around the intellectual property and relocate to a science park. If all goes according to plan, the newly formed venture will turn exciting science and technology into a saleable product. Along the way, the team may take advantage of university-funded incubator or accelerator programs.
This is the research-based approach to fostering entrepreneurship within a higher education framework. But there is perhaps another way. For the last couple of years, Oxford University has been deploying a parallel approach to creating a new generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Launched in 2017 – when it was opened by Apple CEO, Tim Cook – the Oxford Foundry represents an attempt by the university to create an “entrepreneurship center” that is not only accessible but also potentially relevant to its students, regardless of their chosen fields of study. Or to put it another way, the Foundry aims to support venture creation and growth, but it is not necessarily science and technology research-driven. Instead, its primary role is to provide a space where students from all disciplines can come together to collaborate, work on ideas, take part in competitive challenges, acquire new skills and – ultimately – create businesses.
So is there a demand for such a center? The University’s own research suggests there is. Wind the clock back to 2016 and around 15% of students expressed an interest in starting their own businesses. When the same survey was conducted this year that figure had risen to just over 20%.
And at least some of those students have made their way to the Foundry. “There are around 24,000 students at Oxford,” says Director, Ana Bakshi. “And around 10% have them used the center – which is brilliant.”
But what exactly is on offer and why is different? Well, on the face of it, the Foundry actually offers quite a familiar mix of facilities. There are co-working spaces, and for alumni of the University who have already started their own businesses, there is an accelerator program.
Starting With Ideas
But there is also a recognition that entrepreneurship starts with ideas, so a key priority of the center is to get undergraduates thinking about the problems faced by society and how they can be solved.
Bakshi cites the example of challenges that are put to teams of students working within the center. The latest of these is focused on Artificial Intelligence/Machine learning and the problem of how bias at the input stage can affect outcomes in tech-based recruitment and people selection. In an ideal world, the algorithms deployed by recruitment platforms should make perfect, entirely evidence-based decisions when it comes to shortlisting job candidates – after all, a machine is not subject to the biases of flesh and blood mortals. In reality, of course, the preconceptions are programmed in, often unconsciously. So this year students asked to come up with solutions.
Clearly a task for Computer Science or Maths students. Not necessarily. Within the context of the Foundry, the teams working on challenges must include students from Oxford’s four academic divisions – namely humanities, social sciences, medicine and the sciences. “The whole idea is that members of the team learn from one another,” says Bakshi. “We had 90 students participating and the humanities students found it very useful.”
Meanwhile, the center also stages All-Innovate competitions that invite students to come forward with business ideas or concepts that are not necessarily rooted in science or technology. The most recent attracted input from around 500 people who produced 100 business ideas.
Preparing For The Journey
The aim of all this is to provide students with a grounding in the stages of an entrepreneurial journey that runs from initially spotting a problem and identifying commercial need and opportunity through to the practicalities of starting a business.
If all that sounds a little fluffy, the Foundry also provides opportunities to upskill and attain business knowledge through courses and sessions provided by industry partners and – crucially – Oxford alumni who have already forged successful careers. Students also play a role. Bakshi cites the example of Physics student Alex Cheema who taught blockchain coding to around 100 students within the Foundry before accepting an internship at a blockchain company.
Bakshi stresses the importance of Alumni input and the opportunities to network that are on offer. “If you go to a university like Oxford, or Harvard, or MIT, you are there to study your subject but you are also there to tap into the networks that are available,” she says. The Foundry provides a means to access a certain subset of the Alumni community.
The Foundry’s accelerator will – for some former students – mark another stage on their entrepreneurial journey. There have been two OXFO L.E.V8 cohorts so far – the second attracting 235 applications for just ten places. So far around £7m in finance has been raised by participants who have created in the region of 70 jobs.
Maybe the bigger question here is whether this kind of innovation center can be replicated in other universities, many of which are trying to offer entrepreneurship content across a range of academic disciplines. It probably helps that Oxford can pull Alumni such as Linkedin co-founder, Reid Hoffman and Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman to play an active role in developing the project. Indeed, Hoffman stumped up $1m to help get the center off the ground.
But other universities are also adopting an approach to encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship that is more than skin deep. For instance, Leed University runs a program that allows graduates to take a year out to set up businesses and University College London runs a pioneering entrepreneurship center. Bakshi herself came to the Foundry after running the Innovation Centre at Kings College London.
But how do you measure the success of such initiatives? It isn’t necessarily easy. At the Oxford Foundry, the starting point is student engagement, factoring in gender diversity and the involvement of students across academic disciplines. In parallel, the university is measuring the impact on students in terms of the skills and knowledge acquired. Then, of course, there is the success of the accelerator program to be considered. Measuring success in such initiatives is, therefore, a long-term undertaking.