Bottles were popped, cakes cut and tote bags distributed this month as the University of Edinburgh’s Student Enterprise service celebrated turning 18.
These days, the team of 11 staff and five student ambassadors supports more than 100 student startups each year to turn their ideas into world-changing businesses, providing skills training and helping them secure around £32m in investment, grants and funding. The University is top in Scotland for student enterprise, and second in the Russell Group of UK universities.
But, eighteen years ago, just one person supported students interested in entrepreneurship. Longest-standing staff member, administrator Stephanie Ashford, remembers: "One person dealt with student enterprise, one with staff and one with technology transfer [licensing University inventions to industry].” Today, Edinburgh Innovations, the University’s commercialisation service, of which Student Enterprise is a part, employs 170 people.
A handful of company names appears in the yellowing spreadsheet from the time, but in 2007 one jumps out – FanDuel. Founded by three Edinburgh students as they worked together in a tech incubator programme, this sports betting company would go on to become one of just three Scottish unicorns (startup companies worth a billion dollars) to date.
Bumper year 2013 saw the beginnings of audio tech company Two Big Ears, which was bought by Facebook in 2016, and Krotos Audio (pictured above, on Blackford Hill), founded by Edinburgh College of Art graduate Orfeas Boteas. His voice-activated special effects technology is now used in film and television from Game of Thrones to Stranger Things; The Avengers to Frozen.
We are delighted to wish the Student Enterprise team a huge happy birthday. The support we received from them, particularly in our very early years, was invaluable and our continued affiliation with the University is a source of great pride to us. Our future is looking incredibly exciting, as we change the way the world works with sound, and we look forward to continuing to share our successes with the team. ”
The service was slowly growing, remembers Stephanie, as it pioneered intensive enterprise training with ‘3-Day Startup’, alongside a Texan firm, and delivered a huge EU student incubator programme with Edinburgh Council.
Then, in 2014, when the number of startups founded stood at 30, the University’s in-house venture investment team, Old College Capital, enabled further growth. They started to finance student companies, giving them an all-important boost in the difficult early stages, when investors are reluctant to take a risk. Their first investment was in student golf tech company Shot Scope, now a global success.
The following year, the student enterprise team shared its expertise Scotland-wide, in a partnership with Aberdeen and Strathclyde universities called the Enterprise Campus programme.
But current Student Enterprise Team Manager, Lorna Baird (pictured above), says 2019 was the year the service really took off. Edinburgh Innovations had recently brought the Edinburgh Technology Transfer Centre and Edinburgh Research and Innovation under one roof, led by fairly new CEO Dr George Baxter.
Student advisory and engagement had been united, as part of a bigger Enterprise team, under Dr John Lonsdale. And the University had a new Principal, Professor Sir Peter Mathieson. Lorna remembers:
Peter joined with a remit of improving student experience, and George invited him to see student enterprise as offering something rich, with impact above and beyond a degree, which he embraced. We still didn’t have a physical space though, until later that year, I noticed an empty space in the Appleton Tower, and the Student Enterprise Hub was born!
We hit 100 startups in 2021, but our focus was never the number; we aimed to offer a gold standard service to students. Our team constantly strives to improve and innovate, to reach and support more students, build skills, and bring them into the thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem we have here in Edinburgh and in Scotland more widely. That includes programmes like EI’s Startup Summer Accelerator and the collaborative AI Accelerator, as well as lots of in-person events to inspire and involve our students. ”
This year, the team engaged with more than 2500 students, with companies topping the leader boards at national competitions Converge and Scottish Edge, and notably secured eight £100k SMART grants from Scottish Enterprise for student founders.
Lorna says student companies are increasingly socially and environmentally-minded. This year’s startup cohort includes, for example, SunSave Solutions, founded by School of Social and Political Sciences graduate Mekila Ngwambe, which is prototyping an affordable solar power kit to provide electricity to rural households in the world’s poorest areas.
Strategy and product lead Favour Onyenma (pictured above) says:
We are making sure the energy transition to environmentally friendly sources such as solar is just, fair and tackles inequality by putting those in energy poverty, female-led and low-income rural households in Sub-Saharan Africa at the centre of our project.
Edinburgh Innovations and the student team has helped us secure a startup visa, provided a business advisor and, through their Summer Accelerator and the Inspire Launch Grow programmes, I have gained better understanding of marketing, financial projections, sales, investment strategy and effective pitching. Their support has been crucial. ”
It’s all about the journey, and we’re privileged to be part of it. Helping students get their ideas out into the world, where they can make difference for all of us, is what makes our job so rewarding. ”