There has been mixed coverage of British entrepreneurship in recent months.
There are many reasons to celebrate. We saw record venture capital investment last year, Atomico ranked the UK top in Europe for tech, and Forbes named us the best country in the world for business.
But concerns linger. The number of new companies being created has shrunk, business confidence is faltering, and until a deal is struck, uncertainty around access to talent and investment post-Brexit remains.
A welcome boost in optimism was found in NatWest’s conference centre last week, where so-called incubator managers convened from universities across the UK for the Incubator and Accelerator Network – a community which hopes to help increase the scale and impact of business incubation programmes.
Chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss praised the network for utilising Britain’s universities to the benefit of the economy. The network was launched by the Centre for Entrepreneurs in late-2017 following the publication of our report called Putting the uni in unicorn.
In the report, we suggest universities can boost graduate retention, job creation, and economic growth in their regions by providing business incubation to graduate entrepreneurs.
This is not a new concept, as our founding members prove. For example, the Hive at Nottingham Trent University has supported over 400 startups since its launch in 2001.
Universities are also investing in bigger and better incubation spaces. Last year, the Duke of York opened Imperial’s 18,000sq ft incubator at its White City campus. The Royal College of Art’s new £108m building announced last month will double the space of its incubator, InnovationRCA, when it opens in 2020.
Incubator managers see the potential impact far beyond their campus. Many serve as the hub for local startups, hosting events, and the local community.
There is evidence that universities’ investments in incubation are paying off. For example, SETsquared – a partnership between Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey – has helped over 1,000 startups. Its startup portfolio has created 9,000 jobs, and it’s Bristol-based companies alone have raised £130m in investment.
Alumni entrepreneurs are also increasingly donating to help the next generation of founders. Leeds alumni fund 16 fellowships for student entrepreneurs, while the University of Buckingham recently received £1.8m from an entrepreneurial alumna to create an Innovation and Enterprise Centre.
But talent remains an issue. Angels and venture capitalists who addressed the conference last week made it clear that they almost uniquely back companies with two founders, not one.
Universities and incubators can do more to match graduates in order to form founding teams. They can also encourage graduates to join startups as founding employees.
Incubators outside major cities also said there are challenges when it comes to the vibrancy of local angel networks, as well as attracting London-based investors to visit their startups. Our research paper Nation of Angels suggests 58 per cent of angels now invest outside their home region, so initiatives to connect investors with promising startups could help tackle this.
But overall, Britain’s universities provide a source of pride and inspiration – as centres of academic merit, and increasingly as centres of entrepreneurial excellence.