Universities are the seedbed for firms of the future

'To boldly go where no one has gone before.' Not just the tagline of one of TV's greatest-ever shows but also the mindset of many entrepreneurs. Breaking new ground, determined to find a better way.

Michael Hayman, co-founder of Seven Hills

I was lucky enough to hear the Star Trek Enterprise captain himself – Jean Luc Picard, aka Sir Patrick Stewart – say those very words at the 3M innovation centre at the University of Huddersfield.

It’s an amazing facility built around a community of specialist firms that share high-tech equipment. It’s also launch pad for a new generation of university spin outs.

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If you accept the premise that the most powerful companies of our lifetime are yet to be created, the question is, where will we find them? A possible answer is the country’s universities.

I recently contributed to the report, The Impact of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education on Regional Economies, a collaborative effort between the University of Huddersfield and UCL that investigated how universities can best boost entrepreneurship on campus.

​I​ts findings call for enterprise to become a strategic priority for all universities: “Every student should have the ability to develop enterprise and entrepreneurship skills and learning, both within the university curriculum and outside it.”

For an example of what university-backed companies can become, look no further than Consequential Robotics. The University of Sheffield spin-out launched MiRO in 2016, a companion robot that looks like a pet animal and enhances the user’s quality of later life. Next month it will be a centrepiece of the GREAT Festival of Innovation in Hong Kong.

When we look to the stock markets of the future it is likely to be exactly this type of high-value, high-skilled business that will make up its membership and it is why universities need to be seen as the seedbed for more firms of the future.

When I visited the University of Texas in Austin, it was inspiring to see as many students interested in their business plans as their degrees – and there are encouraging signals in the UK.

I chair the University of London GRADVenture entrepreneur competition and it is clear that there are many smart entrepreneurs that will graduate with degrees and businesses that are ready to go.

That’s why we need to provide the tools so that entrepreneurial leaders can recognise their capabilities early on and achieve their potential.

A meaningful measure of enterprise activity on campus is an essential step. Entrepreneurship is not a hobby, it’s the future of wealth creation. If we can measure how many start-ups are created at UK universities each year, for example, we could begin to harness its potential.

But every entrepreneur still needs capital to scale and, right now, many young entrepreneurs are struggling to find finance. Yet there is no shortage of investors that will tell you that there is more capital than ideas to invest in. What about creating investment missions to university campuses – as commonplace as say the milk round is for graduate careers?

A business is born every 75 seconds in Britain and every one of these firms is a vote of confidence in the UK economy and its potential to deliver winners. Despite fluctuating rates, the UK start-up scene is one of the most vibrant in the world. Now we must help it to scale.

Universities have a vital role to play in creating that culture. When you look at US universities like MIT, Babson College and Stanford you see how vital these institutions have been in supercharging the American enterprise scene.

We must remember that entrepreneurs are made not born. There are vital skills to learn that can immeasurably enhance the chances of young firms and foster the stars of tomorrow’s economy. And that is where universities have a unique opportunity to make a difference.​ ​The future wealth of nations will be written through collaboration. Together, universities and business offer great opportunity. Enterprise will be the outcome.

To borrow another phrase from the Captain of the Enterprise, now is the time to ​"​engage​".​