Entrepreneurial fast lane

The University of Wolverhampton is the lead partner in SPEED WM, a £5.2 million programme to support entrepreneurial students  aunch a new business. Providing guidance on how to set up, finance and market a new company within a safe environment, the scheme is a refreshing tonic to the economic gloom.

The empty shops on the high street are a depressing sight. But one University of Wolverhampton student has found inspiration in this most visible symbol of the credit crunch.

Charlotte Clark is launching a new social enterprise called Pretty Vacant, and her aim is to brighten up shopping centres by placing art exhibitions in disused shop units. The idea has won support from various shopping centres, and visitors will be able to take in an art exhibition along with their regular purchases from the summer. Charlotte is one of 30 participants on Student Placements for Entrepreneurs in Education West Midlands (SPEED WM), a new three-year programme which offers students the opportunity to start up and run their own business.

Each participant embarks on a 36-week programme, during which they will get help and support in the form of training and coaching from qualified business mentors. Funded by  Advantage West Midlands, the European Regional Development Fund and Higher Education Innovation Fund 4, the scheme is open to all full or part time UK, EU or European Economic area students on undergraduate or postgraduate courses at the University, regardless of their subject.

This year’s cohort includes a wide range of businesses, including 16 students from the School of Art & Design. But students can pitch whatever idea they come up with to a Dragon’s Den-style panel. The companies range from glass designers, photographers and an illustrator through to a student who is selling her own recipe for Jamaican fish sauce and one who is launching a top secret invention.

They may be encouraged to alter their ideas to a more manageable concept, although the ‘dragons’ are looking not only for the spark of a good idea, but also sparkling personal qualities.

Sarah Taylor is the University of Wolverhampton’s Programme Manager for SPEED WM. The project comes under the Institute for Innovation & Enterprise (IIE), which is an external facing part of the University, and is particularly successful at dealing with local businesses. The University also manages the project regionally for the partner institutions, which are the universities of Birmingham, Birmingham City, Coventry, Keele, Staffordshire, Worcester and Aston.

Sarah explains that in addition to 10 hours of advice from a business mentor, students do get financial support, and at  Wolverhampton this is £4,500. They can spend £1,500 on necessities for their business – as long as it is approved by the programme managers – and a further £1,500 on professional services bought on the students’ behalf by SPEED, for example a business branding starter pack, help setting up a website or intellectual property advice.

In addition students can do “Business Bursts” which are sessions on more specific areas such as online marketing, networking and how to hold an exhibition.  “This is an opportunity for students to gain the support and help they need and use the expertise we have in the University to turn their ideas into reality,” Sarah says.

But equally important are the general business skills the students learn. They are able to network with each other and other local business leaders, and this has provided a number of useful links for them. And they are also allowed to make mistakes, as they would be in the business world.

“They make mistakes and they will learn from that. I am a big proponent of ‘learning by doing’. Part of the learning curve is how tough it is. I think it is the best way to learn but with help and support along the way,” Sarah explains.

SPEED WM builds on the success of a two-year national pilot, which supported more than 95 Wolverhampton students. Among the many successes were PJ, John and Paul Tierney, from a band called UXL. The three brothers received help and funding from SPEED for an album and tour. A group of students launched a clinic offering complementary therapy treatments to staff while they were at the University and went on to set up their own business, Natural Therapeutic Touch, after graduating.

Three Computer Science students spotted a gap in the market and launched an online comic book shop for fans of Japanese Manga comics. Another student, Michael Perkins, created a successful IT company PS-CMS Ltd, specialising in diagnosing and repairing PC problems.

The next round of applications for the second cohort of SPEED WM begins in September, with the panel interviews in November and December. But is it a good idea to be launching a new business, when the newspapers are filled on a daily basis with stories of companies going under and job cuts? Sarah thinks it is an excellent time to be learning how to build a proper base for a business and how to manage it successfully.

“There are great opportunities out there – the credit crunch is not having that great an effect on us here and we have not noticed any difference from the other times we have run versions of SPEED. These young people are coming through with great ideas and great energy. It is quite a safe environment so they are able to test out their ideas and see if it suits them – it is an educational experience.”

Find out more about SPEED