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Young entrepreneurs need to think small

Stephen Caddick

Small is beautiful – and nowhere more so than in Tech City

The area is defined, by the startups and small, rapidly growing companies that cluster there; some 1300 tech companies charged with dynamism and entrepreneurial energy.

There are 4.8 million businesses in Britain – and according to the Federation of Small Businesses, 99.9% are classified as SMEs – turning over £1500 billion per annum and employing 14 million people.

In east London, they are the agile, fast-growing businesses of the future, a beacon in an economy striking for its sluggishness.They are the future and everyone around them has yet to recognise it, including our students –the future digital, media and tech business leaders who will define Tech City in years to come.

What can we do to help?

As media commentators never tire of pointing out, universities have a hugely important role in shaping the skills of the next generation. In this context, what should we be doing better?

First, universities must treat self-employment and entrepreneurship as a serious career option – for too long, we simply haven’t. At UCL we were pleased to see that our graduates were more likely to be self-employed than any other university. And some 2,800 new businesses were set up last year by graduates straight out of university. If we act right, this can be just the tip of the iceberg.

Every student needs a clear picture of the diversity of career options including working for, or starting up, a small business. So they need many more programmes of workshops in business skills and courses on business management. But as well as classroom teaching, these budding entrepreneurs need practical help to get moving  - low cost loans, access to mentors, incubator space and tailored business advice.

It’s about more than just STEM subjects

In the business world, there is a lot of talk about increasing the supply of STEM (science technology, engineering and maths) graduates for industry, and as a physical scientist, I agree with that. Yet some of the most innovative, creative tech and media business ideas I’ve seen from UCL come from those studying subjects as diverse as PhDs in politics to cognitive neuroscience. On the recent Tech City jaunt to LA, one of those who went was Maria-Alicia Chang, a graduate in Fine Art from UCL’s Slade School. What unites these entrepreneurs is a determination to succeed, and their universities need to take more seriously their desire to do so to give them the vital ingredient to success: confidence.

But it takes a certain mind-set to start-up a business and some graduates want a job and relevant experience. So as well as promoting entrepreneurship as a career option, universities must build stronger links with local businesses, ensuring that every opportunity is taken to embed relevant skills into courses – and crucially, developing extra-curricular activities. Universities must also do more to act as a broker between the local business and student communities. For UCL, these local businesses include those in Tech City, literally just a short bike ride from our main campus in Bloomsbury.

We have the potential right here in London

Tech City has the potential to become Europe’s – if not the world’s – premier hub for the tech and media industries. Whether it makes it or not will be determined to a large degree by having a pool of talented, properly skilled graduates continuing to set up businesses and others motivated to work in them. Universities must respond to this opportunity not only for the good of the economy and society at large, but, most importantly of all, to right a great wrong: the economy legacy we have left our young people.

Tech City is a beacon of hope for the working world of the future – and now is the time to recognise it.

Professor Stephen Caddick is Vice-Provost | Enterprise at UCL and Vernon Professor of Organic Chemistry and Chemical Biology. He is a member of the Government’s Tech City Advisory panel and the London LEP, DCST group.

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