Turning students on to digital entrepreneurship
By IAN MUNDELL, European Voice
Most university students are born digital, so they should make excellent web entrepreneurs. They have fresh ideas, boundless energy and less to lose than entrepreneurs starting mid-career. “A group of students can get together and use their creativity to the maximum, because there is a lot of room for flexibility in these kinds of businesses,” says Aneesh Zutshi, a specialist in the area at the department of industrial engineering at the New University of Lisbon.
Yet, even the most entrepreneurial students often lack the knowledge and experience required to start an internet business. “You need to constantly update your business model, which you wouldn’t be doing in a traditional business,” Zutshi explains. “This calls for a lot of innovation, not only in your product, but also in the business model, the pricing, the marketing and so on.”
Zutshi’s department already runs a course that helps master-level students develop an entrepreneurial mindset and learn how bright ideas are turned into businesses. Now he is leading a European Union funded project called Digistart that aims to help other universities do the same and to bridge the gap between academia and entrepreneurial ecosystems.
The Lisbon course lasts a semester. It covers the development of the internet and the unique characteristics of doing business online, including the impact of the internet on various business sectors. It then goes on to explore entrepreneurial ecosystems, from sources of finance to support structures such as business accelerators and incubators.
In parallel, the students are divided into teams of three or four to develop their own innovative ideas and build business models around them. “Within the framework of one class we don’t expect them to become full-fledged entrepreneurs, and at this stage most of them don’t go on to start a company,” Zutshi explains, “but this provides them with hands-on experience and opens their minds to the possibilities.”
For students who want to go further, there is continuing support. “We would like them to see it as a viable alternative to looking for jobs after they graduate.”
Some aspects of being a student entrepreneur require particular attention, such as how to build a balanced team. “Often students have bright ideas, but they are not able to find the right co-founders, or teams are developed with students from one area of specialisation and then they may be too technical or may not have a business mind.”
Another is how to handle risk and overcome the fear of failure. Zutshi thinks that students have less to fear than entrepreneurs later in life, who may be changing career or leaving a secure job to start a new business. “The university environment allows them to give it a try, have the experience, fail and learn from that failure so that they can develop their skills and competencies further.”
One aim of the Digistart project, which is funded under the web entrepreneurship strand of the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, is to open up the Lisbon course to other universities. In the coming months it will be formalised and the material – texts, blogs and videos – presented online. “The curriculum could be useful for students who do not have these courses at their universities, but who want to start thinking of entrepreneurship in a more practical way. But ideally we would look for other universities to start this as a formal course.”
The other partners in the project are F6S, an entrepreneurship platform based in the UK and business accelerators Beta-i in Lisbon and Clusterland Sweden in Malmö. Together they will also work on initiatives to bring universities and entrepreneurial ecosystems closer together.
One project is to develop a “pre-idea” validation process on F6S, which would allow students and other prospective entrepreneurs to get quick feedback on their ideas before putting together a team. Other project will look at the skills shortages faced by start-ups and options for filling the gaps through on-line platforms. There will also be workshops and contests involving the accelerators and further academic research, for example – developing performance metrics for start-ups and accelerators.Back To List