I recently had the pleasure to attend a Doctoral Entrepreneurship Conference organised here at the University of Sheffield by one of the university’s doctoral students, Sylvia Acquah, who is also one of the students enrolled on this year’s Social Innovation Accelerator delivered here at USE. The event was held at the university’s ICOSS centre on the 12th of June and the self-declared aim of the conference was to ignite a fire in students and help them understand how working towards a PhD and starting a business are not mutually exclusive. The delegates in attendance, as well as the speakers, came from a range of different universities, which was very impressive and encouraging to see.
The day kicked off with an introductory speech from Professor Simon Denny, who is the Social Enterprise Development Director at the University of Northampton. He briefly outlined his institution’s approach to not only social entrepreneurship but entrepreneurship in general. He highlighted that the institution’s approach was to focus on social entrepreneurship among students, but also keeping in mind that staff also need to buy into these values. Thinking about it, it is obvious that in order to have a successful entrepreneurship or social entrepreneurship programme, both students and staff need to understand and relate to the values of entrepreneurship. It suggested to me that there is perhaps more that could be done here in Sheffield to ensure that the vision and importance of enterprise and social enterprise is present among both students and staff. He also discussed some research into the numbers and statistics behind the social enterprise movement and interestingly he highlighted high quality universities, such as Sheffield, are a good breeding ground for start-ups.
There were also three speaker sessions in the afternoon, with delegates being able to chose from a variety of offerings. USE was represented by our very own Samantha Deakin, who spoke about her experience in starting two businesses, and Janet Grant, who spoke about the all important topic of finding financing to start your enterprise. Other speakers included Nicola Byrom who set up the successful charity/social enterprise Student Run Self Help nearly three years ago and Dr. Gavin Boyce who spoke about his experience in setting up private sector enterprises as well as being a business advisor. All the sessions were very informative and interesting.
The individual sessions were followed by a panel discussion where representatives from four different universities explained what kind of business start-up support services they offered at their respective institutions. The four universities were Leeds, Hull, The University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam, and USE was represented by our very own Liz Ree. It was very interesting to see how different universities supported their students, but on the whole the offers were quite comparable. John Eccles from the University of Sheffield then discussed intellectual property and ways for people to protect their ideas. This is a very complex area and it is often very expensive for students to patent their ideas. He advised that for smaller businesses, being secretive and maintaining confidentiality is sometimes the best way to protect yourself.
To finish the day off, the students had the opportunity to participate in a group exercise. They were divided into eight groups and each was given an everyday object to start with. First they had to think of the advantages of the product and what the potential market for that product was. Then they were asked to think of any disadvantages. Bringing this knowledge together, they were then asked to come up with innovative ideas of how they could improve the particular project, and present this in front of the whole audience. The objects they had to work with included things like a slinky, a bottle opener, pencil sharpener or dry shampoo. Everyone then voted on the best ideas and one lucky group won the grand price of £250. It was fascinating to see all the creative ideas the students came up with for their products and how they fearlessly presented their ideas. All in all it was a very inspiring and educational day.