Supporting entrepreneurs every step of the way

Supporting entrepreneurs every step of the way

The achievements of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning mean there’s no better place to turn fledgling ideas into successful ventures.

Last month, 200 entrepreneurs, investors, academics, students and alumni came together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Cambridge Judge Business School’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL). For 10 years, CfEL has reached out to the Cambridge community to “spread the spirit of enterprise”, to motivate people to become budding entrepreneurs, for example, through our acclaimed Enterprise Tuesday speaker series.

I had the privilege to speak at the ceremony alongside major figures such as Lord Karan Bilimoria, Sir Paul Judge, and Professor Andy Hopper. I announced that, in the future starting now, we plan to build on CfEL’s success by putting in place a suite of activities that can create value and will allow us to create new knowledge based on the “labs” of interesting activities.

Let’s follow the logic of an entrepreneurial journey. We want to help individuals to articulate their ideas and take the first steps, but how? We run weekends throughout the year to assist this ideation around various themes (social enterprise, edtech, fintech or plain vanilla start-up weekends). Everyone can join and experiment in a safe environment to validate their ideas and meet like-minded people. We will also grow the CfEL Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship, which offers budding and practicing entrepreneurs the chance to come to work on their projects under guidance, through distance learning tools and in Cambridge.

Second comes turning the team and its idea into a product and a fledgling company. This pre-seed stage is where Accelerate Cambridge supports growing ventures, taking a group attempting to turn an idea into a functioning concept, both technically and business-wise, through a structured programme of entrepreneurship teaching, practical training, regular coaching and access to a rich network of mentors.

Over the two years of its existence, Accelerate Cambridge has taken more than 60 ventures, and is currently supporting 42 of them at various stages. Over the last year the more mature of them have attracted over £4m in investment and grants. This is beginning to make a sizable contribution to the “width of the commercialisation channel” in Cambridge, and is an intervention at a stage where provision is otherwise insufficient to utilise Cambridge brainpower.

Moreover, we are beginning to develop knowledge that can be used more widely. For example, we don’t take business plans as the starting point, but see them as emerging from effective creativity and expertise combination by good teams. But which team dynamics are associated with good business plans? We are gaining insights into the process.

Alongside our other entrepreneurial activity, we are developing a Centre for Social Innovation, supporting the formation of 50 social ventures (in our government-supported Social Incubator East), educating people who are interested in forming or joining social ventures through a Master of Studies programme, and doing research on which characteristics help social ventures to survive and grow.

Why not go the whole hog and also start an investment fund or a large incubator? Several pre-seed and early stage funds already exist, for example, in Cambridge Enterprise, the Angel networks and our best VCs (such as Amadeus). We want to complement what is there, not duplicate it.

A successful idea, a strong team, a solid business plan: the result we all hope for from these beginnings is a company that outgrows the local incubators. Our third initiative is aimed at this final stage when a new, small business hopefully starts growing into a large one. Many small companies fail because of managerial shortcomings, a significant barrier to growth in the UK as well as elsewhere. They can no longer work things out in “the huddle” but need a strategy, cascading, a hierarchy and processes.

We will pull together small groups of SME CEOs in order to help them develop the management capabilities of their companies, to prioritise and focus, and to achieve robustness, setting them up for growth. We have won support from the Kerala State government in India and from Santander Bank to set up SME Growth Clubs in Kochi and in south east England, where we will demonstrate that we can make a substantial difference for them, the sponsorship allowing the companies to pay only what they can afford rather than cover all of our costs.

These initiatives enable us to create value locally, in the Cambridge cluster, as well as to create management knowledge in our role as a business school. Moreover, the initiatives are already creating a buzz for our students, many of whom are asking to get involved because they want to learn about it and because they might want to engage in some form of entrepreneurial activity themselves.

The CfEL 10th anniversary was a great point to reflect – the achievements of the past have now put us in the position to ramp up our activities. The highest impact is yet to come.

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