Enterprising careers

The UK recession has spawned a new mantra – Entrepreneurship. And thanks to a new government drive there's more support than ever for would be entrepreneurs in the engineering and technology sector.

This May saw the start of the seventh season of BBC One’s The Apprentice. This time around, however, instead of gunning for a six-figure salary the 16 contestants are competing for a business partnership with Lord Sugar.

“I’m going to inject £250,000 worth of cash and value into a business – your business – and you’re going to run it,” announced the ever-belligerent boss to the latest crop of would-be tycoons.

While there’s no doubting that The Apprentice 2011 is titillating fare – who could fail to be amused by the weekly slew of gaffes committed by the two teams as they set about their tasks in a bid to score the highest return - it’s not all about excruciating entertainment. Given that the tasks this season are based on start-up business the underlying agenda is clearly designed to support the UK government’s “enterprise-led” recovery drive. And it may not be immediately apparent when watching the likes of an estate agent, an accountant and a cyclist compete in such a mainstream TV ratings-puller - and hearing Lord Sugar's recent comments - but the engineering and technology sectors are key areas in this new “enterprise-led” drive.

Adding business and management skills to degree courses

Alongside the creation of government-funded packages to support enterprise and small business within the education system and the StartUp Britain campaign, many universities have also prudently added business and management skills to existing courses. One such is the City University London, which has recently introduced a BEng in Engineering with Management and Entrepreneurship.

“We recognise that the business model in the engineering sector is changing and are aiming to create a multi-disciplinary environment while not diluting the solid basis of engineering,” says Professor Ken Grattan, dean of the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences at City University.

“This course has a mix of engineering - mechanical, civil, electrical, mathematics, bio-medical – and business and management topics. So you get a solid grasp of mathematical principles but also of entrepreneurship and how entrepreneurial behaviour interacts with innovation, technology and economic environment.” 

Professor Grattan hopes that the new course will encourage student engineers to recognise opportunities and take them forward.

“We want students to be equipped to start their own business or to work in a company, take a shareholding in it and make a success of it. Now there is even more opportunity to carve an interesting and potentially very lucrative career.”

Business support and funding

However, being armed with the necessary qualifications and a good idea is only half of the requirement for starting up a business. The other half is support and funding, which is where organisations like the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) come in. The TSB invest in technology development for mature projects – those that have gone beyond concept stage and are looking to be commercialised.

“What we try to do in our programmes is support both the big players and small companies who are looking to innovate in the next generation of products and services,” explains Alex Stanhope, lead technologist, Creative Industries from the TSB. “We want them to think about the planning, the project management and we have a network set up to help them meet partners, and we also provide funding.”

The TSB have several mechanisms for providing funding.

“We run competition-based initiatives. For example, in the last three months we’ve been running a £5 million competition for companies that create technological tools and solutions to help the people making creative content – make it more efficient,” Stanhope says.

This mechanism provides for bigger companies looking for a couple of million and up to £100,000 for smaller companies.

“If your idea doesn’t fall within the parameters of one of our competitions we also run a Grants for R&D programme in the order of 25K which works really well for small businesses.”

The TSB also look to match fund investments to reduce the risk in an uncertain market. For example, if a company or individual has a budget of £10,000 the TSB will inject £5,000 – a 50 per cent investment.

As a public sector-funded organisation, the TSB aims to help start-up businesses take their products to market so that when the tax revenue flows back into the UK it can use the revenues to reinvest in future projects. Encouragingly in the recent comprehensive spending review the TSB saw its budget boosted – a sure sign of commitment on the government’s part. 

A nation of entrepreneurs

“I hope that the current enterprise drive will become embedded in our national culture because I think at heart we are a nation of entrepreneurs," says Stanhope. “What I’m excited to see now is that more people at board level – especially those in digital industry - have come down an engineering or technology route. With their knowledge they are helping their companies to see the potential of technology and how it can impact on every single business decision.”

Professor Gratton agrees.

“Engineers have an enormous part to play and can make a huge difference to society,” he says. “But the government also has an important role to play. We must train our young people well in skills that are internationally competitive. The rewards will be high – but so will the competition. With continued investment we have a great future ahead of us.”

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