Training and developing young engineering entrepreneurs
The engineering mind is an innovative one, so how are we nurturing our engineering students to achieve their maximum entrepreneurial potential?
Engineers and technologists make great entrepreneurs. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George Stephenson, Dorothy Norman Spicer, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Bill Gates, James Dyson, Limor ‘Ladyada’ Fried: from the industrial greats to today’s ‘maker’ electronics culture, they populate the realms of new business start-ups, invention and entrepreneurial endeavour.
So why do engineers make good entrepreneurs? According to David Falzani, president of Engineers in Business Fellowship (EIBF), the charity that awards the Sainsbury Management Fellows’ MBA scholarships, “If you look at all the aspects of the common traits engineers have as a result of the training and the methodologies they apply, they make engineers extremely good problem solvers. Finding problems and finding solutions to those problems are at the heart of entrepreneurship.”
Entrepreneurship has emerged as a distinct set of commercial skills and techniques, but when should these extra competences be introduced: during degree programmes, within specialised courses, or in the workplace? With engineering contributing some £481 billion to the UK economy, according to the Office of National Statistics, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing an acceleration of programmes and activities in support of engineering and technological innovation.
There are now many university engineering degree courses that incorporate aspects of hands-on innovation and technical entrepreneurship into their programmes. It could be argued that in exposing students to commercial and business skills and experiences much earlier on in their education, better skilled engineers and, therefore, stronger businesses are created.
The Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, an Ivy-League research university located in New Hampshire, USA, offers the Dartmouth’s Engineering Entrepreneurship Program (DEEP). This is a discipline-spanning educational model that integrates entrepreneurship and leadership training into all levels of the engineering curriculum.
Undergraduates are given numerous project opportunities, immersing them in hands-on innovation and technical entrepreneurship. Student teams develop their own project idea out of a general problem area, brainstorm a solution, build and test a prototype, develop a business plan, and present their idea to a review board of ‘potential funders’. The final project for BEng students is a two-term interdisciplinary design course where students undertake real-world projects for industry sponsors.
The UK’s University of Greenwich Faculty of Engineering and Science offers a BEng in design, innovation and entrepreneurship with access to specialist and integrated engineering laboratories. The course provides undergraduates with the knowledge and skills relevant to a career as a professional engineer who can work effectively with current and future engineering product design, development and production/implementation methods.
The programme supports students in understanding the innovative and pioneering approaches in this field and to be able to apply them to the solution of real-world problems, to develop new products and technologies in a financially sustainable way, as well as helping them acquire the knowledge and skills required to perform a variety of professional roles within engineering, design and business, and management roles.
University College London also now offers an MSc in engineering with innovation and entrepreneurship, designed to equip graduates with a first degree in a relevant numerate subject with the technical, managerial and entrepreneurial skills and knowledge required to develop innovative engineering products and solution. The course programme combines an engineering education in areas that are key to developing new technologies, with modules on project management and entrepreneurship to equip students with the fundamentals and skills required to manage innovation.
Commenting on the programme, Mark Miodownik, professor of materials and society at UCL Mechanical Engineering, said: “We have created a vibrant multidisciplinary community whose activities support the teaching and research communities within UCL, as well as anyone who is curious about stuff. We provide a fully equipped workshop, technical training, a library of materials and most importantly, inspiration and support.”
Falzani also supports such postgraduate programmes. “I’m a particular fan of postgraduate activities, such as MBAs, to gain new skills. Indeed, our Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA scholarship scheme helps engineers to gain the business skills required to lead entrepreneurial businesses,” he notes.
There is also a whole raft of extracurricular activities that supports engineers in refining and sharpening their entrepreneurial skills and techniques. As well as those competitions, clubs and courses run from within university engineering departments, there are numerous competitions and schemes run by outside organisations.
Alongside its interests in the MBA scholarship scheme, the EIBF also collaborates with the Nottingham University Business School (NUBS), running a competition called Engineers in Business, sponsored by SMF. The competition is aimed at undergraduates who want to learn about entrepreneurship and experience the ingenuity process. It invites students interested in taking NUBS’ entrepreneurship and business module to enter their original product concept into the competition at the end of the course module. The students’ product concept must meet a real need in society and be well researched and developed.
By encouraging more commercial education for undergraduate engineers NUBS and SMF are enhancing students’ multidisciplinary skills, increasing their employability and inspiring students to use their engineering skills in business innovation when they graduate. In a neat touch at the end, the competing teams are judged by Sainsbury Management Fellows, who are, themselves, engineers with business qualifications. The competition is currently being rolled out to other universities, with a further three this year: Kingston University’s Bright Ideas competition, the University of Bristol’s New Enterprise Competition, and City, University of London’s City Spark Competition.
Another competition that celebrates young entrepreneurial flair and innovation is the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs’ (NACUE) Varsity Pitch, a national early stage business pitching competition which has been encouraging and celebrating the best businesses coming out of colleges and universities across the UK since 2010.
A charity set up in 2009, NACUE is one of the UK’s leading organisations for engaging students in enterprise. It received government funding in 2011, allowing it to develop into a far bigger network of some 32,000 students in over 200 student and enterprise societies and, with its partners, works to identify, nurture and support talented young people across the country.
Another resource for young entrepreneurs is the Royal Academy of Engineering's (RAEng) Enterprise Hub, providing bespoke support and one-to-one mentoring from its fellowship for the UK’s most promising technology intensive SMEs and entrepreneurs. The Enterprise Hub aims to inspire and encourage business-minded UK-based engineers to start their own company. One such young entrepreneur is Bethan Wolfenden who became a member of the Enterprise Hub in 2015, having been named as a runner-up for the RAEng-ERA Foundation Entrepreneurs Award with her business partner, Phillip Boeing.
The award seeks to identify, encourage and reward entrepreneurial engineering researchers working in UK universities, in a field involving electro-technology. Bethan was selected for her team’s invention, the bento•lab, a personal laboratory allowing anybody to carry out basic genetic experiments from the comfort of their own homes.
The RAEng also runs competitions and activities to celebrate and support emerging engineering stars in the UK, such as the ‘Future of Engineering’, run in conjunction with seed investment programme Entrepreneur First in a bid to discover and promote up-and-coming engineering leaders.
In addition, the Enterprise Hub’s Launchpad Competition aims to enable a budding engineering entrepreneur aged 19-25 to start a new business based on their engineering innovation and maximise the chances of its successful growth. The lucky winner receives the JC Gammon Award with a year’s Enterprise Hub membership including mentoring, training, networking opportunities with some of the UK's most successful entrepreneurs and investors, and a £15,000 prize. Entries for this year’s competition are still open if you’re interested in applying – simply visit and enter before 24 June 2017.
And there are so many more competitions and activities out there, so why not get innovating and sign yourself up? Who knows, maybe your name will be the latest in the long line of entrepreneurial engineering greats…