I’ve been talking to Falmouth University Vice Chancellor, Professor Anne Carlisle for around half an hour when she casually mentions an objective that is genuinely startling. “The whole university will be an incubator by 2030,” she says.
Now, there’s nothing unusual about United Kingdom universities playing host to incubators and accelerators but they tend to represent just a small subset of campus activity. An ambition to create an incubator model that will encompass an entire institution – well, that’s something new.
But Falmouth University – located in Cornwall, one of England’s most economically deprived counties – is on something of a mission to do more than simply turn out cohort after cohort of well-qualified students. The aim is to play an active role in reviving the local economy and business creation is an important part of that plan.
“The university has a role to play in encouraging recovery in a low wage economy,” says Professor Carlisle. “We can play a part in creating a tech cluster, creating jobs and bringing prosperity to the region.”
An Added Incentive
And one of the key initiatives to achieve that aim has been the creation of Launchpad, a largely tech-focused incubator that combines all the elements you would expect in a business development program, with the added incentive of an academic qualification – an MSc, to be precise – for those taking part in each cohort.
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As Professor Carlisle explains, Launchpad has been specifically designed to create, develop and launch businesses that meet clearly defined market needs, with alumni committing to remaining in Cornwall for at least five years after completing the program. It’s hoped that a practical and market-led approach to creating new companies will not only deliver success to the entrepreneurial teams but also create much-needed high-paid jobs in the area.
The Challenge Model
So how does that work in practice?
In some respects, Falmouth University’s Launchpad reflects a model developed in the U.K. by Entrepreneur First, in that teams are brought together without necessarily having business-creation ideas of their own.
Instead, real-world challenges are set by industry partners such as interactive live-streaming service, Twitch, Sony, Green Man Gaming and the National Health Service. “The teams are put together to solve those challenges,” says Professor Carlisle.
Now it has to be said that Falmouth is not a specialist technology institution. In fact, it started out as a School of Art and today its focus is on the arts and creative industries. So how does an tech incubator fit into that legacy?
Well, Launchpad was set up to attract post-graduate students with an interest in business creation and as Professor Carlisle explains, it attracts well-qualified people from all over the country. Some have a background in tech. Others may be more interested in management or sales.
Added to that is the fact that from gaming to film production, the creative industries are themselves technology hungry and business savvy. This is reflected within the university. So, while you can certainly study acting or comedy scriptwriting at Falmouth, you can also – for example – learn to code, study Artificial Intelligence for Games, or take a management degree.
The creative side of the equation is important. Professor Carlisle sees the incubator as having particular strengths in areas such as the commercial exploitation of immersive technology. She also stresses the importance of deploying creativity in service of a broad range of businesses concepts. “It’s what we call the creative bridge,” she says.
The creation of new businesses within the incubator involves a number of stages. Initially, the market is identified and validated. Talent is recruited to take the businesses forward. At some stage, cohort members are likely to learn about pivoting. Finally, if all goes well, businesses are incorporated. To date, 38 companies have been incorporated.
The companies emerging from incubator thus far cover a fairly wide range of products and sectors. To take a few examples, Constructiv has developed an app to aid the recruitment of construction workers; Data Duopoloy has developed tools to identify and ease congestion at visitor attractions; and Meatfreed is a community for people seeking alternative sources of protein.
But will funding be available. For those unfamiliar with the geography of the UK, Cornwall sits on the South Western Edge of Britain at the end of a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic. It is a long way from London and its growing community of VCs. It’s also some distance from the increasingly important tech cluster surrounding Bristol and Bath. So where does the investment come from, given that VCs can be quite narrow in their geographical focus?
To some extent, that’s where the partners come in. “We would hope that a lot of the investment would come from the industry partners, says Professor Carlisle. She cites Codices. The company develops interactivity tools for online broadcasters and was invested in by Twitch.
The common theme at Falmouth’s launchpad is a combination of creativity, business acumen and technology, all of which arguably sits fairly easily with the university’s origins and current focus. It will be interesting to see how far and how fast the institution moves towards embedding the incubator model across a wider range of courses.