Graduates really mean business

Coventry students will soon get the chance to set up their own firms on the university technology park. Nick Holdsworth reports
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The Independent Online
Britain's first university-based scheme to encourage graduates to become their own bosses will open its doors within two years. Engineering and industrial product design graduates at Coventry University who want to set up small businesses to develop their ideas commercially will be able to do so with low-rent workshops and offices, grants and technical support at the university's own technology park.

The city-centre university, home to one of the largest engineering schools in the country with 3,500 students, begins construction work on 17 acres of the former Rolls-Royce Parkside factory site this month after winning pounds 5m from the European Regional Development Fund.

The grant will help to fund a product innovation centre, support and administration units, training and conference facilities and residential units.

University chiefs, working in partnership with the city council, see the "graduate enterprise scheme" - which will eventually offer 30 students with design, engineering and technology degrees the chance to develop their entrepreneurial skills - as an opportunity to harness the energy of students and increase Coventry's identity as one of the top engineering and design schools in the country. Each business will be given a start- up grant of pounds 25,000 for two years but will have to find matching funds from other sources. The university has set aside pounds 6m to fund the scheme for the first three years.

The sort of ideas the university believes will flourish in this environment - where premises will be let at around pounds 10 per square foot - include those found in its annual Industrial Product Design honours degree show. An aerodynamic golf club and doctor's car-boot "bag" were two commercially viable ideas developed by last year's graduates.

Undergraduates will benefit from the university bringing work to the place of learning through being able to test their ideas in simulated business environments while following their studies. Preparing business plans and feasibility studies will form part of their academic assessment.

"We're creating a means of generating new businesses fast at a time when a student has the energy, enthusiasm, potential and innovation to do that. Many final year students lack the confidence to go into business on their own - this will help them make the decision to take that risk," says Professor Norman Bellamy, the university's pro-vice chancellor.

The idea came from a staff brainstorming session last year and was developed further after two smaller schemes in Sweden were studied. Coventry University is adamant that the scheme, which could see its first 10 businesses opening in the summer of 1997, is not a way of feather-bedding employment prospects for graduates.

Brian Lowe, technology park co-ordinator, said engineering students tended to be among the hardest working undergraduates. "Last year one of our students urgently needed to have a component moulded, so he got on a coach and travelled to the specialist firm in Glasgow, paying for everything himself. The graduate enterprise scheme is designed to give them ability to use businesslike solutions, rather than student-type solutions to these sort of challenges."

Robert Fish, a 23-year-old geography graduate, says the scheme will demonstrate Coventry's dynamism to prospective employers: "There are a lot of very skilled people coming out of universities - this is a way of latching on to people's innovative capacities and investing that in the city, instead of university just being a production line from which students drop off at the end."

Kirstie Warrilow, 22, a European business and technology student, expects the scheme to widen to other areas and business opportunities. "Since most job advertisements ask for two years' experience, this is a much better alternative than spending a couple of years working in bars or restaurants."

One key issue not yet resolved is a policy on intellectual property rights to ensure that proceeds from profitable ideas are fairly shared.