Campus dragons: The entrepreneurial spirit is soaring across universities in the UK

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The Independent Online

Entrepreneurship is all the rage on British campuses. Forget protest, hedonism or apathy, today's undergraduates, are passionate about setting up their own businesses.

Theirs, it seems, is the generation of the entrepreneur. Whether they are launching an online takeaway service or a system for advertising on eco-friendly fast-food packaging, many students are keen to do their own commercial thing rather than work for a corporate giant. Others want to develop skills that will make them attractive to graduate recruiters. Either way, this trend has come at exactly the right moment, when Britain is entering recession and needs all the entrepreneurs it can get.

At Warwick University, the entrepreneurs society has more than 200 members.Last month it staged the final of its Be Your Own Boss contest – their answer to the television programme Dragons' Den. The judges for the competition included representatives from some of the major names on the milk round of graduate recruitment.

"There have always been entrepreneurs coming through," says Matthew Hale, head of environmental sustainability at Merrill Lynch, and a Warwick judge. "But there are more people giving it a go, and there's more advice out there. And those TV programmes have definitely been a catalyst."

Other universities are in on the act too. Idea Idol, the brainchild of the entrepreneurs society at Oxford University, has attracted a number of high-profile judges like Theo Paphitis and Deborah Meaden, business gurus and TV Dragons. The London School of Economics has a thriving business plan competition, known as Pitch It. And last year's Business Ideas Challenge at Plymouth University had a hefty prize kitty of £42,000 up for grabs.

Warwick's competition, previously known as BizCom, this year attracted investment from Merrill Lynch, which put up the £1,000 first prize, and Accenture, the consultants, who provided the £250 second prize. "What was interesting was there was such a large audience of mostly students, some of whom were quite partisan, so there was a really good atmosphere in there," says Hale. "These competitions make students realise that they can be taken seriously by outsiders and that what they do in the short term can have a real long-term relevance. And having a company such as Merrill Lynch involved – and prize money – makes it seem more real."

Entrants had to submit a 250-word business plan and the 55 entries were whittled down to four, after which the finalists had towrite up a business proposal. The final challenge was to pitch to the panel of judges, and answer their questions, in front of an audience of more than 100 students.

Steve Barnes, a director of e-resistable, the online takeaway service that took home the £1,000 prize at Warwick, says the competition has been a vital experience. "Even as a confidence boost and to see where we are with the business it was invaluable," he says. "It was the first time we'd pitched to an investor who was going to cast a serious critical eye over the business, and the judges really didn't mince their words; they really went for it sometimes."

All four judges gave the e-resistable team the nod and it's hard not to see why. Launched in May 2007, the website allows customers to order takeaways over the internet, and already has 130 restaurants on its books. The three 20-year-old directors – all BSc management students from Warwick Business School – chose to forego important banking internships last summer to build the business.

They say now that, if they double the number of restaurants signed up to their service, they will be able to pay themselves graduate salaries and have enough money remaining to run and grow the business. "They put together a strong business plan that was a thoughtful, to-the-point document – which is something that investors are looking for," says Warwick judge Hale. The judges were also impressed that the company was trading profitably, and the business model was "scalable" – it has the potential to grow.

Warwick Entrepreneurs began in March last year and runs workshops such as how to protect your business ideas; how to market your business, and how to be an effective networker, "which is key either with a graduate recruiter or starting your own business", says Kostas Mavroulakis, president of Warwick Entrepreneurs.

Warwick University itself is a hive of business activity, with a thriving business school, a science park for business start-ups, and a business park next door. Each finalist said they received some sort of instruction in starting a business as part of their course. Even the engineering students do a module on starting their own company.