Entrepreneurship is traditionally seen as a gift, something you are born with. But as universities are recognising, a little postgraduate nurturing can help to turn ideas into reality. Andy Sharman reports

tarting your own business is often down to a creative flicker of imagination, sparking an idea that eventually gains the semblance of a business plan. Such vision has long been considered a gift, the preserve of entrepreneurs from Bill Gates to Richard Branson. However, universities are now offering Masters courses that propose to teach people the art of enterprise, and enable postgraduates to set up their own businesses.

In many ways, the idea of fostering entrepreneurship is a new university remit. The University of Teesside offers a range of Masters with elements tailored towards business creation. More importantly, the institution offers a state-of- the-art "incubation centre", a greenhouse for the seeds of new business. "It was at the behest of postgraduates that we developed it," says Maurice Tinkler, director of the centre. "They were finishing their Masters saying, 'We have some ideas, you've taken us this far, why not help us to develop actual businesses with the support of the university?'. So that's what we did."

One company to benefit from Teesside cultivation is Onisoft, a software gaming company set up by postgraduates Doug Wolff and Paul Dolhai. "You're given the push," says Wolff. "With the incubation unit, we were given the office space, desks, chairs, computers, some software and an internet connection - the things that a fledgling business would struggle to afford. This enabled us to focus purely on the product."

Onisoft now employs a staff of nine and has attracted much external interest. Having studied computer-aided graphical technology applications, the company directors are equally thankful for the instruction they received as part of the official Masters course. Wolff continues: "We wanted to get involved in computers, but we didn't understand the processes involved in making a game. Once we unlocked that knowledge, we realised that we could do it ourselves. That kick-started the business."

Teesside students will find it yet easier to get businesses up and running when the MSc in small-business development returns after reconstruction. "A lot of courses teach very technical things," says Ted Fuller, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategic Foresight at Teesside. "They operate along the lines of, 'Do a business plan, do a cash flow'. We're trying to change the focus to 'you': you as an enterprise. It's more personal."

Formerly aimed at bankers, accountants and personal business advisers, the course in its new guise will be more graduate-friendly, with even the possibility of student bursaries. And Professor Fuller knows useful companies find the newly graduated. As he says, "It's an extremely good group to have: innovative, fresh and willing to learn from others."

Nottingham Trent, another ex-poly, offers a similar MSc in management and strategic entrepreneurship, which purports to give students an "international experience" in terms of curriculum and student body. The programme director Adrian Castell is matter-of-fact about the "science" of entrepreneurship: "The students enter the programme wanting to break free of traditional rules. They just need to know what those rules are."

The Manchester Science Enterprise Centre (MSEC), a joint venture of some four institutions, offers a flagship Master of Enterprise (MEnt) degree. Students are given space in business creation units to help incubate their blueprints. "It's for people who've got their idea and want to come to a secure, safe environment to test that idea," explains Lynn Sheppard, head of postgraduate programmes at MSEC. And the centre has more than proved its fertility, the first three years of the MEnt course yielding some 28 ventures and five DTI Smart awards, worth around £40,000 each.

Even older universities such as Oxford are embracing the "new" idea of entrepreneurial incubation. In Oxford's case, largely as part of the Saïd Business School MBA. With the Oxford Entrepreneurs society, Oxford Science Enterprise Centre, and a wealth of scientific, business and creative talent, the university offers a superior networking experience. "Oxford has probably started more companies - in which the university has a direct interest - than any other European institution," says the MBA programmes director Stephan Chambers. "Entrepreneurship is the subtext of the entire experience here."

Oxford has fostered ventures such as Pure Sports Medicine, a company offering holistic sports treatment and the brainchild of an MBA graduate, Andrew Willet, an injury-prone rugby player disaffected with treatment in Britain.

Chambers summarises entrepreneurship thus: "It's about making things happen when you don't necessarily have any resources, ie, cash, customers, technology, networks. You have to start stitching things together from scratch. A good recent example is Live8 - Bob Geldof didn't own any of the bands or the venue, but he made it happen."

And the Live8 paradigm is a useful one. It shows, on the largest stage imaginable, the importance of networking, the value of having strong belief in your project, and the endless possibilities when the right idea comes to the right person. Yet, whatever cynics may say of Sir Bob's motivations, it also demonstrates that with entrepreneurship, simply because you're working for yourself doesn't mean it must be for your sole gain.

Liverpool John Moores University offers an MA in social enterprise, a useful tool in the trade of charitable organisations, where increased competition is forcing trusts to seek unorthodox sources of funding. And for a course in which vision and belief are given parity with academic pedigree, the programme leader Bob Doherty is tapping equally unorthodox sources of scholars: "We get a number of entrants with no prior higher education," he says. "It's an amazing journey: they start reading books for the first time. This is really widening participation."

Such a student, Ruth Gould, is creative director at the North West Disability Arts Forum, an organisation run for, and by, people with disabilities. The Masters has given her the opportunity to develop ideas and revolutionise the charity's work. "I'm looking into establishing our own arts centre," she says. "This is something I've wanted to do for some time, and it will now be my dissertation."

Yet, all of this still begs the question: are entrepreneurs born or can they be made? "You can't say that everyone will be an entrepreneur or that they will be successful," says Professor Paul Hannon, director of education and research at the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, "but you can make them more entrepreneurial, and you can shape environments that are more conducive to people being entrepreneurial."

As the Saïd Business School's Stephan Chambers says: "If you set out to create a generation of Mozarts, you'd fail. But if you set out to create a generation of concert-standard pianists, you stand a better chance."

The postgraduate entrepreneur: 'The key is support from like-minded people'

Ben Turney, a graduate of the Manchester Science Enterprise Centre (MSEC) was "the first person through the door" on the Masters of Enterprise degree programme. He has since set up seven ventures, including Morphogenesis ( www.mgen.co.uk)

"Having my own business is something I've always wanted and the course gave me a solid foundation.

"MSEC provided a good environment. Firstly, it was good for support, networking, local contacts and business leads for developing the company. Secondly, the IT venture centre gave us subsidised space and mentoring.

"I didn't necessarily do the degree for the piece of paper. The business creation units were the real selling point. You could treat it like a job - it was more professional than most Masters degrees.

"The key thing is to be supported and surrounded by like-minded people. When I was on the course, there was a diverse group of courses on offer, and a similarly diverse group of people. Some on the course were strong technically, but needed to learn the business side. Others, like me, were more entrepreneurial, but needed discipline.

We've now got a range of businesses, including web design, IT, import/export and accounting. It all comes from the masters."

David Atkinson is co-ordinating a trading arm for four charitable organisations. He is also studying for an MA in Social Enterprise at Liverpool John Moores University

"The Masters has been useful in three ways. Firstly, I've been able to find out a lot of things about how social enterprises operate: how to prevent blind alleys and leave open doors. Secondly, I've had access to many individuals with useful knowledge and experience. And thirdly, I've been able to test out ideas in assignment work. Getting feedback on these ideas has contributed to the knowledge base the new organisation is using.

"It's important that people think outside the box. Charities have been accused of having a narrow view of funding. We also need to work better with other organisations. The MA helps in both these areas, and if we work well, the public is better served." AS