Universities are laying on MSc courses to encourage graduate students to start up their own businesses. Chris Green reports

Ask any debt-ridden graduate if they would consider setting up their own business after finishing their first degree, and they’d probably call you crazy. It sounds risky, stressful, and requires the kind of capital most students just don’t have. Hardly surprising, then, that only 2 per cent of British graduates take the plunge and register a firm straight out of university.

But this grim picture could be set to change, thanks to the birth of a smattering of courses aimed at entrepreneurial postgraduates. One of the most successful so far has been the MSc in enterprise offered by London South Bank University. Set up in 2004, the course now has eight full-time students, who are all given generous bursaries of £13,000 each to help start their businesses, courtesy of the Higher Education Innovation Fund.

“We set up the course because we had some really good-quality undergraduates doing engineering and design,” says Dr Ed Tinley, the head of business and research development at the university. “We were frustrated that we could never do anything to encourage them to stay on at the university to develop their ideas – they were just being put on the shelf.”

One of first to enrol in the new course was James Barnham, 34, the creator of the Nova-Flo, a mechanical device that prevents baths from overflowing. James appeared on the popular BBC entrepreneurial programme Dragons’ Den last year, but was unwilling to give away a chunk of his company’s equity and turned down the money he was offered. The decision was a wise one: since appearing on the programme, his company has attracted more than £200,000 in private investment. The Nova-Flo is now in production , and should be available across by Christmas.

“I wanted to design a product that solved a problem I had recognised in London,” says Barnham, who was inspired to build the Nova-Flo after noticing how many homes in the capital were affected by domestic flooding. “I decided to make it magnetic, not electric, because people are naturally reluctant to mix electricity and water. There’s really nothing on the market that works in the same way.”

Incredibly enough, James failed all his A-levels, and says he is living proof that good grades aren’t the be-all and end-all. “There are probably people right now who are in the same position as I was after getting their results,” he says, “but I’d tell them not to worry if they don’t have a direction yet – opportunities come your way eventually.”

Already confident in his abilities as a designer, Barnham was attracted to the course at South Bank for other reasons. “The business side of the course was absolutely invaluable,” he says. “That was the area I was really lacking in. I was quite naive. It’s been fascinating to learn about the ins and outs of business, how you actually get the product in front of people. You don’t realise how much money is needed just to keep things ticking over – it’s quite a learning curve.”

The South Bank course may have only a handful of students, but that’s because entry is tough: potential candidates have to get through a rigorous Dragons’ Den-like interview in which they must “sell” their idea to a panel of judges before they are accepted. While he is proud of the obvious quality of his students, Dr Tinley admits that, without Government funding, the course could not exist. On top of the £13,000 bursary, students are given a living allowance, a computer and constant access to staff.

“We want to have more full-time students, and bring in others from all over the world,” he says.

“I firmly believe that there’s a lot of young entrepreneurial talent out there, but worries about the financial side of things push them away. So we’re also planning to offer the course on a part-time basis.”

Courses such as this one make it easier to overcome the obstacles associated with starting a company: business training is readily available, funds are supplied, and the element of risk is almost totally removed. They can also offer more mature students a change of direction. Just such a desire prompted Ronald Thompson, 50, to sell the hair salon he’d run for 12 years to pursue an idea that could now be worth millions.

“I felt that I was stuck in a rut and that my creativity was stifled,” he says. “I’d always been interested in the structure of human hair, and when I heard it was actually as strong as steel, I decided to put this to the test. It’s the best move I’ve ever made.”

The result was Pilius X, a unique new material made from human hair which Ronald hopes will take the place of fibreglass in the manufacturing industry. To show what it can do, he created the ergonomic Stiletto Chair, which has already fetched him a pretty penny: so far he has sold three of them for £5,000 each.

“Hair is far better than fibreglass because it’s stronger, more environmentally friendly, biodegradable and also abundant,” he says.

A recent graduate of South Bank’s MSc in enterprise, Ronald now plans to move on to a PhD – but this isn’t going to stop him running his new company, Pilius X Design.

“Anyone who is interested in design and has a good idea should just go for it,”

he says. “What happens with a lot of students is that they fall off the conveyor belt after leaving university. There are loads of people out there who are cleverer than me, but they just haven’t applied themselves. I work very hard.”

Entrepreneurial activity among students is on the rise in Britain, partly thanks to the work of the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, set up in 2004 at the behest of Gordon Brown. It is now helping more than 6,000 students on the way to becoming the next Richard Branson, but the UK is still a long way behind the USA.

“In the US, the whole university environment is a much more entrepreneurial,” says Ian Robertson, the council’s founder and chief executive. “UK companies are certainly demanding more enterprising graduates, but we just don’t have as enterprising a culture over here. Plenty of British students think about setting up their own business but never act on it.”

The lion’s share of entrepreneurial activity in the UK takes place in business schools, and Robertson says that this has to change: “It’s the engineers, the scientists and the artists that we need to imbue with entrepreneurial ideas and support,” he says. “Anyway, enterprise isn’t just about setting up a business, it’s about having the right behavioural skills. Big companies are looking for people who can understand and negotiate risk: two key attributes of a good entrepreneur.”