Competition is our best motivator

A celebration of academic achievement at America's Harvard University. Picture: Getty Images
A celebration of academic achievement at America's Harvard University. Picture: Getty Images
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Fostering imaginative and creative research in universities can result in the creation of cutting-edge businesses, says Olga Kozlova

Scotland stands tall on the world stage when it comes to preparing our academic entrepreneurs for life beyond the boundaries of the university campus.

Invention and a strong “can do” attitude have prevailed across our universities down the years, which reinforces the message that we remain a strong country full of entrepreneurial flair and vision for ideas, creation and a willingness to want to make a difference.

Our universities have actively encouraged this, as noted in this year’s Converge Challenge, Scotland’s largest academic business competition, which has grown by 85 per cent this year, receiving 111 applications.

Our flame for innovation therefore remains undimmed. The Converge Challenge programme represents an opportunity for Scotland’s students and researchers to develop their knowledge and commercial skills, but it is the growth that this national competition has enjoyed over the past four years that is testament to how important competitions like this have become to our academic institutions.

It’s only when you look around the world and you see what other universities are doing to encourage a consistent flow of academic entrepreneurs that you realise Scotland can be proud of its achievements. We punch well above our weight.

With good reason, we can call the United States the birthplace of the academic entrepreneurial competition. Over many years, stateside universities have seen the competition element as a means to uncover academic entrepreneurs. Like Converge Challenge, they offer significant cash prizes and an abundance of training programmes, with the world renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University leading the way with a series of entrepreneurship education programmes – tailored courses that help drive the academic to even greater business achievement.

Harvard runs an exceptionally good competition Business Track, part of its New Venture Competition, which offers $50,000 first prize and provides an opportunity for students to put entrepreneurship principles into practice with an “integrative learning experience”.

And, like Converge Challenge, this is about more than winning a large cash prize. The organisers also want participants to take advantage of the bespoke learning and business mentoring support programmes that forearm these budding entrepreneurs with the appropriate skillsets to get their business idea off the ground.

Many of these mentoring programmes – in law, finance, patent protection, and suchlike – are run by corporate organisations which see the clear benefits of reaching out to the academic population at this stage. For them, it could be the start of a rewarding relationship!

Meanwhile in Europe, Unica – the Network of Universities from the capitals of Europe – a network organisation of 46 universities from 35 capital cities, with a combined strength of more than 150,000 staff and 1.8 million students, greatly encourages academic excellence, integration and co-operation between member universities throughout Europe and facilitates the integration of universities from central and eastern Europe into the European Higher Education Area.

It’s annual Unica Entrepreneurship Competition for Students and Young Researchers promotes a culture of entrepreneurship across Europe and has become a vehicle for young researchers to learn to compete and collaborate. This enhances the culture of entrepreneurship which helps link “high-quality research into contemporary society”, as well as improving the confidence of the participants in their own entrepreneurial skills and capabilities.

So, just as in Scotland, the groundswell of academic competition is alive across the academic world. It sees the exponential growth of these managed events as a beacon of success for their institution. They, like us, want to foster imaginative and creative research and see it transformed into cutting-edge businesses that focuses on growth and job creation.

One key lesson academic entrepreneurs can take from this transitional journey from higher education to business is what they glean from the experience. While the “competition” element offers resources that assist in creating the business opportunity, talking with peers and colleagues, expert business-leaders and hearing the experiences of others also helps to inform and inspire.

As entry for this year’s Converge Challenge closes, participants prepare for the next stage – The Elevator pitch process – in June. For such a small country, Scotland can be proud of its ability to continuously create and innovate.

Other countries do it very well too, but there is something very remarkable when you reflect on our legacy of continual innovation. Our journey never ends. As a nation, we have always been at the forefront of invention and much of this has spawned through our universities.

Converge Challenge is a great motivator to help encourage more staff and students bring their ideas forward to exploit the commercial potential of their inventions and continue our remarkable quest for technological innovation.

• Olga Kozlova is director of Converge Challenge


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