President of Cambridge University Entrepreneurs, Cong Cong Bo
"At MIT, for example, even as an undergraduate, you can take time out of your studies to start a business, which would be unheard of in Cambridge. This is perhaps a fairly radical step to take, but we could certainly encourage more free-flow between industry, academia and the start-up scene."
BACKGROUNDER: CUE organises the most successful student run business planning and creation competitions in Europe. Since 1999, it has had over 450 entries and has awarded over £320,000 in grants to 41 business ideas. These companies have raised more than £28m further funding and are currently valued at more than £42m. Its competitions aim to help create global companies.
1) What led you to become interested in the entrepreneurial world? Running my own company was my dream as a kid – I just didn’t know it was called entrepreneurship. I have also had a deep interest in science, but in particular the impact of scientific research on real life. Whilst running Scisoc (the CU Scientific Society), I saw science and technology being commercialised and knew this was where I wanted to be. 2) What have been CUE’s outstanding achievements to date? Creating £45m worth of companies over nine years is a tremendous achievement. Put into context, this is greater than the total amount that the London Business Angels have invested collectively in the same period. What’s also impressive is that the number of companies and their quality increases year on year. For example, we awarded 11 £1k prizes this year instead of the usual 10 due to the high quality of the entries and there are 15 finalists of the £5k, which is the highest number in our history. CUE is consistently producing future global companies – a recent example being Light Blue Optics, which opened its first US office last year. 3) What contribution does your Entrepreneurs’ Challenge competition make in training the entrepreneurs of tomorrow? We provide a framework that takes someone from having an idea to being ready to start a business in under a year. As well as three phases of competitions, our Business Training Events instruct teams on marketing, finance and how to write a winning business plan. We organise intellectual property workshops showing teams how to protect their ideas. Pitching masterclasses highlight the importance of being able to sell the idea. Networking opportunities and speed networking events allow people to meet future team members. However we recognise that not everyone will be in a position to start a business straight away, so we’re also geared towards getting people to think about starting a company early on and instilling the entrepreneurial mindset. For example, in Phase 0 of the Entrepreneurs’ Challenge, all you have to do is write down an idea in 100 words to enter. In the first year of this competition, we received over 370 entries. 4) How can CUE improve its performance? With better marketing, we could reach out to more people. Creating more opportunities for cross-discipline team formation would result in more successful teams. There’s so much we could get out of forming links with global entrepreneurial hubs as well as local businesses. More sponsorship would allow us to put on a greater number of training events and give out more prizes. 5) How entrepreneurial is Cambridge? Fairly – nowhere near Boston or Silicon Valley, but much better than anywhere else in Europe, hence our nickname of Silicon Fen. The success of the Science Park, the Business Park or even the Tuesday night OpenBeer meetings at the Eagle (where today’s and tomorrow’s entrepreneurs meet) show that we are moving in the right direction. Cambridge is great at technology, but it is also its biggest problem, being too focused on the technology side and not enough on the business side. I think the biggest hurdle in Cambridge, and probably in the UK in general, is that people are too afraid of their ideas being “stolen.” Therefore they won’t talk to anyone and get nowhere. 6) Do you think that the engagement of the cluster’s serial entrepreneurs is having an effect on the quality of Cambridge start-ups? Yes. The last generation of successful entrepreneurs feeds into the next generation of companies. They not only invest but also offer valuable experience and insight. Some VC funds have recognised the added value of angels who invest in industrial sectors they have experience in and opt to co-invest. 7) Which local entrepreneur do you admire most and why? Hermann Hauser – because he’s a true serial entrepreneur. He’s founded, co-founded invested and mentored a phenomenal number of companies and continues to be involved with the most promising and exciting companies today, such as Plastic Logic. 8) What can Cambridge University learn from Stanford and other US universities in terms of entrepreneurial climate? Here, we really need to adjust our attitude towards failure. This does not apply to Cambridge specifically, but the UK in general. In the US, someone who has tried and failed rather than not tried at all has far more credibility – one of the speakers at this year’s MIT Global Start-up Workshop said: “You need to fail twice before you succeed.” This makes sense, since people learn tremendous amounts from failing and will never make the same mistakes again. At MIT, for example, even as an undergraduate, you can take time out of your studies to start a business, which would be unheard of in Cambridge. This is perhaps a fairly radical step to take, but we could certainly encourage more free-flow between industry, academia and the start-up scene. 9) Are there enough incentives within the University for budding entrepreneurs? There are some incentives – a number of organisations, including CUE, Downing Enterprise and the new Parmee Prize for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise at Pembroke offer cash, prestige and other opportunities. One could argue that the incentive to become an entrepreneur is really intrinsic, that it’s about being your own boss and creating something. However incentives are needed to help students discover that they’re entrepreneurial, so the more the better. For example, I know quite a few entrants who initially came for the free food at events! 10) Why do you think it is that Cambridge University has yet to produce a truly world-class company? I think it already has. Many of the ARM founding team members were educated at Cambridge and now their processors are found in the vast majority of mobile phones and other portable devices worldwide. Autonomy was founded by Dr Mike Lynch who read Natural Sciences at Christ’s followed by a PhD and research fellowship. I believe Plastic Logic will also be a strong candidate in the future.