Many universities and colleges provide facilities for business start-up and spin-out companies. Some of these facilities are open to anyone who has a decent business idea and the enthusiasm to see it through whilst others are restricted to alumni and current students/staff; this depends on where the funding for the space has come from.
Larger universities are able to provide specialist laboratory facilities that young start-up businesses cannot afford to kit out to meet stringent health and safety legislation. For example the University of Manchester offers wet labs in their Core Technology Facility.
These young businesses offer a bridge between the academic and business worlds; they work in, and are supported by, both sectors and frequently offer employment and placement to students. Clients within the Hatchery at Northumbria regularly take on student placements; it is a very common occurrence as they are aware of, and familiar with, the level of talent and the skill sets available to them in particular areas. This sort of relationship works both ways – and can prove mutually beneficial for both the Hatchery client business and the placement student.
They view being a part of the university or college as very important to the success and growth of their businesses.
The working space needs to be functional, stimulate innovation and creativity and still project a professional image to the business world; this they seem to manage as the case studies and images demonstrate.
Many of these spaces are hosted within the university or college buildings, often starting out being attached to a particular faculty or department, but a good number are in science parks or buildings specifically renovated to host new start-ups. Some renovations add to the ambience, for example the Arches and Broadstone Mill which are part of the University of Manchester facilities.
Funding has usually been sought for the setting up of the entrepreneurship and business start-up spaces and to support the young businesses in their first year of operation. External funding enables the university or college to waive rental and support costs, provide free places on relevant courses, and provide local businesses to act as mentors. The amount of funding can be quite substantial; for example the University of Surrey has raised over £12 million over two years from grants/angels/venture capital.
Examples of funding sources are:
- European Regional Development Fund (ERDF)
- Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF)
- Research and development grants – Business Link
- Business Angels
The case studies have further examples of financial support and how it has been used.
Technology is a key component of the package offered to business start-ups; this may be offered via the university or college standard service or, in the case of this being too restrictive, by an independent supplier (who may be one of the start-up businesses).
Examples on what is offered include:
- Email for communication with clients and colleagues (able to respond immediately and have a record of the conversation)
- Integrated office software to manage the business (also helps with the tax return!)
- E-commerce for marketing and sales
- Wired and wireless internet connection offered for PC (supplied), laptop and mobile devices (client owned)
- Telephony is usually included with some examples of a full call answering service that adds to the professional business image. For example, SETsquared at the University of Surrey provides its client businesses with a telephone minding service via the switchboard at reception providing an additional layer of professionalism and creating an excellent impression for external callers
- Photocopying and scanning facilities that are usually linked to the email system
- Videoconferencing facilities
- Plasma screens can be used to highlight meetings, courses and social gatherings. For example, the Northern Lights Reception area at UCLAN has an electronic plasma screen noticeboard advertising workshops and other activity as well as highlighting the businesses located within the space. A business of the month competition is also held at Northern Lights and advertised on the screen
- Electronic notice board for individual offices. Where the businesses are located in individual offices (usually in ‘grow-on’ spaces), technology can be used to show ‘out-of-office’ and enable visitors to leave a message. InfoLab21 at Lancaster University uses the HERMES II interactive office display. There are 40 display screens sited outside rooms throughout the building giving information on the office residents and allowing notes and messages and other electronic material to be recorded. HERMES II has been tested and developed at Lancaster
- Email lists and newsletter. Incubator Centre staff commonly use e-mail lists and newsletters to keep in touch with their clients; this is especially important for virtual clients (those who use access the services but rarely visit the premises)
- Online collaborative tools. The University of Glamorgan has set up a blog – GBlog – to encourage SMEs, including the start-up companies, to interact with each other and with University staff. For more information on using online collaborative tools in this way see our guide to using collaborative online tools for business and community engagement.
- Room booking systems – for example, SETsquared Surrey and SETsquared Bristol use Steelcase which is a Room Wizard booking system that allocates the space and notifies visitors of the availability, or otherwise of the individual rooms
Most incubator or start-up spaces are open-plan with individual offices supplied as ‘grow-on’ space for when the businesses have a few employees. The open-plan office allows for more people to use the space but also encourages an atmosphere of entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity. In these spaces, the young companies will support each other for example with web design or e-commerce.
A café area can frequently be found within the open-plan office with a range of comfortable seating provided. Where the start-up space is located within a business park or consists of individual offices, then a shared café is generally provided.
Hot-desking is preferred by some as it offers a cost efficient alternative to a permanent desk and storage space and is especially appropriate where the client (start-up business) prefers to be, in the main, a ‘virtual client’.
Small, enclosed mobile office units can provide privacy when required.
A range of support services are offered as part of the package. These include:
- Early advice and guidance on producing a business plan
- Regular meetings to ensure that the business is on track and to identify and additional support required
- Training in specific areas (may be a module from a taught course) for example e-commerce
- Introductions to local support
- Business club
- Provision of a business mentor
- Advice on funding opportunities
- Social activities (‘pizza and beer’ meetings seem to be particularly popular!)
These spaces have a buzz that is partly the space itself, partly the enthusiastic entrepreneurs, but also due to the support staff who are dedicated to the success of the start-up businesses.