The state of student start-ups

Most people know that social media giant Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg who, at the age of 23, was studying psychology at Harvard University.


The founding of Facebook is documented in The Social Network, which includes a scene with Harvard president Larry Summers in which he sums up the state of entrepreneurship at the prestigious university.


“Everyone at Harvard’s inventing something. Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job,” he says.


While this may be the case for students in the US, is it true of Australian university students? Do student entrepreneurs receive enough support from universities or do they feel compelled to take matters into their own hands?


StartupSmart goes on campus to get the lowdown on life in the student lane.


Conflict in the ranks


RMIT University recently came under fire from students over its decision to dilute its flagship entrepreneurship degree, suggesting the university may have underestimated the value of the course.


The complaints were led by RMIT alumni Samuel Johns, who authored a blog entitled The death of entrepreneurship at RMIT.


According to Johns, RMIT is doing a disservice to Melbourne’s entrepreneurship community, particularly up-and-coming entrepreneurs wanting to grow, develop and practice their craft.


“The core value of attraction to the entrepreneurship program is being taken away, with the separation of young innovative thinkers and spreading them amongst the masses,” Johns wrote.


“Dispersing the entrepreneurial thinkers amongst the masses is going to essentially cause the current applied entrepreneurial thinking at RMIT to die a slow death.”


A winning ticket


Despite the changes to RMIT’s entrepreneurship degree, there are still options on offer for students to feed their entrepreneurial spirit, including the RMIT Business Plan Competition.


Now in its 11th year, the competition is open to all RMIT students and encourages budding entrepreneurs to develop competitive business plans for original business ideas.


In addition to a prize pool of up to $100,000 for winning teams, students participate in workshops, join innovation networks and learn from business mentors.


Professor Margaret Gardner, RMIT vice chancellor and president, says the competition gives students an opportunity to not only develop their ideas but start a new business venture.


“Prize money, networking and mentoring have all been key success factors in launching these new business ventures, and in the growth of the competition,” Professor Gardner says.


Previous winners of the competition include Tasmanian Air Adventures, which offers seaplane-based eco tours from the Hobart waterfront to the state’s top wilderness areas.


In 2010, Tasmanian Air Adventures won first prize in the competition, pocketing $25,000 as a result.


Team leader Christiaan Durrant, who is studying a Master of Aviation Industry Management at RMIT, says he was thrilled to have his business idea endorsed by the university.


“Winning the RMIT Business Plan Competition gives our start-up company great kudos and recognition within the business community,” he says.


“Since the announcement, there has been a lot of interest in us and the company. The financial support, the feedback and advice from business professionals, and the recognition and validation from the business community, are invaluable.”


Doing it for themselves

While RMIT prides itself on its hands-on approach to student entrepreneurship, other Australian universities are happy to let students take matters into their own hands.


Melbourne University, for example, is home to a thriving student-led entrepreneurship group. Student Entrepreneurs, formerly known as Agents of Change, was founded in 2007 by Amir Nissen.


Nissen says he was inspired to start the group after attending an event run by Melbourne Business School, which operates within the university.


“I was dismayed to notice that I was the only non-suit in the room. I didn’t believe that I was the only student at Melbourne University interested in entrepreneurship, and decided then that no students should have to go through the same process of discovery and disappointment as I did,” he says.


Nissen says student-led entrepreneurship groups have existed in most major Australian universities for the past 25 years, at one point or another.


“The problem is that they tend to die out shortly after the founder/s leaves… [But] with the increased relevance of entrepreneurship, it does appear that more student societies are being formed and beginning to make connections,” he says.


“It would be grand to become like the US, where every student with an interest in entrepreneurship has a place to meet like-minded peers.”


“Stanford [University] has something like seven or eight different entrepreneurial societies on its campus – that would be unreal.”


Jack FitzGerald, who founded online courier comparison company Ship 2 Anywhere while at university, believes all universities should have some form of entrepreneurship group.


However, he says students still need to take matters into their own hands if they want to be a successful entrepreneur.


“Being an entrepreneur is all about going above and beyond what everyone else is doing. Universities can only teach so much,” he says.


Down to business

Of course, not all student entrepreneurs break away from their university. Living Poster is an initiative of Melbourne University commerce students Alan Gao and Hank Yang.


Located on campus, Living Poster provides electronic signage solutions for students and the broader university community. It has the support of the Commerce Student Centre and the Faculty of Economics and Commerce.


Yang says Living Poster would not have been established without the help of the faculty, stating: “They have been very, very supportive of our business.”


However, Yang would still like to see universities take a more active role in fostering student entrepreneurship, particularly among student-led groups.


“Perhaps an increase in university funding to those clubs and, more importantly, an increase in their effort to promote an entrepreneurial spirit,” he says.


Yang says he’s particularly impressed by Melbourne University’s Napkin Competition, whereby students write their business idea on a napkin and pitch to a panel of VC angels.


“One of the more successful start-ups, that was acquired by Groupon recently, came from their idea-pitch competition,” he says.


That start-up would be Crowdmass, which was indeed acquired by the group buying giant earlier this year.


Crowdmass was founded in 2010 by high school friends Tim Wu, David Wei and Ying Wang, all of whom are university graduates aged just 22.


Despite the competitions available to students, Wei says there is no huge push on the part of Australian universities to encourage student entrepreneurship, so the task falls largely to the students themselves.


“There are no huge support centres within universities… There’s no structured program,” he says.


A Nudge in the right direction

Similarly, student start-up Nudge was voted best undergraduate team in the Melbourne University Entrepreneurs’ Challenge, a business plan competition run by Melbourne Business School.


“The business plan competition provided a prompt for us to think about starting a business, but there was no ongoing structure to help us actually do it,” Nudge co-founder Mark Parncutt says.


Launched in 2009, Nudge is a reminder service designed to help consumers take their medication on time. Parncutt, now in his final year at university, is also a founding member of Student Entrepreneurs.


He says most students in the final years of their degree are more concerned about finding a stable, well-paying job than branching out on their own.


“The vast majority of students are simply not interested in entrepreneurship or starting their own business,” he says.


“Universities can start to change this culture by showing students that entrepreneurship can be a legitimate career path and a viable alternative to getting a job.”


“This can be done through supporting entrepreneurship clubs on campus, having more subjects about entrepreneurship in the core curriculum of commerce degrees, and initiatives to encourage and nurture student start-ups.”


Parncutt believes the lack of entrepreneurship in Australian universities, when compared to the US, reflects the lacking entrepreneurship culture in Australia generally.


“But universities are a good place to help take Australia’s entrepreneurship culture to the next level as this is where you’ll find a large group of smart, young people together in the same place,” he says.


Book of Genesis

The University of Sydney believes it is already providing adequate support to student entrepreneurs, namely through its Sydney Genesis Business Plan Competition, which is no different to the other competitions.


According to event organiser Julia Di Kang, the competition plays a major role in providing workshops, mentoring and funding for student start-ups.


“The Sydney Genesis Competition has seen a wide variety of start-ups, ranging from a nanotechnology start-up specialising in the production of carbon nanotubes, to a customised loyalty program service for small businesses, to low-cost water safety testing kits for developing countries,” Di Kang says.


“This attests to the strong interest of entrepreneurship in students across various faculties and not just in business.”


Children of the future


Not surprisingly, industry insiders say the next generation of Australian start-ups will be focused on the internet.


“There isn’t as much web application start-ups as you’d expect to see due to declined numbers of students in computer science and software engineering degrees,” Nissen says.


“But the ability to get a WordPress site out there, and leverage the powers of Facebook and other social media, means that most of the next generation of start-ups are heavily focused in the online space.”


Yang, FitzGerald and Parncutt all say the same thing – web-based start-ups are where it’s at.


“The next generation of start-ups are largely online businesses due to the ease and speed at which they can be up and running,” FitzGerald says.


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