The past few months have seen a considerable rise in the level of discussion around climate change and the need to urgently address it – and this includes higher education.
Whilst much of the university discussion has focused on decarbonising investments, reducing the campus carbon footprint, and the research agenda, students themselves are at the forefront of creating solutions – with student start-ups increasingly important sources of innovation.
With universities’ performances now being metricised by the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which maps them against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, there is every incentive to help these student businesses take off.
The Sustainable Development Goals, published in 2015, are an agreed set of guidance for a more sustainable future, with 17 goals identified – and it’s clear that universities have a major role to play. Many of the goals directly impact the environment such as clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, responsible production and consumption, climate action, and conservation of life on land, and below the water.
Of course, much of the universities’ environmentally aware output is in major research projects such as renewable energy, energy storage, and reducing the impact of environmentally unfriendly materials such as concrete and plastics.
At the University of Manchester for example, multi-million-pound research is looking to apply novel semiconductor graphene to solar cells and batteries, and also to create sustainable composite materials.
But while university research groups work on these big grant-funded projects, students are also advancing research-focused ideas by forming their own companies, for example Charles Veys founded Fotenix which uses cameras coupled with machine learning to allow farmers to target usage of pesticides and fertiliser rather than wasteful uniform application. Ben Dolman’s company, Holiferm, makes novel biosurfactants from work started during his PhD for eco-friendly personal care products.
As well as taking forward technical ideas from their subject of study, students are also looking local as well – entrepreneurs are good at spotting opportunities from awareness of their surroundings.
From running a boot camp for prospective student entrepreneurs recently, we found students were just as interested in local problems such as food waste, plastic waste, and cleaning up the local rivers and canals as well as the more trendy, big news issues.
Even clothing and its effect on the environment has not gone unnoticed by students with many student businesses tackling this issue such as Bundlee, founded while at university by Eve Kekeh, which rents baby clothes, and Pirkani creating a sustainable fashion brand.
This interest could be just the tip of the iceberg – students will only get more exposed to environmental issues and how their subject relates to it.
Many universities include social responsibility as a compulsory element interwoven into courses throughout the campus – and the latest Quality Assurance Agency report on Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Education specifically includes “Green Entrepreneurship” and champions its value in the curriculum.
So what can be done to help these student businesses move forward ?
There is already a range of help and support available but students might need to think extracurricular to get the most out of what’s on offer. There are learning activities for those at an early stage and wanting to take the first steps. The Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES) based at the University of Nottingham, running for more than 20 years, is a competition for postgraduates and postdocs wanting to learn how to commercialise research which has a popular environment category.
Students should take advantage of networking opportunities – concern for the environment stretches across the whole spectrum of university courses and subjects and link-ups between students with different skill sets can be successful.
The student entrepreneurship society is a good place to start. Events such as this month’s Festival of Climate Action with a focus on each of the four COP26 goals of mitigation, adaptation, finance, and collaboration and the COP26 event itself which is expected to attract more than 30,000 people are sure to attract a good mix of academics, practitioners, and policy makers.
These student businesses can be nurtured using accelerators – programmes of intense activity of varying duration (6-12 weeks is common) – including mentoring, skill building and often with access to facilities and financing.
Accelerators often work best when they are less generic and more specific, so a like-minded cohort of start-ups aiming at environmental issues graduating from an accelerator programme together is a great boost for their networks.
Indeed, accelerators are thought to increase business survival rates by 25 per cent – with the building of a community cited as the most important aspect.
Appeal of clean tech
Many accelerators with an environmental slant focus on “Clean Tech” – with one of the biggest clean tech accelerators being Cleantech Open, offering 12-week programmes for its cohorts. Based in Los Angeles, it has supported more than 1600 start-ups since its inception in 2005.
In Europe, the Rockstart Accelerator based in Amsterdam encourages energy and agri-food projects and has provided funding for more than 200 start-ups.
Closer to home in the UK, the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy has recently suggested there are 163 incubators currently active and run by universities, councils and corporates as well as private initiatives. Several focus on the environment, including the Climate-KIC Pathfinder programme and the Mayor of London’s Better Futures clean tech initiative.
The university is a great low-risk environment for testing ideas in a lean start-up manner and a good time to discover any unpredicted issues so you can pivot if necessary. One group of students I worked with making biocoal from food waste were surprised that when asked, potential customers were negative about the biocoal because they simply didn’t like the colour.
Linking student businesses with funders can also reap rewards, especially “Impact Investors”. Bethnal Green Ventures and Sustainable Ventures are amongst several investors that actively seek investments with an environmental benefit.
With their adept use of social media, many student founders have used crowdfunding to obtain funding for their ideas from a sympathetic audience.
With COP26 taking place in Glasgow as just one of many rallying calls this year, there has never been more focus on the environment and with investors increasingly looking at “impact investing” for more than just profit, student entrepreneurs with an interest in the environment are well positioned to take advantage of this.