Dr. Claudia Cavalluzzo, Director, Converge.
More and more academics are opening up to the idea that research can be translated into a commercial opportunity, and that universities can be a platform to springboard entrepreneurial activities.
Converge, as Scotland’s leading academic enterprise programme, has spearheaded the enterprise and innovation agenda in Scotland since 2010.
The Converge Challenge, as it was then known, was originally a business plan competition run by Heriot Watt University as part of its enterprise creation strategy where its staff and students had the opportunity to ‘pitch an idea’ to an expert panel.
We have come a long way in nine years!
Those early days were certainly ground-breaking but in the intervening years, as more Scottish universities started investing heavily in enterprising activities, incubators and accelerators, Converge has become much more than a competition to reflect the growing ambition of our higher education institutions. It developed into a thriving enterprise programme where company creators and game changers reside.
Whilst the bedrock of the ‘competition’ elements remains – we now have Converge, Impact, Creative and KickStart as our four ‘challenges’ under the main Converge ‘umbrella’ – our programme provides a unique training designed specifically to best prepare academic entrepreneurs for the next stage of their journey.
The training is inclusive and diverse, there is no other programme that brings networking opportunities for academic entrepreneurs from every university in Scotland together with successful entrepreneurs and the wider Scottish business community, under one roof.
While the ‘competition’ provides a catalyst to engage and encourage academics to think more entrepreneurially, talking with peers and colleagues, expert business-leaders and hearing the experiences of others equally helps to inform and inspire.
But, what really enhances the Converge programme is the focus on investment.
Our training provides the necessary skills to engage with private equity firms; our events represent a unique opportunity to showcase the most innovative early stage businesses to the investment community; our awards ceremony is widely recognised as a national platform of validation for the most promising ideas.
However, our engagement with the Alumni doesn’t end with the Award ceremony.
We recently announced a non-exclusive partnership with Techstart Ventures LLP, a leading investor of seed capital across Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The aim of the fund is to accelerate the growth of early-stage, ambitious businesses enabling them to access the funding they need to grow and scale up.
The partnership is great news for our alumni looking to significantly grow and scale their businesses as they now benefit from dedicated access to the Techstart Ventures team. In Scotland, Techstart manages the Scottish Growth Scheme – Techstart Ventures Equity Finance LP Fund which is a multi-million-pound early stage venture capital fund financed by support from the Scottish Government and the European Regional Development Fund from the 2014-20 European Structural Funds Programme in Scotland.
Mark Hogarth, a Partner at Techstart Ventures, had been following the Converge success story for a number of years, and particularly the high quality and long-term ambition of alumni coming through the programme. Indeed, one of the first investments made by Techstart Ventures in Scotland was founded by a Converge Alumnus. He believes it won’t be long until others follow in their wake as Techstart look at supporting the growth aspirations of many more alumni in the future.
A long line of successful entrepreneurs that ‘graduated’ from the Converge programme are now fully fledged businesses across a raft of sectors – cutting-edge pioneers who have set out to disrupt and transform areas such as life sciences, robotics, construction, recycling, AI and digital technology, amongst so many more.
So far, between its inception in 2010 and last year, Converge has received over twelve hundred applications from all Scottish Universities and Research Institutes. Around 300 aspiring entrepreneurs have been trained, coached, connected and supported and a new cohort is about to embark on a similar journey. An impressive £1m has been invested by Converge in training and non-dilutive funding for the best innovative business propositions. This, in turn, has resulted in the creation of around 140 companies (of which 30% have been established by females) who have collectively raised more than £80m in follow on funding.
As the 2019 Converge participants get ready for the next stage – The Elevator pitch process – which takes place early next month, they also prepare to join a thriving community of company creators and world changers.
For such a small country, Scotland remains proud of our ability to continuously create and innovate. The opportunity of gaining access to seed capital through Techstart is the great motivator needed to further encourage more academics and students to bring their ideas forward to exploit the commercial potential of their inventions and continue our remarkable quest to push the boundaries of entrepreneurship and innovation.