Is there a new wave of entrepreneurialism?

Dragon's den in action.

Entrepreneur. It is a word that, courtesy of television programmes like "The Apprentice" and "Dragon's Den", conjures up images of a lone wolf or "dragon" with a business vision. When one thinks of entrepreneurialism one immediately thinks of personalities like Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs building a brand and a business empire in their own image, hewn from their own industry and wild creativity. Entrepreneurialism appears then to be something wholly individual, almost egotistical, and consumer-facing. It is not a term one would often associate with big businesses and certain sectors – professional services being particularly close to my heart - seen as almost anti-entrepreneurial. 

Yet I believe any good business has an entrepreneurial heart beating at its core. Entrepreneurialism is all about change, creating a competitive advantage so that you can outperform your competitors. It is this urge to create competition and then to beat it that lies at the centre of successful entrepreneurship.

The most successful companies empower people to think in an entrepreneurial manner by enabling employees to feel able to express themselves within a safe environment, to challenge, to be challenged and to talk openly without fear of being derided. Promoting diversity in the workplace, both in terms of skill and background, enables businesses to create what you might term a ‘melting pot of ideas’ capable of producing a regular stream of creative ideas based on the pooling of a wide variety of influences and knowledge. I would go so far as to argue that under the right conditions - a blend of framework, incentives and liberalism - businesses can produce an entrepreneurial spirit capable of matching the most creative of "dragons". Fostering a global community of budding young entrepreneurs is a subject close to my heart and something I am personally involved with, sitting as I do on the board of Youth Business International (YBI), a global charity with members in 40 countries - inspired by the Prince of Wales and linked to the Prince's Trust - whose purpose is to encourage young entrepreneurs. The cultivating of young entrepreneurs around the world not only helps stimulate growth, it also eases youth unemployment, which is a massive global problem.

A big part of entrepreneurialism is based on making calculated risks. For any business with ambitious growth plans it is no different. Companies make calculated risks all the time in an effort to expand their frontiers – be they geographical, operational or cultural. In a post-financial-crisis environment, however, businesses must be able to retain their “permission for entrepreneurialism”. There is an inherent contradiction in political rhetoric which on one hand exhorts banks to lend more so that businesses can grow and on the other enshrines an anti-risk culture. Expansion at this phase of the economic cycle is especially tricky and the importance of a well timed and strategic move plays heavily on the minds of business leaders internationally. After a period of economically-induced relative stasis, I believe we are about to see a wave of entrepreneurial activity, whereby progressive businesses seek first mover advantage. As well as M&A activity, this could manifest itself in the form of investment into new geographies, potentially diversifying further from the developed markets, new technologies or into human capital - providing staff with the support and training required to develop new skills and new ways of thinking.

The appetite to take informed, strategic risks is a cornerstone of growth – and, as the post-crisis tremors show signs of abating, the ability of companies’ to act on this impulse will increase. Entrepreneurialism is not merely something reserved for the gifted individual with an idea and the bravery and perseverance to pursue that idea in a highly competitive marketplace, it is a central tenet of capitalism and an essential component of any sound business strategy. Without entrepreneurialism, businesses stagnate. Perhaps in the UK we need to ramp up what has historically been a strong part of the "national character" - an outward looking urge to trade new items with new territories.

If you want to see Dragon's Den in action, look no further than global businesses and the internal culture they foster and you will find more often than not a thriving hub of creativity and bold business ideas.

Kelly Hoppen. Photograph: Getty Images

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com