Wising up: Why universities are rightly backing student entrepreneurs

2 Sep 2022

Ken Finnegan, CEO, Tangent. Image: Trinity College Dublin

As a new crop of students prepare to start college life, Ken Finnegan reflects on the key role universities play in fostering entrepreneurship.

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As a student 25 years ago, I knew what going to college meant. I was part of a generation who understood that a third-level degree would see me getting a good, steady job; in a bank, insurance company, or possibly even one of the new tech companies setting up shop in 1990s Ireland. The route to the world of work was clear cut, and college a recipe for success.

Looking back, it’s clear how much life has radically changed. Take, for instance, education. The greatest gains have been in the number of those with a third-level qualification, which rose from 13.6pc in 1991 to 42pc by 2016.

We now rank fourth out of 38 OECD countries for third-level attendance. Ireland is the fastest-growing economy in the Eurozone and, as a result, the best tech, pharma, medical device, and fintech companies now call Ireland their European home. Professional opportunities abound, and with that comes the luxury of choice for today’s graduates.

With shifting ambitions, the next generation are no longer satisfied with the ‘safe’ career trajectories traditional sectors can provide. Nor are they loyal to any one employer for very long, a trend helped along by how normal short-term employment on fixed-term contracts has become.

A job for life is not a feature of today’s working world, with the average employee spending approximately four years in any given role. As a workforce, this means we need to develop a whole heap of soft skills. We must be agile, adaptable, collaborative and resilient, as well as effective communicators and critical thinkers.

While the pursuit of that priceless piece of parchment – a degree that will hopefully lead to gainful employment – remains an unchanged goal for today’s college student, there is much more value to be wrung from their time at third-level. Experiences which can set the next generation up for success in this changing landscape.

A mini revolution is taking place across campuses, both here and abroad, where relatively new centres for innovation and entrepreneurship are moving students beyond immediate domain expertise, stretching their minds beyond the formulaic approach of a traditional third-level education.

Most third-level institutions have developed supports for the aspiring student entrepreneur over the past decade. Young, ambitious changemakers are provided with the impetus to become company founders, innovators, inventors and CEOs well in advance of commencement day.

The college environment lends itself perfectly – along with programmatic coordination from the institutions (and funding from donors) – to bringing together students from different disciplines, and providing them with the skills, tools, space and support to create sustainable enterprises. Examples include accelerator and incubator programmes such as LaunchBox, Trinity’s student accelerator.

Students who set up ventures at college will not only be prepared to develop their innovative and entrepreneurial mindsets, but – maybe more importantly – they will be primed for the future of work and ready to navigate change.

Take Equine MediRecord, for example. The company was founded by Pierce Dargan, a fifth-generation racehorse owner and breeder, during his business degree in 2016. The Kildare-based venture provides an equine health software solution to the horseracing industry to manage animal welfare and regulatory compliance and has just secured a rumoured investment of more than €10m.

Look at FoodCloud, founded by then business and economics student Iseult Ward and environmental science student Aoibeann O’Brien in 2013. Tackling the tandem issues of food waste and food insecurity, FoodCloud is now a global company working in Ireland, the UK, broader Europe and Australia. It has redistributed approximately 3.1m meals to people in need across Ireland alone, preventing surplus food going to landfill and subsequently reducing approximately 4,112 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Some enterprises founded by third-level students take off and are quite literally solving world hunger, climate challenges and much more. Even those start-ups that don’t succeed generate some of the most robust, resilient graduates you could meet. Before leaving college, they will have experienced situations that most people at 60 will not have experienced.

This cohort of student entrepreneurs are not only shaping their own future and solving massive problems, they are setting themselves up to be the leaders of tomorrow’s Ireland.

By Ken Finnegan

Ken Finnegan is the CEO at Tangent, the centre for innovation and entrepreneurship at Trinity College Dublin.

LaunchBox, Ireland’s longest-running student accelerator, celebrates its 10th year in 2022. Check out the finale on Friday, 2 September to see the latest student teams in action.