The numbers speak for themselves: More than 200 startups have been set up by Imperial students in the past six years, making the College one of the best places in the country to become an entrepreneur. So, what’s its secret? Three little letters: PhD.
“There is absolutely no way whatsoever I’d have started this kind of tech company without having a PhD at Imperial first,” says Dr Robert Quinn (PhD Mechanical Engineering 2021). Quinn is the co-founder of MakeSense Technologies, which is developing a small handheld tool that helps blind or visually impaired people navigate themselves without the use of a cane or guide dog.
Through the Imperial Enterprise Lab, a training centre dedicated to entrepreneurship at the university, he was able to access the Discovery Fund, a programme that provides specialist training for students and recent alumni who want to explore and test an early-stage idea. “They teach you how to analyse your ideas, how to talk to customers and how to not bias your customers with your own point of view,” says Quinn. “It also meant I was able to speak directly to visually impaired people and get a better understanding of how to improve the product.”
It’s just one example of the unique entrepreneurial ecosystems that enable Imperial PhD students to thrive. In Quinn’s case, he discovered that Dr Ad Spiers, a lecturer in Robotics and Machine Learning at Imperial, was actively researching a related technology area, having pioneered the field of shape-changing devices that can provide navigation to the visually impaired. Spiers has since joined Quinn’s company. “By taking the groundwork he’s laid and building upon it, we’ve now developed a really effective sensory substitution machine for people who are visually impaired,” Quinn says.
"There is absolutely no way whatsoever I’d have started this kind of tech company without having a PhD at Imperial first."
That Imperial ecosystem has also been of huge benefit to Alicia Blatiak (Materials 2009, completing PhD Electrical and Electronic Engineering in 2023), founder of software company Gridicity. The company stems from Blatiak’s PhD research on capturing value from electric vehicles and understanding their role in the future power system. “I was working on an industry project during my PhD and saw the opportunities first hand,” she says.
Gridicity provides software that can tell businesses running a fleet of electric vehicles when is the best time to charge up, but also when to decharge and release some of a vehicle’s battery power back into the energy grid at times of peak demand. This helps costs and cuts emissions but also will eventually enable firms to be paid by local networks to release this energy back.
Parallels with her PhD are everywhere, for example in learning how to be comfortable with high levels of unpredictability, which can be essential when trying to get a business off the ground. “The degree of uncertainty you face early in your PhD is very high due to the questions you’re faced with, like: ‘Where am I going to make my contribution’ or ‘What is my methodology going to be?’ Not even your supervisor can tell you things like that,” says Blatiak. “And you have to drive a product independently for years; there’s no accountability, it’s just you. So you’ve got to really want it.” Quinn agrees: “Both tasks require a tremendous amount of belief in your conviction, in order to persevere when things aren’t working,” he says.
That self-belief in a business idea was also instilled in Dr Richard Ahlfeld (PhD Aeronautics 2017), Chief Executive of Monolith AI, a company that uses deep learning to help engineering teams develop new products and solve problems.
“I remember hearing Matt Clifford, co-founder of Entrepreneur First, talking about the three things that you need to have as a founder: you need to really understand the topic; you need to never take no as an answer; and you need optimism and to believe it’s going to work,” Ahlfeld says.
Ahlfeld has since worked with major corporations such as Siemens, Honeywell and Rolls-Royce after setting up his own company in 2018. Monolith uses deep learning software that can analyse huge amounts of historical sensor and system data that engineering teams feed it to come up with the best potential solutions to challenging problems, requiring the engineers to do fewer actual physical tests. It meant BMW, for example, could assess and mitigate against the potential outcomes of car crashes by analysing past data rather than having to carry out expensive and time-consuming tests.
And Ahlfield says the research skills he picked up during his PhD have been invaluable. “I know how to skim literature and digest information quickly and accurately,” he says, “because I’ve done it for three years. So when I have a call with a head of global engineering at a robotics company, I can talk with authority about their products and be clear how machine learning could benefit them. I think in the area we’re in that’s critical for success.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a place filled with some of the country’s leading experts on engineering, science, technology, mathematics and medicine, the company founders have also gained inspiration from fellow students and alumni at Imperial. For Blatiak, the realisation she could set up a company herself came after attending a talk from a fellow PhD student, Dr Jochen Cremer (PhD Electrical and Electronic Engineering 2020). He had already set up the Climate Entrepreneur’s Club at Imperial, encouraging students to take on entrepreneurial initiatives that help the planet.
Blatiak says: “I went to an event he hosted, and he said, ‘I know we all feel that after our PhD, we can either go into a corporate industry job or we go into academia. But I’m here to tell you, there is another path.’ It just completely inspired me.”
Cremer encouraged Blatiak to apply to WE Innovate, a six-month programme at the Enterprise Lab for female-led startups. “It’s for early stage companies, with some really cool alumni presentations from female founders who would come in and share their experiences, and that was really inspirational,” Blatiak says. Blatiak also made use of Techcelerate, a four-month programme run by Imperial that aims to help participants commercialise their research and make a ‘real-world impact. Gridicity is now also part of an accelerator called Undaunted: The Greenhouse that supports startups looking to tackle climate change.
Of course, the transition from university to the commercial world is not always smooth – particularly getting to grips with the fact that the emphasis placed on novelty in academia is not necessarily replicated in the startup environment. “In academia, novelty is the holy grail as you have to make a novel contribution to get a PhD and further science,” says Blatiak. “Whereas in the startup world, you can have a new idea, but it doesn’t mean you are necessarily going to have a successful business. It’s so much more about execution. You might have the most cutting-edge technology, but you’ve also got to answer questions like who are your customers, what’s your product-market fit and what’s the size of your market. It’s a different language.”
For Ahlfeld, one of the hardest transitions has been in learning how to manage other people. “If there’s one thing you do not learn as an academic it’s how to efficiently run a team and a company,” he says. “In academia, you’re sort of taught the professor knows everything and people need to ask their opinion and what to do next. But a good company doesn’t do that – it encourages people to think and do stuff themselves.”
At the same time, some parts of having a business are perhaps easier than outsiders would believe. Quinn invested £30,000 of his own savings into MakeSense Technologies, but found it less challenging than he thought to raise money from investors for seed funding. “Rather than spending those savings, I could have tried pitching to investors first. The tax breaks for early-stage investment are very generous, so it can be quite easy to raise money,” he says.
Quinn was also supported by being one of five startups to win £10,000 in the Venture Catalyst Challenge, which is Imperial’s flagship entrepreneurial competition. Quinn urges potential startup founders not to be concerned if the idea for their business changes as they develop. “Start with an idea and then test it out and ask people about it. In the process of doing so, it will evolve, morph and change,” he says. “Eventually, with enough perseverance, it morphs into something where you’ve really tried to understand the customer and made something totally bespoke for them – that doesn’t just appear without any effort. But anyone can do it, even if you don’t have what you believe is a great idea. Just go with it, stick with it, and you might be surprised.”
Imperial is the magazine for the Imperial community. It delivers expert comment, insight and context from – and on – the College’s engineers, mathematicians, scientists, medics, coders and leaders, as well as stories about student life and alumni experiences.
This story was published originally in Imperial 54/Summer 2023.