Dr Christopher Corbishley

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Dr Chris Corbishley is Business Coach in Residence at Imperial College London’s . In this interview, Chris – also a PhD graduate of Imperial – explains the role of the Enterprise Lab and how enterprising students within the Business School can benefit from it.

What is Enterprise Lab?

Enterprise Lab has a dual mission to support innovators and entrepreneurs across the College and in the Business School. We understand that not every student or early-stage researcher wants to become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk (although many of them do!). In fact, the vast majority want to develop an entrepreneurial mindset or make connections that will propel them through a career in the City, corporate R&D or innovative organisations such as Google, Tesla and Alibaba.

Throughout the academic calendar, Enterprise Lab provides a space to work, connect and ideate as well as an opportunity to attend high-profile networking events. We have designed serendipity into the space so that students can meet their peers across the College, and establish connections with potential team members or enterprising alumni who have gone on to establish successful ventures.

Enterprise Lab is so much more than just a physical space. On top of its flagship programmes such as the Venture Catalyst Challenge, Althea-Imperial and Horizons, we are currently building out an alumni network of mentors and Entrepreneurs-in-Region from Silicon Valley to Singapore. Meanwhile, we aim to advance current thinking around venture development by delivering a unique approach informed by our global academic network.

What does your role as ‘Business Coach in Residence’ entail?

The role is as versatile as it sounds. Alongside my own start-up activities, the ‘in-residence’ component focusses in on three main areas: 1) Venture coaching, which involves engaging a global community of business coaches, Entrepreneurs in Region and mentors to develop a unique methodology tailored to the needs of Imperial student ventures, whether they are based on deep science or business model innovation;  2) External engagement, specifically tapping into London’s start-up ecosystem through my experience with the London Stock Exchange ELITE programme and a network of high-growth start-ups developed within my own consultancy Growth Squared, and finally 3) Thought-leadership and sharing insights from scaling start-ups and ecosystem development, themes that underpin a monthly event series I organise called Next Practice. This panel-based networking event moves beyond current best practices to look ahead at how cutting-edge technologies, burgeoning consumer trends and business model innovation are disrupting the status quo.

When a student has a business idea or start-up, what venture support do they get?

Start-ups share similar lifecycles to their founders. Think about it… You’re born, you skate through adolescence, you learn which way is up and eventually you begin to professionalise and mature. Venture support depends on where students are in their entrepreneurial journey as well as inevitably the academic calendar. Ultimately, there are three things students need to evaluate when embarking on a potential new venture: 1) First and foremost, do you have a valid idea? 2) Are you certain your customers will value your product? 3) Finally, are you able to demonstrate to investors that you have a valuable business?

Most often, students begin with very early-stage ideation, at which point the focus is on ‘Idea Surgeries’, designed to help them identify and evaluate the specific problem(s) they are trying to solve. After this, we encourage students to test the product/service through customer discovery and make use of rapid prototyping. Finally they need to articulate the market opportunity and understand the unit economics of their business model. Once they have developed this ‘pitch’, we offer a range of support including opportunities to compete in front of expert judging panels, a process that sometimes leads them to find their first customer or investor, providing some form of external validation.

Why should a student start-up in the Business School make use of the Enterprise Lab?

By leveraging access to the programmes, attending events, and networking with the Enterprise Lab community, students can benefit from whole host of resources to support their budding ventures. Part of this involves the opportunity to raise modest seed funding taking part in internal competitions such as VCC or I&E START, or gaining support for external competitions in the UK and internationally for follow-on funding. For example, in the last two months we’ve had at least three students go on to win £150,000 between them. We also aim to connect them to a broader community of expert advisors, investors and mentors, many being Imperial alumni. Finally, students can benefit from world-leading knowledge and advice on setting up their business, protecting IP or networking across the College ecosystem to gain capabilities in areas of science, technology or medicine required to grow their businesses.

Imperial Enterprise Lab is involved in the Imperial College Business School Case Centre. Can you tell us about that?

The Business School Case Centre is a collection of case studies written by myself and members of the business school faculty that have been pooled into a single resource. By virtue of my own start-up experiences and working on the London Stock Exchange ELITE programme, I have written several case studies on the subject of venture capital finance and scale-ups, many based on high-growth start-ups in the UK and internationally, including Graze, Skyscanner and JustEat. I am personally fascinated by the question of how to build start-ups of scale, whose market, product and founding team have significant growth designed in from the start.

Case studies combine business concepts with real-world entrepreneurial insight. It’s a perfect fit for venture development as the theory taught in the classroom is complemented by the war stories of real-life start-up situations. Typically, during my case study sessions, students are faced with the same uncertainty as the case’s original protagonist, many of whom are personal contacts who often come back into tell us what really happened. Everyone has to stand for something and students are asked to provide their own opinion.

In every session, someone is cold-called to respond to questions such as: What would you do if your supplier cut off your credit line or your VC investors pulled out right at the last minute? When and how could a data-driven mentality help a start-up to break into the US market? How can start-ups mitigate strategic dependencies present in their value chain? After each discussion, we consider what did happen and the pros and cons of each decision. This process allows students to relate back to their own experiences in business, whether during the process of starting their own venture or taking those skills into corporate careers. It is effective because it challenges them how to think, not what to think.

You previously studied at Imperial College Business School. Tell us about your experience here.

Prior to studying the MSc Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management I worked for a couple of years in media and advertising, including a one-year stint as a contractor for the BBC which took me to London, Paris and New York, and then as a full-time Account Manager at WPP. After these experiences, I made the decision to move into more strategic roles in industry and the Business School was the perfect opportunity to do it. I had already started my own production company and I was hungry to learn the skills to take it forward and grow.

Made possible with a scholarship onto the MSc programme, I had one year to learn the fundamentals of economics, accounting and strategy. I learned the language of business and channeled these skills towards managing my own business to finance my studies. Studying during the weekdays, I spent weekends continuing my contract work as well as launching a 360-degree film company called Full Circle Interactive, which I later exited. By the third term, I entered a competition sponsored by Imperial Innovations with another student and was offered a £10,000 investment to pursue my business idea. For various reasons, we turned it down and I embarked on a PhD, which took my skills and experiences to an entirely new level.

You also completed a PhD at Imperial College Business School. What did your research focus on?

My PhD research was funded by the Economics and Social Research Council to investigate the determinants of scaling up large-scale infrastructure, specifically energy and healthcare services in “low-cost” contexts, (e.g. India and East Africa). At the same time, I worked closely on the London Stock Exchange ELITE programme, providing the founders, CEOs and executive teams of the UK’s fastest growing companies with a tailored portfolio of business support tools and education services. 

Three years of doctoral studies gave me an opportunity to work closely with some really innovative organizations. I became fascinated by the challenges of scaling-up in different contexts and also realised the importance of ecosystem development. These interests I pursued through my consulting work, which also involved research on the emergence of economic clusters, co-authoring a study which informed the strategy behind Imperial’s White City development, a new campus that includes a £150m cross-disciplinary, academia-industry research and translation hub. My PhD also allowed me to travel, and to understand business in international contexts, benefiting from research placements at Hong Kong University’s Faculty of Business & Economics, where I studied copycat business models in South East Asia and a stint as a visiting researcher at Singapore’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business.

How has the entrepreneurial environment at Imperial grown during your time here as a student and now as Business Coach in Residence? How will it continue to be successful in the future?

Imperial’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has transformed in recent years, much in line with broader developments across the UK and internationally. Since 2008, support infrastructure for high-potential and high-growth start-ups has expanded considerably. Since leaving Imperial, my work with “Future 50” companies, including my role as Head of Analytics at e-commerce scale up Swoon Editions has allowed me to see this change first hand. When I first started out as an entrepreneur you had to create your own support network, waiting for contract revenue to accumulate before making your next move or realise your business model simply wasn’t scalable. Imperial Enterprise Lab provides students with a strong support base, so when I got the call asking if I would be interested in coming back to help launch it, I couldn’t say no!

Looking ahead, there are two main developments that will allow the Enterprise Lab to increase its impact: Mobilising its vibrant alumni network in ways that can support student-led enterprise, and the new White City campus, which includes an advanced Hackspace that can support students with the physical prototyping required to build a technology business. Both the Enterprise alumni community and Imperial’s immediate ecosystem will be key in supporting the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.

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