'Virtual incubator' vies to boost business birthrate

18th December 2009 at 00:00
College launches anniversary internet project to give global direction to future entrepreneurs

You cannot blame a college for trading on a famous brand. Carnegie College, on the edge of Dunfermline, changed its name from Lauder College some time back (founder George Lauder was the uncle of the steel magnate and philanthropist, and both grew up in the town). It is now poised to take an entrepreneurial leaf out of its pioneering namesake's book.

The college has launched Carnegie Internet Futures (CiF), a "virtual incubator" for internet-related businesses. It will help students with business start-up ideas, and tackle the low business birthrate in Fife - seen as a fitting way to mark the college's 110th anniversary.

They will receive expert guidance and support from Alex Clyne, a Scottish businessman with wide experience in web and business enterprise, who has just been appointed to a two-year (unpaid) post as entrepreneur-in- residence at the college; and from Ian Heywood, an ideas coach, who will head up CiF.

"We are looking for people with ideas to build their future and be part of ours" is Dr Heywood's mantra.

The college's aim is to harness the power of the internet to create businesses and jobs, but the timing of its initiative has been influenced by the recession. The number of people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance in Fife rose from 6,102 in August 2008 to 9,133 in August 2009, and the number of available jobs is reducing.

Mr Clyne, who has spent the last two years in the United States helping global firms such as Microsoft and Amazon develop "strategic direction," says: "The thinking behind CiF is related to the interest and nature of the 16 to 24-year age group, or Generation `Y'. This is because, in a recession, they get hit first and banks are often reluctant to consider them for funding, primarily due to lack of experience and the high risk associated with this group."

But, he added: "We often find that the best ideas come from the least experienced in business."

The "online hothouse" will not just be about giving birth to business ideas and linking them to would-be investors; it will also provide the crucial ongoing support needed to ensure they move out of infancy.

Mr Clyne, despite his successes, acknowledges that starting a business is not always easy. "I have had many high points in my career but being an entrepreneur can be a lonely business, and I have come to see the importance of having mentors and people to support and encourage you," he said.

He added that, whatever ideas people come up with - from a new product to a social enterprise, be it local or global - "I know from experience that it helps immensely to talk it through with someone who has made most, if not all, of the mistakes, as well as being successful".

Dr Heywood added: "The skills individuals will receive through CiF are all about employability skills for the next generation, and that is why I believe we have a unique opportunity with this project. We are looking to capture those who are really creative, who are perhaps turned off by traditional education but who have got good ideas which we can try and help them realise."

Although the plan is to help people develop businesses, it is also about using business to develop people - what Dr Heywood describes as "the opportunity to be locked into academic airmiles by picking up academic credits through what I call `stealth learning'".

The Carnegie initiative has local origins but hopes for a global reach. Using Mr Clyne's contacts, it aims to create links with partner organisations at home and abroad. He says there have already been expressions of interest from within Scotland and from the US, including the St Andrew's Society of New York.

It is not just aimed at the 15,000 students who pass through Carnegie's doors every year; it is encouraging all colleges and universities in Scotland to register with CiF. Participants will earn academic credits for their experience.

The CiF is seen as a win-win prospect for everybody. "Even if their idea doesn't come to market first time around, we aim to assist and support those who take part and help them move forward as they create their future," Mr Clyne said.

He added: "For us, there is no such thing as a silly idea." Andrew Carnegie would be proud.

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