Thrown into the Dragons Den: A Review of the North West Enterprise School for Future Research Leaders

Below is a review of the North West Enterprise School I attended in May this year….thought it might be useful for others thinking about attending the next school coming up in 2011, or other similar enterprise events, workshops and training schemes.

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Alongside nine other postgraduates and early career researchers and lecturers from the University of Salford, I attended the North West Enterprise School four day residential course held at the Devere Hotel in Daresbury, Warrington, 25th – 28th May 2010.  The training course was organised by the Northern Enterprise Schools Consortium, funded by the EPSRC, with the aim of giving a whole host of new, crucial skills to future researchers, placing entrepreneurship and leadership at the forefront for the modern academic.

From the outset, the rapid pace of the training school was set to challenge and with a mix of BBC’s The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den style formats, the pressure was definitely on.  After a brief introduction from Dr Richard Hinchcliffe (University of Liverpool), from which one main theme of ‘stretching us beyond our comfort zones’ struck a chord, the forty attendees were put into five groups of eight, and allocated a top-class tutor for the week.  In addition to the tutor, each group had an additional enterprising mentor, a different person each day to provide a range of expertise and knowledge.

The four days all had a different focus: Day 1 (Innovation), Day 2 (Communication), Day 3 (Collaboration) and Day 4 (Performing).  I’ll be honest and say that after the first day, the thought of going home did cross my mind.  Having to work immediately with a group of unfamiliar people from all over the world, from a range of disciplines, and very different backgrounds was a testing experience.  The first day was full of power struggles, communication difficulties, misunderstandings, and finding my ‘feet’ within the group was a challenge.  Every day finished with a group review with our tutor, Professor Chris May (University of Lancaster) who quite rightly gave us a stern warning after the first day – we were not working effectively together and this was clearly evident in the quality of our work.  We needed to take the course much more seriously if we wanted to succeed.

One the morning of day 2 we lost a member, and by lunch time we lost two more.  Having been largely unsuccessful with our morning tasks, and now down to five members, the panic set in.  The afternoon started with the session ‘Futurama’ – being entrepreneurial requires the ability to work out what is coming, and what the future holds.   The task was to devise a two minute play depicting what life may be like in 2025 based on our PEST, an analysis of the political, economic, social and technological contexts which should be incorporated into any business strategy.  Perhaps because of the added pressure of acting and performing, or the inability to hide behind other group members, we came together as a team and for the first time produced a creative piece of work that we were genuinely proud of.   We really turned it around and started working together, uncovered our strengths and weaknesses and played them to our advantage.

After a brainstorming session on Day 2, Day 3 began with each group being given a KETSO, an interactive tool designed to help generate ideas and encourage creativity to develop a product that each group had to pitch in the afternoon to real life business ‘dragons’ at the Daresbury Science & Innovation Campus.  A nerve wrecking experience for anyone, I was chosen to represent my team and pitch our idea, a football precision trainer, to the dragons.  With a two minute pitch written in half an hour, it was the least prepared I’ve ever been for a presentation.  However with the support of my group, tutors and mentors, I presented well and answered the questions confidently under the dragons’ scrutiny of our product.  Unfortunately we didn’t win the task (congratulations to the night vision goggles group) and the familiar feelings of not winning anything yet returned, although afterwards we felt even more committed to making our product work and even more determined to win at least one task before we went home.

That afternoon we had a session on intrapreneurship, something that none of the attendees had heard of.  Similar to an entrepreneur, an intrapreneur works within an organisation such as a university developing innovative ideas, turning them into profitable outputs.   Into role play again, each group was given a brief outlining their particular research group – we were strapped for cash, at risk of being merged with another research group, and were currently working on designing a baby bottle that did not need sterilising.  We were given 45 minutes to prepare an impact plan and a pitch for up to £100,000 research funding, with the option of forming collaborative partnerships with the other groups who all had a different brief.  This task drew on a whole host of critical skills – negotiating with the other groups, considering budgets and financial aspects, and understanding the wider impacts of our research group and those of the other groups too.  Using the ‘goldfish bowl’ format, an individual from each team sat at the meeting table headed by two mentors who acted as the funders whilst the rest of the group members looked on.  Finally we won a task, some Millies cookies as our reward.  The day ended on a high, with the added bonus of the gala dinner that evening where the dragons of Daresbury joined us to eat.

The final day and back to the KETSO, upon which we had eight different arms of business (markets, marketing, sales, operations, finance, human resources, location, and support networks) to generate ideas, consider our assets, set our goals, and reflect on the dragons’ comments to comprehend the marketability of our football precision trainer.  I won’t go into too much detail about our product due to the lack of patenting on our engineering processes and the product’s internal mechanisms – a little something we learned in a session on intellectual property rights!

So to the final and ultimate task – drawing up an effective business plan and pitching our product again to a new set of dragons, some of the entrepreneurial mentors working with us all week.  Finally a success, we won the Grand Prize for our product, an Amazon voucher with advice to spend it wisely, perhaps a book on entrepreneurship or business start-up.

I thoroughly enjoyed this course and would like to thank the University of Salford for securing ten places for early career academics.  I’d also like to thank the organisers, our tutor Chris, and my group “The Magic 5” – the experience of working with this groupof people showed me how much can be gained from collaborating with international students from various disciplines, and what can be achieved when you go above and beyond your comfort zone.   The new skills I acquired and the existing ones that I strengthened will be invaluable to my future career, whether that be inside or outside academia.

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One response to “Thrown into the Dragons Den: A Review of the North West Enterprise School for Future Research Leaders

  1. Pingback: Finding a Voice: My Educational Autobiography (1/5) | Transformers in Disguise·

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