Winners (L-R) Kanika Bansal from MediCen Devise, Madhu Nair from SACCADE Diagnostics, Olga Kozlova (Director),  Liita Naukushu and Helen Fisher from Beckdales Ltd.

Entrepreneurship is a popular subject for discussion with governments at all levels unanimously agreeing that we need more entrepreneurs and that the education sector plays a crucial role in creating them.

This attention has produced a multitude of initiatives from entrepreneurial courses to various competitions, accelerators, fellowships and hubs. In Scotland alone there are over 20 different schemes dedicated to support company formation activities within the university sector, some of which are shown on a diagram below describing entrepreneurial ecosystem within Scotland’s Higher Education sector.

“Today Converge Challenge is Scotland’s biggest business competition and entrepreneurship training programme. Our aim is to give every student and every staff member of any Scottish university and Research Institute a chance to develop their ideas into viable businesses.”

When Converge Challenge was established in 2010 as a business plan competition at Heriot-Watt University, we had a vision of providing our participants very practical, hands-on help on how to engage with their targeted market place. From experience, this is by far the hardest thing for those coming out of the university sector to do. They have to leave a comfortable environment of a research laboratory and enter a “cut-throat” world of business development and sales. The factual accuracy of reporting data at a scientific conference is replaced by communicating benefits to customers in one-minute elevator pitches on the trade show exhibition floor. And much loved technology becomes only a necessary tool to achieving positive cash-flow – a king for all start-ups.

As a founder of a biotech start-up in the early 2000s I vividly remember how difficult it was to build the networks of contacts and to deliver my first customer presentation. At a time I wished that there was somebody to help me write an introductory e-mail to a potential multi-national customer and tell me what questions to ask when I was attending an exhibition. This is how the idea of Converge Challenge was born.

Today Converge Challenge is Scotland’s biggest business competition and entrepreneurship training programme. Our aim is to give every student and every staff member of any Scottish university and Research Institute a chance to develop their ideas into viable businesses. Each year we select 30 projects that we work with and after the first three years of the programme, nearly 30% of our participants went on to incorporate their companies and 4 out of 5 of those have raised follow-on funding. Among them we count drug discovery and laser companies, fashion brands and web-based property letting platforms, peaceful drones and decision support software for managing large pieces of equipment.

We are open to ideas from all sectors, product- or a service-based and at any stages of development.

Converge Challenge consists of 4-stages that take place from March to September where participants deliver an executive summary of their idea, elevator pitch, a business plan and an investor pitch. The programme provides high quality training practical, hands-on help at every step. We offer seminar, webinars, surgeries, residential training and 1-2-1 mentorship.

For early stage projects there is Kick-Start that offers prizes of £1,500 and £2,000 for promising, innovative ideas. And for those ready to incorporate a company within 12 months there is main Converge Challenge competition with a top prize of £60,000, £35,000 are available in cash and another £25,000 is provided as an in-kind support by selected service providers enabling the projects to receive so much needed legal, financials, branding and IP advice. The top 10 projects receive a further bespoke 12 months dedicated training and mentoring.

In 2013 Converge Challenge received an ultimate proof of success. The European Regional Development funding was coming to an end and in order to sustain initiative eight research intensive universities and the Scottish Funding Council have all committed funding for a further three years. Leveraging existing resources of different universities, Converge Challenge manages to support projects from the University of Highlands and Islands to Border Campus of Heriot-Watt.

Universities see the value of the programme not just in a number of companies that it helped create but as a beacon for entrepreneurship across Scotland. For every participant that goes on to create a company there are two that have not reached that goal. But this is not a waste. They might not be ready to start a business now but by simply going through the process they gain valuable skills of how to deliver presentations, negotiate, carry our market research and create a financial plan. These skills make students more employable and provide researchers and academics with an opportunity to increase interactions with industry.

The Converge Challenge ethos is all about creating new Entrepreneurs. It does not mean that we expect everybody who enters the programme to set up a company. Our aim is to make them more entrepreneurial in life and in their career, whether they would ultimately choose to start a business, work for a University or another company.

The deadline for applications for 2014 is 2nd of May and as we are waiting for the applications to come in, we can’t wait to see budding entrepreneurs from Scottish universities raising to the Converge Challenge!

For more information see  Follow on Twitter @ConvergeC.

Dr Olga Kozlova is the Director of Converge Challenge and Enteprise Creation Manager at Heriot-Watt University. She specialises in creation and growth of technology companies with particular focus on assisting start-ups in sales and marketing, fund raising and building a team. Dr Kozlova started and ran a spin-out company and is an experienced mentor and non-executive director. She also delivers entrepreneurship training in the UK and internationally.