| 5 minute read

Empowering start-ups and scale-ups: University of Exeter’s entrepreneurial drive and collaborative vision

Lauren Kroemer-Pope

We would like to warmly welcome our new Initiator member, the University of Exeter. We sat down with Colin Dart (Technology Manager for SETsquared Exeter) and Joe Pearce (Head of Business Support for The University of Exeter) to understand what the University is up to in terms of engagement and impact, as well as current challenges and goals at the organisation.

What is SETsquared? And how does it feed into the broader University of Exeter?

SETsquared Exeter is a member of a fruitful innovation and entrepreneurship partnership between six leading research-led UK universities: Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, Southampton, and Surrey. SETsquared Exeter covers a range of activities at the university, including:

  • Student engagement across disciplines;
  • A pre-incubator and incubator called Student Start-Ups, covering the phases of ideation, market validation and new venture creation as well as providing small start-up grants to students;
  • In-house commercialisation process and;
  • Off-campus activities such as the Business Acceleration Programme at the Exeter Science Park.

Additionally, the University of Exeter participates in Scale Up, a joint scheme between the SETsquared Partnership Universities. Through this initiative, organisations that are looking to scale can approach us with their needs and we will look across those six universities to identify who has the resources and expertise to combine and meet those needs. This partnership therefore directly opposes gatekeeping resources and rather tries to find opportunities to connect the different universities and pool resources where relevant.

What are some key challenges that you have experienced?

There are ongoing cultural challenges in the higher education sector relating to the caution that academics have towards commercialisation, valorisation, entrepreneurship, and impact. With increasing reports coming through UK universities about the significance of impact, this is starting to change. However, at this stage, this cultural shift is very much a top-down push and lacks intrinsic motivation from the researchers themselves. It is therefore important to use language which resonates with the motivations, framing valorisation, and commercialisation as vehicles to deliver impact from their research

Another challenge we are facing at the moment is how to recognise and reward valorisation and impact within academic career pathways. On the whole academics do not have extra contracted hours or funding that they can spend on impact activities. Overcoming this challenge relies on a top-down understanding and approach from the departments and faculties about the importance or benefit of these activities, which many universities are struggling with.

What goals are you currently working towards at the University?

The advent of our new Vice Chancellor in 2020 precipitated the launch of our new Strategy 2030. This strategy has high ambitions, and entrepreneurship and innovation in education are written throughout. The strategy aims that every learner at Exeter should benefit from entrepreneurship education, regardless of discipline. Our current strategy also focusses heavily on impact. It’s about addressing not just local but global issues, social justice, and climate action. Exeter is trying to contribute towards a greener, fairer, healthier society.

Additionally, we are currently putting a focus on industry relationships and supporting the upstream co-creation of research areas and topics with industry. If we go upstream and start the process of collaboration in its early stages, we are able to socialise this innovation across the University and stimulate real cross-disciplinary thinking on the issue, to reach truly innovative solutions.

Can you tell us about some success stories that have been facilitated by SETsquared?

Some examples of successful start-ups and scale-ups that have come out of the University of Exeter’s SETsquared activities include Ecomar Propulsion and Mama Health. Ecomar Propulsion research, develop and produce high performance electric and hybrid marin

e engines which aim to rapidly electrify and de-carbonise highly polluting marine workboats. Through a collaboration with The Centre for Future Clean Mobility at the University of Exeter, Ecomar secured funding from the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition funded by the UK Department for Transport. SETsquared supported this successful bid by providing Ecomar with a dedicated innovation advisor and bid review support from a professional consultant.

Mama Health, on the other hand, have developed an app called ‘Mumie’ to support women through the post-natal period. It was early-stage engagement with SETsquared Exeter that led the clinicians behind Mama Health to realise that there is a scalable way to use technology to delivery clinical health support that can reach more people and therefore have more impact. With the help of SETsquared Exeter, Mama Health won a grant from innovate UK which allowed them to progress from ideas to an MVP.

What were your main reasons for joining UIIN?

We had seen some UIIN talks and attended the UIIN online conference previously. Fast forward to 2022 and we presented the SETsquared initiative at the UIIN Conference in Amsterdam. We really enjoyed the conference and found that the sessions aligned well to the work that we are doing at SETsquared. So, this year we felt like the conference was the natural destination for us to disseminate our findings.

The University of Exeter is increasingly looking toward industry engagement and innovation. These ideas are catching on at the University, but we need to start thinking about how we can engage further and create more impact. The only way we can do that is to look outwards both for validation of what we are doing well and an analysis of where the obstacles are, and then gathering insights around what we could do to overcome these obstacles. So having an association with a network like UIIN helps us to learn from best practices in these areas – something that is very valuable to the university.


Colin Dart and Joe Pearce

Madeline Arkins (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN. In her work she focuses on topics relating to social impact and innovation in regional ecosystems.

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