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Nonesuch: Bristol’s 2020 vision

4 April 2017

Dr Kirsten Cater from the Centre for Innovation talks about the radical new programmes offered at Bristol that will develop future entrepreneurs with the skills they’ll need to thrive in their future careers.

Posing for a picture in a cap and a gown, proudly clasping a degree from Bristol, graduation marks the start of an exciting new journey for thousands of alumni every year. But long before this special day is in sight, the pressure is on to stand out from the crowd. It’s not just about passing exams; employers are looking for graduates who can think on their feet.

Bristol is the first university in the UK to combine in-depth subject specialisms with innovation and entrepreneurship built into the curriculum, taught at its newest academic hub, the Centre for Innovation. And it wastes no time in setting out its ambitions for its first cohort – who are set to graduate in 2020 – asking students right off the bat: do you want to change the world?

Fifty-five students got off the starting blocks in September 2016 on 11 four-year integrated Master’s courses combining the intensive study of their chosen academic specialism with experience of entrepreneurship, design and innovation. Academic Director Dr Kirsten Cater explains: ‘It’s a radical departure from traditional higher education courses in that these students will approach their core subject from an interdisciplinary angle throughout their degree – and learn how to apply those skills to real-life situations.

‘By the time they graduate, they’ll be thoroughly equipped with the entrepreneurial skills, knowledge and experience to bring about positive changes to their world – whether that’s through innovating and starting their own businesses or becoming leaders and influencers in a variety of industries and social enterprises.’

World-changing potential

As part of the Innovation side of their course, Centre for Innovation students are set real-world projects and given briefs from external clients which so far have included global challenges such as recycling, flooding, education and transportation.

Dr Cater continues: ‘They work in teams to come up with innovative solutions to realworld challenges. In order for us to achieve this, it means breaking down barriers: students today are hesitant to take risks, to come up with ideas, and it’s because they’re scared of failure. That’s where our Innovation programmes really come into their own.

We’ve created a course where it’s okay to take risks and it’s okay to fail, but to learn rapidly from it and to pivot their thinking exploring other opportunities and ideas. ‘We often learn far more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.

What matters is how quickly our students can reflect on why the failure happened, adapt quickly in their thinking and move on.’ The academic team at the Centre for Innovation will use the next four years to instil a seismic shift towards an innovative solutions-driven mindset. In that time, students will also be expected to take their innovative ideas through to entrepreneurial development and implementation with confidence. As the innovators of tomorrow, they will be encouraged to collaborate, pursue and embrace opportunities, explore new ideas, and take intellectual risks.

‘They might not know it yet, but creativity and agility will become their greatest assets, putting them in a better position to cope with and thrive on whatever challenges come their way,’ says Dr Cater. ‘And in an ever-changing world where decisions are being made that can’t be predicted, the importance of being agile and adaptable can’t be overstated.’

The driving themes of the programmes stem from some of the University’s main research areas: sustainability and the environment, health and healthcare, and education and learning. Centre for Innovation graduates will be known for their ability to engage with and contribute effectively to some of the world’s key challenges, uninhibited by the accepted and traditional way of approaching things.

Dr Cater explains: ‘We follow a studio-based applied teaching approach for the Innovation part of their curriculum. Students move the tables and chairs to wherever they want them, sometimes spending significant time standing up scribbling on whiteboards or sitting on the floor making paper prototypes to visualise their ideas. We’ve had one workshop where we ended up throwing paper everywhere, one where the students had to create a dance routine, and often the whole studio is covered in post-it notes, including the windows.

‘At the end of the day it’s what students are looking for. I’m not saying that formal lecture theatres don’t have their place but when you’re talking about delivering this kind of applied content and learning, it’s in doing it themselves that has real impact.’

Sought-after graduates

Innovation students will be taught and mentored by industry experts and worldleading academics, providing them with a blend of practical and theoretical knowledge. Dr Cater hopes that the Centre will become a catalyst for connection, facilitating networking opportunities, partnership engagements and outreach, both internally and externally.

‘We’re delighted to have external partners mentoring the students, helping them to develop the courage to take risks and the curiosity to explore different ideas and opportunities. They’re also on hand to support business plan competitions, access to investors and angel networks, and to offer their expertise in person through guest lectures and workshops. All the way through their course, our Innovation students will be able to draw on a network of mentors and investors, and for those students who are ready to start their own venture that network will be ready to support them.’ Dr Cater also recognises the benefit of an academically rigorous and industry-focussed curriculum.

‘They will be some of the most soughtafter graduates entering the workforce,’ says Dr Cater. ‘All great companies are constantly innovating to stay ahead of the game and our graduates will fit right in with their core subject strength as well as their ability to innovate and think about future markets and opportunities. The most successful innovators and entrepreneurs understand a subject area in detail so that they are able to create a suite of products or services to solve problems in that area, rather than just being a one-hit wonder.’

Bristol’s innovators

The University of Bristol is proud to count among its distinguished alumni entrepreneurs Will Dean (BSc 2003), CEO and Founder, Tough Mudder. ‘When I was at Bristol as an undergraduate, I’d have jumped at the opportunity to have been able to access a programme like this,’ says Will. ‘These students are learning what it means to write a business plan and pitch to investors, to take an idea and put it into action. It’s all about execution.

Tough Mudder isn’t the only company of its type out there, and we didn’t invent mud runs or obstacle courses. There are a set of steps that aspiring entrepreneurs can follow – and those steps can be taught. It is a pleasure to be in a position to offer Bristol students access to people who have been there and done that. People who have tried, made mistakes and learned from them – it’s all part of it.’

Another alumnus who has shown exemplary entrepreneurial zeal is Paul Lindley (BSc 1989), Founder of of Ella’s Kitchen. ‘I was intrigued and excited by the University of Bristol’s own innovative thinking in establishing a degree course in innovation,’ says Paul. ‘Having spent a day immersed with the staff and students, and after giving a lecture and workshop, I’m hugely impressed by the potential to inspire and encourage world change-makers to think new thoughts; to fail, learn and iterate and to develop the people with the creativity and resilience our 21st-century society and economy cries out for. It shows Bristol continues to lead in the relevance, variety and application of its courses and support.’

Sky’s the limit

Other universities offer modules on entrepreneurship or opportunities to work on real-world challenges with students studying other subjects but no other university has gone as far as embedding this in the curriculum over a four-year integrated Master’s degree, making the courses offered by the Centre for Innovation uniquely attractive to prospective students. Dr Cater explains: ‘There’s nothing we can find that is similar to what we have created and we know from enquiries, open days and applications that the demand is high.’

The successes of entrepreneurial alumni such as Will and Paul serve to inspire current and future students who aspire to follow in their footsteps. ‘Students today aren’t short of role models in the media,’ says Dr Cater. ‘It can seem like famous entrepreneurs and innovators have set a superhuman benchmark but all it takes is one face-toface conversation to realise that they’re just people – people who have had an idea and the guts to go for it. Gradually, our Innovation students are coming around to the idea that they’ve got it in them. The line of questioning is: if not you, who? If not now, when?’

Alumni and friends have helped in a variety of ways to get the Innovation Programmes up and running, through gifts, advice on curriculum and extracurricular development, setting realworld challenges and briefs, acting as mentors and offering internships as well as providing connections and access to networks.

Dr Cater says: ‘I have been working on developing these programmes over several years and it is difficult to express how proud I am: of the University of Bristol for embarking on this new venture, of our staff across the University who helped to make it possible, and of the students who are just beginning their innovation and entrepreneurial journey.

‘We’re looking forward to the day our Innovation students become alumni and hearing about their achievements. And we’ll certainly be inviting some of them back as guest lecturers and mentors, and so ‘All great companies are the cycle continues.’