When’s the best time for students to start a business? Now.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency in the United Kingdom recorded nearly 5,000 start-ups created by UK university students last year.

Other recent data suggests as many as 17% of students in the United States run their own business while at college, a figure which is 11% and 10% in Australia and the UK respectively.

There are many examples of products we use every day such as Facebook, Google and Snapchat that were developed by students at university. So, it seems there has never been a better time to start a business as a student. But how easy is it to start a business at university in reality?

There are several conflicting elements for students wanting to start their own business. On the one hand, they lack real-world industry experience and the detailed unwritten rules of how the industry works, and most have very little capital and the credibility to approach investors. Added to this, data suggests that US student debt is influencing students’ desire to start a business in the US.

On the other hand, students have nothing to lose. Most have no dependants and are not yet used to a comfortable income. They can take a risk and even if the venture fails it is still looked on favourably by future employers who value the entrepreneurial skills gained.

University is still a time when you can experiment with what you enjoy, with some students using entrepreneurship to pay their way through university rather than getting a traditional student job, such as bar work or retail.

Student businesses are quite varied, from making arts and crafts to IT solutions. The biggest factor emerging, however, is probably the joined-up support that is available for students, both inside and outside university, along with positive role models who have shown the way.

Institutional support and funding

Entrepreneurship education can be thought of as three different aspects: raising awareness of entrepreneurship as an option, skills building and practical support.

This pipeline of support is now much more joined up, from idea to reality. There is organised support within the university from accelerators and incubators as well as access to mentors and academic experts, help with filing intellectual property claims, in addition to the vast resources of market databases and journals the university has access to.

Many external actors to the university are also very student friendly – Station F in Paris is the world’s biggest business incubator, housing more than 1,000 start-ups and is aimed at young entrepreneurs; and the T-Hub in Hyderabad, India, which involves government, universities and private companies; as well as the Y Combinator accelerator in the US, which has spawned businesses such as Airbnb, Dropbox, Reddit and Coinbase – and all welcome graduate entrepreneurs.

There are numerous funding opportunities – including venture competitions, seed funds and grants to help students get started. Competitions include the Rice University business plan competition, where FluxWorks won the top prize of US$350,000 in 2023; and the Venture Further Competition at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, now running for 20 years, which has categories for social, technology, environment, healthcare and services start-ups and a £100,000 (US$124,600) prize fund.

The Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, which have a US$100,000 prize fund for students who run and own their own business, was won in 2022 by Nick Cotter of Cotter Agritech who was studying at University College Cork in Ireland.

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