How will next-gen entrepreneurs succeed in a post-pandemic world?

Serial entrepreneur David Cleevely CBE has been central to the innovative Cambridge ecosystem for several decades and instrumental to the city being crowned the UK’s centre of Science, Innovation and Technology. A super-angel investor, self-confessed technophile and significant Government adviser, he has helped new generations of startups, in academia and industry, gain global traction both as founder of the Cambridge Angels, Chair of the Enterprise Committee for the Royal Academy of Engineering and his involvement with Cambridge University’s Impulse Programme for high-potential tech entrepreneurs.

Last year, according to a recent report by the Centre for Entrepreneurs, a record 772,002 new businesses launched during the pandemic, up 13.25% on the previous year. But, warns Dr Cleevely, no entrepreneur is an island. To ensure early-stage entrepreneurs flourish, they must connect to networks, even in the most restrictive circumstances, in order for their future innovations and ventures to succeed in a post-pandemic world.

“The COVID-19 crisis – just like war, a natural disaster, or any other crisis – has made people think considerably more about their lives. It’s given people the space to think about changing career direction or ‘being more entrepreneurial’.

Often, people become entrepreneurs because they reach a crisis in their lives. Something changes, and they see an opportunity for further change.

But the entrepreneurial journey is a long and hard road. The idea of the entrepreneur as a sole superhero is a misguided one. This is not something you should be doing alone in your garden shed.

The very essence of being an entrepreneur means having to interact with lots of other people to gather the resources needed to realise your ideas. All entrepreneurs, irrespective of sector, need networks around them: advisors, mentors, sources of funding, people who can do some of the things better than they can do, people they can bounce ideas off. Even the most brilliant entrepreneur cannot exist in isolation.

Primarily, that’s because an entrepreneur thinks very differently to most. While most would think: ‘What can I do with the resources I have to hand?’, an entrepreneur thinks: ‘What is it that I want to do, and where can I find the resources to make that happen?’

This is why networks are so important and are central to an entrepreneur becoming and remaining successful – and why, if you’re an early-stage entrepreneur who hasn’t had the opportunity to build those networks already, gathering these resources during a pandemic is going to prove a challenge.

What is an even greater problem is that gathering resources is also largely based on serendipity.

I defy anybody to name one successful startup or entrepreneur who hasn’t had at least one important chance encounter which enabled their company to start. And this ‘chance encounter’ point is fundamental.

The very reason why the Cambridge ecosystem is so successful is because it is built on the college system: lots of people from different academic backgrounds eating together, talking together, sparking off each other and, most importantly, exchanging ideas. It’s only as a result of this that chance encounters can happen.

Over the last 30 years, the Cambridge colleges have had the foresight to widen who they have in their fellowship and to engage more broadly across the globe – so you have even more diversity of people and thinking, and even more chance encounters.

It’s all about being in an environment with like-minded people; the externality effects from being able to talk to these others and discover things: ‘I didn’t know I needed that, and you didn’t know I needed that, but we talked about it and, by the way, that’s what we need’.

It’s why The Lunar Society was one of the fundamental drivers for the industrial revolution during the late 18th Century – a dynamic forum where the members (largely engineers and scientists) would meet to exchange ideas and influence change, focusing and informing debate and catalysing actions. That incredible flowering of industry through the 19th Century – steam engines, coal mines, the cotton mills and the agricultural improvements – was driven by this networking.

Over this last decade, the emergence of shared working spaces such as WeWork, Serendipity Labs, Impact Hub, Techspace and a host of others is a clear indication of this continuing entrepreneurial culture: a way of doing something on your own but where you are immersed with other like-minded people who you can bounce ideas off.

Simply put, an entrepreneur can’t progress unless they have the follow-through that allows them to do the networking that will lead to the chance encounters to enable them to mobilise the resources.

And this is why now, we need to recreate the ability for chance encounters with online entrepreneurial programmes such as the Impulse Programme, which is run out of the Maxwell Centre at Cambridge University. These programmes have a vastly important part to play because, without them, an early-stage entrepreneur wouldn’t otherwise be able to engineer these all-important chance encounters during a pandemic and lockdown situation.

The Impulse Programme is a great example of how you can overcome this chasm and connect the bright but isolated entrepreneur into the massively complicated network of lawyers, accountants, funders, purchasing and marketing – that is, the entire network they need to enable their business venture. Entrepreneurs need help. They’ve got to get product into market; they need distributors; technical knowledge and so forth. Nobody has all that inside one head, not even Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk.

The Impulse Programme – which even has the tagline: ‘Chance encounters make amazing ideas possible’ – has now produced a raft of the UK’s brilliant next-generation entrepreneurs: Dr Steve Brierley, Founder and CEO of technology sensation, Riverlane; national award-winning physicist and co-inventor of Nu Quantum technology, Dr Carmen Palacios Berraquero; and Dr Rob Simpson and Christian Saville of trailblazing MedTech firm, Celsius Health, to name but a few. And, over four years, its alumni’s ground-breaking projects have attracted just short of £55million in investments and funding.

It’s proof that when you have high-potential individual with great ideas, and you connect them together with experienced mentors, such as there are on these programmes, who have been there and done that, the magic happens – and you don’t just mobilise resources, you generate fresh ideas and even greater innovation. But, most importantly, you are ensuring a successful business.

The pandemic has given the entrepreneur the space to think. There now needs to be far greater emphasis on mentoring and building a framework to speed up and support the capabilities of our next generation entrepreneurs. And then there’s the question of how entrepreneurship needs to change within large corporates, but that’s the subject of a whole different discussion.”