The University of Malta has taken over two floors of the Computer Science building to use as an incubator where star students from its entrepreneurship programme can get breathing space from overheads for their start-ups.
The incubator will have offices as well as an open area for exchange of ideas. It is being run by Ben McClure.
“We had just started working on the idea when PwC came up with its €1 million fund, offering €25,000 worth of free consultancy services to start-ups. Times of Malta was helping with communication. Microsoft opened its Innovation Centre at Skyparks. All the stars were aligning,” university Rector Juanito Camilleri said.
“This is crucial because in Malta, for various reasons, there is very little financing for start-ups and no business angels. We need to encourage more ideas, more research and more commercialisation.”
The incubator will mainly take students from the Intensive Training Programme in Technology Entrepreneurship being offered by the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Business Incubation.
The programme is aimed at entrepreneurs in knowledge-intensive industries, which means that graduates from engineering, science, technical and media backgrounds can “walk in”, according to centre director Saviour Zammit. Those from humanities studies are interviewed to ensure that their business ideas would fit into the programme.
The idea for the centre evolved from the Entrepreneurship Unit around three years ago and work on the centre started at the beginning of the year. The programme was officially launched in June.
Half of the €1.1 million received from the European Social Fund are being used for the training programme, which was entrusted to Oxford University-based ISIS Innovation. Its programme has been tailored to work in the Maltese context, Mr Zammit explained.
Each course is made up of nine stand-alone modules, leading to a Certificate in Entrepreneurship, a post-graduate level certificate issued by the University of Malta. To get a Master’s, the students need to spend an additional year drawing up a business plan, which will be comprehensive enough to present to a bank should they need to seek financing for their ideas.
The first module was held in July and three more will be starting in September – and the schedule is aimed at those who might already be working.
“The modules last just a week as this is ideal for entrepreneurs who need to take leave to study. Of course, after this, there are seven to 10 weeks of assignments for the students, backed up by online assistance and audiovisual content. This model – a blend of face-to-face and distance learning – works very well,” Prof. Camilleri said.
At the moment, the programme is being offered free of charge but depending on what happens with EU funding, the university will keep its future options open. “It is important for the programme to be sustainable,” Prof. Camilleri said.
The Incubation Centre will be the ideal continuation for successful students – although it will also be open to others who have not followed the course. Apart from saving on the cost of office space, they will also have access to the university’s infrastructure, such as labs.
“This is an ecosystem which gives them breathing space until they can get their ideas to market,” Prof. Camilleri said.
“It is easy to say that entrepreneurship is about risk, but it should not be about ‘taking’ risks but ‘managing’ risks. You need to have that hunger in your blood – but there is no reason why you should have to risk your home or your children’s schooling!”
His passion for entrepreneurship is clear – to the extent that he said the university might one day have a role to play as a business angel itself.
“Who knows? We would retain a stake in the company and this could provide us with a source of revenue,” he mused. “This could take the form of a Managed Seed Capital Fund, a public/private partnership which would include us, the Government and private investors, and would help get start-ups off the ground.
“There are other things which need to be in place, such as a Proof of Concept fund, which would be used to make prototypes, and I also believe the Government could have a scheme which allows its staff to take two years of sabbatical leave in order to give their entrepreneurial ideas a go.
“In this way, young breadwinners will at least have the peace of mind that their substantive post is protected should their venture fail in its formative stage.”
Source: Times of Malta