Digital innovation and entrepreneurship: how we should teach students to bridge the UK's startup skills gap

My first experience of founding a digital technology business was more than 30 years ago. At that time, the vast majority of students graduating with Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM) degrees would unquestioningly expect to join one of the major technology or service businesses that dominated the sector. Interestingly, few of the tech giants of that day have survived – with a few notable exceptions. University courses reflected this situation by focusing their curricula and teaching methods on building core scientific and technical knowledge.

Since those days things have changed and the UK technology startup sector is now booming: the number of new tech companies launched in the UK last year rose by almost 60%, and the number of start-ups per ‘000 of population is now higher than it is in the USA. In 2017, the UK tech sector attracted £3bn of investment – a record high, almost doubling that of the previous year. The rapid growth and high productivity levels within the sector means that it has become critical to the long-term economic growth and prosperity of the UK.

Over the past few years I have been active as a mentor and investor working with a range of startups and university spinouts, through the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) Enterprise Hub and through some of the excellent accelerator programmes in London and the regions. The vibrancy of the tech startup sector is impressive and gives cause for optimism in the future of the economy.

It is therefore a significant problem that more than 30% of tech startups are struggling to recruit the talent they need to achieve their potential.

Against this backdrop it is interesting to review the ways that universities have adapted to the changes in the economy and the tech landscape; how are STEM students being equipped to start their own businesses or to join early-stage tech companies to meet those skills shortages, and how have curricula and teaching methods changed?

Recent experience of teaching business innovation and entrepreneurship to STEM undergraduates and graduate students provided me with three insights:

  1. Students studying STEM disciplines readily spark at the opportunities offered by the fast-moving world of tech business, and are keen to apply their inherent analytical skills to business design and realisation.

  2. A significant majority of STEM students graduate with only the most rudimentary and anecdotal appreciation of how digital techniques, technologies and processes apply to business and entrepreneurship, despite a formal education which includes a wealth of relevant digital knowledge and skills. Recent research confirms this: only 10% of engineers and 5% of scientists (1% of physicists) are exposed to entrepreneurship education. There are of course some notable institutions that have embraced the change wholeheartedly to their significant benefit.

  3. While there are many excellent books that address innovation and entrepreneurship, there is real need for a student textbook that coherently and in a structured way addresses business for those planning to enter the vibrant world of tech startups.  Essentially, a book that inspires, encourages and supports graduates to become job creators rather than to seek employment.

Dick WhittingtonThe broad objective of this book is to bridge the gap between formal STEM education and the digital business world; to provide a way of introducing innovation and entrepreneurship as core components of the skillset of the modern digital professional.

Bridging this gap is important to STEM students because the digital economy now encompasses more than half of the world’s population, and succeeding in this sector increasingly demands an effective balance of knowledge and skills in both business and technology. It is also important to institutions in an increasingly competitive environment in which student demand  expects courses that better reflect the current world. And it’s important to the national economy that the continuing vibrancy of the tech sector is fuelled by well-equipped and motivated STEM graduates.

The book is available through Cambridge University Press or Amazon.

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