With a little luck and a lot of hard work, young entrepreneurs can turn ideas into careers. Emma Davies meets some graduates who are setting out and starting up

As anyone who watches Dragon’s Den will know, successful entrepreneurs spot the gaping hole in the market that all others have stepped over. But to exploit that gap, you need more than just a good idea. University-run schemes can provide the financial help and advice that aspiring graduate entrepreneurs need to turn a bright idea into a business. 

Lucy Nuttall had her ‘light-bulb moment’ one evening when the person she was meeting arrived frustratingly late. But her tardy companion had a good excuse: she was a scene of crime officer and had been held up waiting for a footprint cast to set. This set Nutall to thinking. As a final-year business and marketing student at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, she needed an idea for a mock business launch project. And now she had it: a quick-drying forensics cast material.

Nuttall’s tutor knew the idea was a good one and suggested that she enter Sheffield Hallam’s Enterprise Challenge 2010. ‘I thought “Why not?”, and went on to win first prize from the audience vote on the night,’ she says. Nuttall sensibly used the prize money to get a patent in place. As luck would have it - serendipity so often accompanies success - her idea caught the attention of two of the sponsors, Sheffield-based manufacturers Gripple and Loadhog. The companies run a scheme called Incub that helps entrepreneurs or ‘cubs’ take an idea to market, offering expertise and facilities in return for a slice of intellectual property and subsequent business. 

Set in stone 

Nuttall was invited to meet the people behind Incub. While she was demonstrating how long it takes existing casts to dry - at least 40 minutes - Incub chairman Hugh Facey came in. He was immediately interested and when Incub helped her to set up her company, Frontline Forensics, he and Nuttall both became directors. In March 2011, Nuttall began working full time as managing director of Frontline Forensics. With the help of Gripple and Loadhog engineers, Nuttall began testing every material she could lay her hands on, from silicones to plaster, from off-the-shelf products to more specialised industrial materials. After four months, they had discovered that gypsum-based dental stone is ideal and worked with a company specialising in dental stone that was able to adapt the product to meet forensics needs.  

In November 2011, Nuttall won first prize in a competition organised by the Graduate Entrepreneurship Project, a partnership between higher education institutions in Yorkshire. The following month, Frontline started trading with two products: the cast material and a product called Evibubble, a plastic bag that is inflated around the casts to provide an air cushion for transport. Frontline Forensics now has 10 UK forces as customers and over 20 more trialling their products.

Boot camp

Young entrepreneur Michael Allen got his lucky break when he met an inspirational business mentor. Allen is currently studying pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Leicester, UK, but has already set up Business Boot Camp, a web-based resource offering help to entrepreneurs aged 18 to 25, partly through mentors. ‘When I was at school, I had a lot of ideas but wasn’t sure how to gain finance or who to speak to,’ he explains. ‘I was fortunate enough to get a mentor, Marcellus Lindsay, who is an international consultant.’ Lindsay guided Allen towards networking events and conferences where he met a lot of entrepreneurs. 

Inspired by this experience, Allen set up Business Boot Camp with Lindsay during his second year at university. Enterprise Inc, a University of Leicester programme that supports young people setting up their own business, also provided Allen with some funding and support. 

Now in his final year, Allen has scaled back the business hours but has bold plans for the future. One of his ideas is a project to support science entrepreneurs. ‘A lot of scientists have really good ideas but don’t necessarily know how to turn it into a business,’ he says. At the moment, Allen is focusing on his final year studies but aims to work on the science project after he graduates. He also hopes to do a Masters in medical robotics at Imperial College London to pursue his interest in dealing with contamination in hospitals. ‘Chemistry has helped me a lot in terms of substances. Now I want to learn more about robotics because I think the future lies in automation and sensor technology.’ 

With such enthusiasm and the benefit of youth, there is little doubt that Allen and Nuttall will make it in the business world. If you’re a graduate with a gap-filling idea, take advantage of university-run entrepreneurial schemes while you can. 

Emma Davies is a science writer based in Bishop’s Stortford, UK