With the traditional job market waning, Westley Barnes goes in search of the new wave of UCD-educated entrepreneurs
A university environment offers a gateway to the fundamentals of career-oriented education as well as introducing many to the pro and cons of a flexible academic work schedule. However, an often overlooked aspect of a campus community is that of the many networking opportunities and insights into market niches that can emerge from a student perspective. Taking full advantage of the award schemes and department-based initiatives made available to them through the Dublin university network, several students are bucking the current economic trends by drawing inspiration from particularly student-related concerns.
One issue that consistently affects the personal lives and attitudes of students is that of contraception. This inspired Safetext.ie, set up by UCD Business and Law student Chris Rooney with his business partner and fellow student Liam Ryan. Safe Text offers a discreet way of reminding women via daily text messages to take their contraceptive pill.
The idea for the business came to Chris after talking to Liam’s sister, who works as a GP. “From there we decided to research this possibility and found that this was actually a problem. There was no service we could find that catered for issue either in the Republic or further abroad,” Chris explains. “We thought that given the technological and informative savvy of young people today we could solve this problem essentially by way of an online tool.”
Bearing in mind that the service they aimed to provide concerned such a sensitive issue, the pair decided that texting provided a far more subtle means of reminding their clientele. Chris explained why texting offered the most convenient method. “Safe text is a service which is both reliable and secure while remaining subtle. Rather than say setting an alarm on your phone, a text message is a far more discreet reminder, say if you’re sitting in a lecture hall and an alarm goes off on your phone; its far more likely to attract unwanted attention than a text is.”
The advantages of the service emerging within the spectrum of a university society quickly became apparent to Chris. When asked if Safe Text had received support from UCD’s various institutions, Chris is quick to note the campus’s enthusiastic response. “Absolutely … I talked to [Former Welfare Officer] Scott Ahearn who was pivotally helpful in promoting us. In fact, the launch of the service coincided with the Sexual Health awareness and Guidance Week.”
When asked about whether managing the demands of a business while studying for exams was particularly stressful or whether these young entrepreneurs found the college environment a suitable starting point in beginning to reach their target audience, Chris highlight the difficulties and opportunities involved in the process.
“It can be both,” he muses. “I suppose it was good for me because you’re learning a lot about the whole ‘business’ thing and then you’re starting to put it into practice. Say, for example, you’re linked up to managing and accounting as part of a business degree, that all starts to come alive when you actually decide to go and do it, particularly when you go and show a slide of financial accounts to investors.”
Chris found the most encouraging aspect of all this was recognising how important initiative was. “I’ve found there’s an awful lot of legwork you can do on your own initiative, so if you have a concept, write it down, find out what is unique about it and what the potential demand is for it. If you give yourself the space for developing the idea within two months you could assess if it’s worth developing further”
Another issue affecting the everyday lives of students is the prospect of finding a job once they’ve finished their degrees. Lorna Purcell, a graduate of UCD’s Smurfit Business School in Blackrock, is now tackling that issue with founder Serena Mizzoni, a former Trinity student, through the recruitment agency GenePool. Their business specialises in helping former students at both post-graduate and undergraduate levels maximise their employment potentials.
Much like Safe Text before it, GenePool first came to life as an enterprise which led a niche existence online, before using the college environment to increase its exposure and development.
“Working on your own initiative to open doors for you can have surprising results. Serena and I have put [ourselves] in the most ridiculous situations just to get our business noticed by important investors,” explains Lorna when asked how they achieved this exposure. “There’ve been times when we just walk into meetings saying ‘we really shouldn’t be here, but…’ and it’s paid off. Without being too brash, you should talk to anyone who might be interested because they’re no other way to spread the interest around.”
In GenePool’s case, this interest led to linking up with the Undergraduate Awards of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This link was designed as a an introductory method to entice Ireland’s high academic achievers into preparing themselves for the jobs market from as early a stage in their academic lives as possible. As Lorna explains, “the idea was when a student enters into the Undergraduate Awards that they would be encouraged to sign up to Genepool as a way of encouraging them to get their CV to a recruitment agency, which would make them instantly more viable to the jobs market once they finish their degrees.”
Lorna also admits that the link creates valuable exposure for the company but asserts that it is equally beneficial to the students who wish to avail of GenePool’s services. “It’s also a way of advertising that we, as a recruitment agency, have access to the best students who we can get into placement straight after they leave UCD. That’s where we’re at; we’re trying to sell the talent that we have through the company.”
Understanding the importance of honing the essential skills to meet the requirements that employers seek remains an essential part of the companies development, as displayed by plans to offer training in crucial areas. “We’re also developing courses for undergraduates who want to improve on their presentation skills, and to help graduates improve on their interview skills for when they enter the jobs market.”
In the future, Lorna feels they will be able to expand their client base beyond university alumni, and sees that as the next development stage. However, for now, Genepool’s agenda rests firmly on developing the employment potentialities of university graduates. “We are mainly targeted at graduates, both undergraduates and post-graduates. Ideally we’re using the link to the Undergraduates Awards as a way to encourage people to set up and review their CVs [so as] to be able to understand what’s required in that capacity in order to be, without trying to sound too corny, the best that they can be.”
This emergence of UCD educated entrepreneurs is testimony to UCD’s history of supporting student enterprise initiatives. Nova, the Innovation and Technology Transfer Centre, works with UCD students to support entrepreneurship at a number of levels. According to Michael Whelan, Communications director at Nova UCD, “the development of a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship is critical. By hosting a range of events Nova UCD is promoting awareness and embedding the ethos of innovation and entrepreneurship among the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.”
Whelan goes on to explain that Nova offers a range of programmes to help students define their concept and then prepare a detailed business plan. The programme is now in its sixteenth year and has helped just over 170 new ventures since it was created. One example of a business set up by a UCD student which has benefitted from Nova’s assistance is Restored Hearing. The company has developed SOMTUS, a form of online sound therapy, which alleviates the effects of temporary tinnitus after only one minute. Particularly helpful in the cases of sound-rattled concert-goers, the company has found an impressive level of success from the time of its founding and was the 2010 runner-up in Nova UCD’s Continual Professional Development competition.
Second year UCD Physics Student Rhona Togher is quick to mention how integral the support the business received was in opening doors for Restored Hearing. “I have received amazing support from UCD, especially Nova UCD over the last two years … with business advice, support and mentoring as well as the odd article published,” Rhona states. “It was a huge honour receiving runner up in the Campus Company Development Programme. Particularly, being in a competition with your lecturers and then winning [was] lots of fun. They have provided the company with a base here in UCD and I don’t know what I would have done without them.”
Rhona is also adamant that the difficulties apparent in running a business while studying for a degree act as a further learning curb, as they can at times prove frustrating. “Running a business while studying for my undergraduate will probably be the hardest thing I will ever do. The long hours and mountains of work are never-ending, yet this has definitely been the most fun I have ever had.”
The idea of starting up a business while studying for a degree can seem daunting at first, but behind the headlines of falling business growth and university funding are stories of individuals rising to the challenge. If there is a common theme to the stories of Chris, Lorna and Rhona, it is that the college environment, with its combination of free time and a strong support network, is the perfect time to test your aptitude for entrepreneurship. As Lorna herself explains,“the likes of Nova UCD and other departments are so helpful in supporting student business initiatives but they’re not getting as many young people as they could provide their support for. If you have an idea which you think has potential just go for it. What do you have to lose?”