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B-Schools' Venture Capital Investments Pay Off For Entrepreneurs

As MBA graduates found more start-ups, business schools are directly investing in students' companies and providing access to venture capital firms.

Wed Jan 21 2015

Neha Jainve is in need of cash. Her start-up venture, Wallet Circle, is poised to generate comfortable returns but a £42,000 capital injection from Sirius, an incubator program, will not be enough to sustain growth.

The technology entrepreneur and her co-founders have spent the past two years working on securing seed funding for their fledgling venture.

Based in London, not far from the “Silicon Roundabout” grouping of sapling tech companies, they are surrounded by wealth. But to place their digital wallets in every smartphone users’ hands requires a second stream of funds.

They are hoping to bank about £300,000 in a seed round. “We’ve already started working on it,” says Neha, the MBA graduate who co-founded Wallet Circle in 2013.

A technology venture, Wallet Circle allows users to stock their loyalty cards on their smartphones, providing valuable data to retailers on their consumers, but they plan to expand into areas such as receipts and healthcare prescriptions.

Neha is one of a swelling number of MBA graduates who are leaving the corporate nest to found their own start-ups, but who are in need of investment to see their ventures fly.

“MBA students are keen to set up their own businesses once they have graduated,” says Julie Hodges, MBA program director at Durham University Business School in the UK.

“It allows them to be their own boss and work on developing a business they are passionate about,” she says.

Durham is one of a number of top business schools helping these bosses to raise finance.

Based in the north of England, Durham students have easy access to major cities and their investors, including in London, Newcastle and Edinburgh in Scotland.

“There is a vibrant start-up community in the north east [of England], with a particular focus on technology start-ups with disruptive business models,” says Julie.

She adds that there are several sources of start-up funding in the area, through venture capital funds and investor groups. This includes a 12-week incubator program that culminates in investor pitches for up to £100,000.

This is not unique to Durham. Other leading business schools across the UK and beyond are enabling access to capital, and are plugging holes where investors will not go.

“There are a range of start-up funding options available from angels to venture capital to crowdfunding to bank loans,” says James Hickie, lecturer in entrepreneurship at Manchester Business School.

MBS is in talks with crowdfunding site Hubbub, he says, about how the online fundraising platform can help its student entrepreneurs.  

The peer-to-peer lending industry has become a popular route. Not only are potential students using it to raise money to pay tuition fees, but start-up founders are raising capital and giving away less equity than with banks and other traditional sources of financing.

According to the Peer-to-Peer Finance Association, the industry was forecast to lend £1 billion in the UK alone by the end of 2014.

There are other competitions, like MBS’ Venture Further, which is sponsored by industry and where the winning student in each category receives £10,000.

“Connecting our MBAs with the investor community is an important part of our initiatives to promote entrepreneurship,” says Paul Schoonenberg, MBA career advisor at Aston Business School.

Aston houses Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses Program, which helps to create opportunities for participants to access suitable finance, and BSEEN, an initiative which provides access to funding for promising entrepreneurial students.

Other business schools and universities use venture capital funds, often run by students, to pump capital into graduates’ ventures.

Cambridge University pooled £2.7 million into early-stage technology start-ups in 2014 alone, and has over its lifespan produced 14 companies valued at more than $1 billion.

London’s Cass Business School dishes out up to £10 million to student and alumni start-ups, via an entrepreneurship fund.

The Saïd Business School Seed Fund, a student-run fund at Oxford University, typically invests up to £25,000 in ventures founded by Oxford students and alumni.

Since its launch in 2012, the fund has invested in four start-ups including Onfido, a digital referencing system that went on to raise £500,000 from angels.

This is the result of a new wave of entrepreneurially-focused students, motivated less by salary and more by fulfilment.

“Rather than going into the non-entrepreneurial jobs, they [MBA students] are trying to reinvent themselves in a way, and take credit for their own decisions,” says Maksim Belitski, lecturer in entrepreneurship at Henley Business School.

But this is not limited to the UK. The Wolverine Venture Fund, which operates out of the Michigan Ross School of Business in the US, has a fund totalling $7 million. It is run by a team of MBA students, and has a portfolio of about 14 companies.

Notable Wolverine success stories include that of Intralase, an optical laser company which went on to raise $85.8 million when it listed on Nasdaq in 2004.

Xfund, a venture capital firm based at Harvard University, plans to invest $250,000 in seed funding in mostly student-led start-ups in Cambridge over the next two years.

Co-founded by Hugo Van Vuuren, a Harvard alumnus, It is backed by Silicon Valley venture capital giant NEA.

Graduates of these business schools and universities also go on to achieve large later-stage funding, particularly in the US.

At the Booth School of Business in Chicago, start-ups that used its business plan competition have raised about $3.7 billion in market exits.

At Harvard Business School, the MBA class of 2010 has raised at least $734 million in venture capital funding, according to data compiled by software firm EverTrue.

These successes show that business school is now a more viable option for entrepreneurs – whether they intend to start businesses now or work for large, innovative firms.

“[An] MBA course enhances an array of entrepreneurial qualities… Which are invaluable regardless of whether they go on to run their own company or not,” says Andrew Bagshaw, MBA career relationship manager at Lancaster University Management School.