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At the University of Copenhagen, students can get ECTS credits for their own start-up company

Innovation — A new campaign is to get more students committing themselves to entrepreneurship as a part of their study programme. The purpose is to make students ready for the job market and to convince others in academic circles that innovation is more than a waste of time for university students.

Six students sit in a cramped room. Each of them sports their own headsets. They murmur a bit to each other, but their eyes are glued to the screens.

When I ask whether they have time to talk about what it is they are doing, they hesitate at first. Then one of them turns to me:

»If it is for five minutes?«

The man who offers to take a five-minute break from his work is called Jeppe Johansen and is one of four economics students who have started the company Sense Analytics. It is a web platform that offers statistical analyses to waterworks, so they can trace leaks in pipes and improve operations.

»It actually started with us thinking that this would be an interesting school project,” says Jeppe Johansen. »But at some point we realised: Why not just start a company?«

This brought them to the SCIENCE Innovation Hub, where we are now on the 2nd floor of a building on the fringe of the Universitetsparken complex.

This is where Jeppe Johansen and his fellow students have developed their product while taking advantage of the offerings of the hub: Courses in business models, pitch training, mentoring schemes, assistance in applying for funding – and office space.

This is where students from the University of Copenhagen show up if they need help to start their own business. And more and more of them have done so in recent years: From 106 in 2017 to 130 just in the first months of 2019.

Jeppe Johansen is clear about why he himself has thrown himself into entrepreneurship:

»You can either be a small cog in a large machine or a large cog in a small machine. I find it more fun to be a big cog in a small machine,« he says.

Mathias Sand Brander is rummaging around the communal kitchen. He started the company Coagmento with three others. Brander and two of his colleagues study political science. They are making digital teaching aids for social science at primary schools, including an interactive platform for students in the eighth and ninth grades.

What we hear from the people up here is that they get experiences that they can use when they are finished

Lisa Svane, communications officer, SCIENCE Innovation Hub

He agrees with Jeppe Johansen:

»Independence is an important reason why I like life as an entrepreneur. I’m really happy not to have a boss,« he says.

»When you are out making a sale, you are not selling something that you have been told how to sell, and which has been produced by another company. You sell your own product – and it’s fun.«

Difficult to communicate

If it was up to the people behind SCIENCE Innovation Hub, more students would do the same as Jeppe Johansen and Mathias Sand Brander. They should throw themselves into innovation projects, while they are studying. In fact, they want the work with their own ideas and startups to be a more integrated part of the study programme.

On 24th April, they launched the Project in Practice campaign, where students from the Faculty of Science can earn fifteen ECTS credits by creating a business based on their own idea.

It is a kind of internship in your own company, half entrepreneurship and half academic learning. You get feedback from a supervisor, a lecturer in your own field of study, and then you follow a five-week course in the SCIENCE Innovation Hub, where you learn about the most recognised business models.

It is all about attracting more students to the innovation hub. But it is also about convincing the study programmes that the stuff that takes place out here, in these rooms, actually has a value.

»When I started here two and a half years ago, I discovered that it is really difficult to communicate what is going on here to the study programmes, to the students and to the instructors,« says Dorthe Lynnerup, the daily manager of the SCIENCE Innovation Hub.

»So it is a way of getting the study programmes to understand what it is all about. And what the students get out of being here.«

It is not just about the company

And what is it?

If you claimed it was the companies in the hub that were the purpose of it all, you might raise a few eyebrows. Because startup companies are difficult to get off the ground. And they are even harder to keep up in the air. This applies outside the university setting, and this applies inside the university setting. And this even though the companies from the hub had a total turnover of almost DKK 2 million last year.

At one point, we realised: Why not just start a company?

Jeppe Johansen, student, economics

According to Jeppe Johansen, the fragile odds of success should not scare university students away from doing entrepreneurship. You gain more from it than what you can deposit in the bank, he thinks.

»I would say that I have become really good at working effectively with things. As a university student, you become very capable at defining a problem and the individual small steps that are needed to solve it.«

»Things like management and project management are not something we do as economists, even though you might well think that we should do it. The best way to learn these things is to throw yourself into the deep end, and that is what we are doing here.«

If your startup ends up not succeeding, would you still feel that you have developed as a student by being here?

»Absolutely! And in many ways. You become, to a much higher degree, a generalist. And I find this very exciting,« he says, and mentions that he had never made a web platform before. He has now.

Lisa Svane, who is a communications officer at SCIENCE Innovation Hub, says that it is an experience that she often encounters among academic entrepreneurs:

»What we hear from the people up here is that they get experiences that they can use when they are finished,« she says.

»You have to keep track of all kinds of things when you start your own business. So regardless of whether they are creating a thriving company or not, students end up with many good skills. Everything from communication to starting up companies, to accounting and concept development.«

From uni to labour market

This is not something they hide away in the hub: Entrepreneurship is a lot about getting students ready for the labour market.

The thinking they introduce in the SCIENCE Innovation Hub is the kind of thinking that is prevalent in the companies that are waiting for them the other side of their theses.

Dorthe Lynnerup puts it succinctly: »What we equip students to do, is to get out and work.«

You can imagine not everyone will support this kind of thinking at the university, where the production of knowledge is considered a purpose in itself. But according to Dorthe Lynnerup, innovation is in line with what takes place on the study programmes. Especially if you get ECTS credits for your own company.

My studies have been given a relatively lower priority, in the sense that I have not actually been there much.

Mathias Sand Brander, student, political science

»I think that two-thirds of what you learn at university are specific skills. But the last third is general skills. It is organising, searching for knowledge, analysing, and using your common sense. And this is what the students train by developing their ideas. They skim across the knowledge that they have built up at university, and then we give them the tools to manage it,« she says.

Can you say that it is part of the more market-oriented mindset that has become more dominant in the last few years at university?

»Yes, it does play into this way of thinking.«

And you consider this to be something positive?

»There is nothing closer to my heart than producing students that understand the language spoken in the companies. This is so important. It is only one tenth of all the graduates that we produce at the Faculty of Science that will end up as researchers. The rest will enter the existing labour market.«

A time drain?

Behind Dorthe Lynnerup, you can see the colour of the walls in SCIENCE Innovation Hub. It is patched up with a multitude of posters, one for each of the startups that is housed in the hub.

If you take a glance at them, you can see that they fall into two categories. Some are based on the students’ own academic backgrounds, including a company that sells organic flowers to restaurants and is run by a student from Plant Science.

 

You need to work insanely fast as an entrepreneur... It's super-stressful. But it is also addictive.
Jeppe Johansen, student, economics

And then there are those that seem to be more random. Like the strategy game on Vikings, that has been set up by a computer scientist. And the kite surfing product set up by a medical student.

Dorthe Lynnerup says that all types of projects are welcome, but the ambition is to move as many of the leisure projects as possible into the study programmes.

This is why the hub has launched a campaign for the course Project in Practice, which is to ensure that at least 30 students this year get ECTS points while they develop their innovation ideas. Last year, only eight students achieved this.

The idea is to encourage students to translate theory from the auditorium into practice in the hub. But It can also be seen as a response to criticism, i.e. that the innovation projects steal students from their study programmes.

»This is actually something that is a point of contention. We are not supposed to do this. If you ask the top brass, then students should not be hanging around here. They should be looking after their studies and producing ECTS credits,« says Dorthe Lynnerup.

How do you make sure you don’t steal the students?

»We do this by exploiting the structures that are already in place in the different curricula. That is why we are campaigning now,« she continues.

There is nothing closer to my heart than producing students that understand the language spoken in the companies.

Dorthe Lynnerup, daily manager, SCIENCE Innovation Hub

»It is part of the Faculty of Science’s purpose and action plan that Project in Practice moves from being an almost secret scheme to something that everyone knows about. We need to invite the students to get the skills of entrepreneurship, while they also get ECTS credits, so they don’t just have to do it in their spare time.«

According to Jeppe Johansen, there is no hiding the fact that work in the hub is a time drain.

»You have to know that if you choose to do this and focus on it, then it will take much of your time. So I may have been downgraded the university part of things.«

Mathias Sand Brander adds:

»My studies have been given a relatively lower priority, in the sense that I have not actually been there a lot. In exam periods, I have just taken time off from the company for a month, so I could read up on everything. This has worked OK. So it is not like it has had a negative effect.«

According to Lisa Svane, the work in the hub does not negatively impact the students’ efforts on their study programmes. On the contrary, she argues that it may have the opposite effect:

»I actually think we are helping keep the students at university. Some study programmes don’t have a lot of social activity, but up here you get a network. When you start hanging out here after class, in one way you have become closer to the university than you otherwise would be,” says Lisa Svane.

Stressful, addictive

While she talks, some students chat in the communal kitchen, and Dorthe Lynnerup discusses something with a couple of staff in the conference room next door.

Apart from this, it is relatively quiet at the SCIENCE Innovation Hub this Tuesday afternoon, and both Jeppe Johansen and Mathias Sand Brander have disappeared behind closed doors to develop their projects.

Before he gets down under his headphones again, Jeppe Johansen explains why he did not have more than five minutes for the interview:

»You need to work insanely fast as an entrepreneur. It reminds you of an old-fashioned computer game, where time runs out, because your money runs out at some point. This means that you need to be creative all the time and think about how we can move forward the fastest. It’s super stressful. But it is also addictive.«

Translated by Mike Young

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