Velocity, a student-led, globally renowned entrepreneurship development programme of the University of Auckland, was launched in 2003. Stephen Flint, UniServices’ Director of Commercialisation, has been involved with the program for almost 15 years. We asked Stephen about his experience with Velocity and the importance of pursuing ideas.
Tell us what is your involvement in the Velocity programme, and UniServices’ involvement overall?
I have been involved with Velocity (previously known as Spark) in judging and mentoring capacities for almost 15 years. Each year, our Commercialisation Team review over 60 applications in the Innovation Challenge sponsored by UniServices, where multiple $1000 cash prizes are up for grabs for those who write up an idea in 1000 words.
Each year, the pinnacle of the Velocity programme is the $100k Challenge which runs for 6-8 weeks from August. For the past six years I have been mentoring one of the finalists. I have had the privilege of mentoring four winners and one runner up. Two of those, Zenno Astroanutics and Tectonus, are now companies that have attracted investment from early stage investors as well as the University of Auckland Inventors Fund managed by UniServices.
UniServices Executive Director of Commercialisation Will Charles is a regular on the judging panel for the $100k Challenge, and other members of the Commercialisation Team are also involved in mentoring, judging and participating in feedback sessions. We encourage teams we are working with to participate in the programmes and competitions offered by Velocity. We also identify and follow up on teams and ideas we think might have a chance of commercial success, and our interns often end up on Velocity project teams to broaden their skills and capabilities.
Why is Velocity an important programme for students and staff with ideas they would like to pursue? How does it relate to the services we offer at UniServices?
Entrepreneurship is an important component that is often only taught in a few business school courses at university. Realising this was not a suitable approach to driving entrepreneurship across a university or indeed the New Zealand economy, the founders of Velocity; most notably Geoff Whitcher, saw the opportunity for students across the University of Auckland, especially in the science, engineering and medical faculties, to learn and engage in entrepreneurial activities.
The best way to do this was to focus engagement around a business planning competition with wrap around activities such as feedback sessions, lectures from successful entrepreneurs and mentoring. Even better, if the programme is run by students then they would learn the skills needed in business such as marketing, promotion, operations, managing budgets etc. Spark as it was known then was born, and I am not sure even Geoff would have believed it would become as big and important as it is today.
While you can teach and learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, the art of identifying opportunities, creating and funding a business through to sales, there is no better way to learn than to work on your own idea. Velocity’s goal is to give the expertise, tools and networks that will help participants be successful in the future. Notwithstanding this, there have been a good number of companies created as a direct result of the programme, the likes of PowerbyProxi which resulted in a significant trade sale a few years ago and many others that have received investment from local and international investors and created a significant number of jobs.
In your experience, what do winning ideas or teams have in common and what advice would you give to entrants to help their application?
There are great ideas and there are great teams. If the two match up, that’s when there is a chance of commercial success. For me, the two most important facets about a successful team are coachability and drive.
The winners I have mentored have been stand outs in the way they listen to advice of their mentors and deliver more than what is expected. Drive is critical. Starting a company is an enormous amount of effort. The $100k Challenge is a month and a half taste of what it is like. Those that commit together as a team, share the roles between them and have effective leadership do the best. In terms of winning ideas, a deep understanding of the value you are providing, the problem you are solving, your competitive advantage and the market opportunity are critical.
Many of the past winners have had a scientific basis and often the ability to gain patent protection for their ideas. This can provide a greater competitive advantage. If you can combine these facets and tell the story well then there is a good chance of doing well in Velocity and potentially moving forward with a new venture.
What are some UniServices’ spin-outs that got their start in the Velocity programme?
Tectonus, Zenno Astronautics, KARA, StretchSense, Spot Check, PowerbyProxi are a few that UniServices has been a shareholder in. Most of which are still in in existence today.
About the Velocity $100k Challenge
Velocity’s flagship competition occurs in two stages. Stage one involves writing a 2,000 word venture summary using the template on the Velocity website about your world changing idea. Entries are due at 12 noon on Monday, 10 August. A team of industry experts assesses all the entries and selects 15 teams to enter stage two of the competition, the Launchpad Programme.
During the seven week Launchpad Programme, each team attends weekly workshops and is supported by two mentors. Teams are vying for a share of the $100,000 prize pool consisting of seed capital and acceptance into the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s VentureLab accelerator programme.
Visit the Velocity website for further information.