Inspiring Cooperation—with Competition

At Kickstart London, students from multiple universities pair up to launch enterprises.
Inspiring Cooperation

Kickstart London’s judging panel listens to student teams present their entrepreneurial ideas. (Photo courtesy of Kickstart London)


WHILE INDIVIDUAL UNIVERSITIES offer excellent entrepreneurship programs, there’s one problem: They tend to focus on the specialty the university is known for, such as economics, finance, design, or technology. But startups are more likely to be successful if they’re built by teams of people with diverse but complementary strengths, so that someone on the team will have skills needed to overcome any challenge that crops up.

How can discipline-focused universities create incubators that nurture diverse teams? They can partner with other universities. Four years ago, a student team launched Kickstart London in the U.K. to encourage cooperation among students from different universities who were majoring in different fields. The team originally was based out of the department of management at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), which continues to support Kickstart’s efforts today. I joined the organization in its third year.

In the beginning, Kickstart London involved only LSE and University College London (UCL). Students were invited to apply to the incubator, form teams, and receive ten weeks of mentorship before pitching their ideas to investors. The organization was run from LSE’s department of management and worked closely with its entrepreneurship hub, LSE Generate. In 2018–2019, Kickstart London opened the application process to students from all London universities for the first time.

We decided that the best way to avoid getting slowed down by bureaucracy and complicated logistics was to partner with student societies, rather than official university departments. These societies are usually specialized in their fields, so their student members bring unique skills to the table. We’ve partnered with societies that specialize in entrepreneurship, aeronautics, computer science, data governance, biomedical engineering, fintech, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, mathematics, robotics, and more.

To ignite interest in Kickstart London, we used online channels, particularly Facebook, to spread the word. We also attended events held by our society partners to give five-minute presentations about the opportunities Kickstart has to offer and to show students the faces behind the organization.

The efforts paid off: In 2018-2019, we received applications from students at LSE, UCL, Imperial College, King’s College, Royal Holloway, the University of the Arts London, Queen Mary University of London, London Business School, Cass Business School, Brunel University, and SOAS University. The previous year, we had received 170 applications. This year, we received 1,000, and we hope to double that number in 2019–2020.

Students apply as individuals, identifying themselves as technical, creative, or business-oriented. In this most recent round, the majority of students came from backgrounds in finance, data science, marketing, physics, business, mathematics, and medicine. In fact, we were surprised by the large number of applicants with medical backgrounds—and four of our ten startups ended up being in the medtech field.

Applicants were screened and scored by three different Kickstart team members. Of the 1,000 applicants, we selected half to fill out a short questionnaire. We used their answers to winnow them down to 200 applicants, who then were asked to complete video interviews in which they answered one question: How much will you be worth in five years’ time? We wanted to see whether they would offer analytical projections or create more of a story in their responses—there was no one right answer.

In November, we invited the top 80 students to our Team Formation Weekend. There, they pitched a wide variety of problems they had identified, from struggles students encounter when they move between countries to the problems stroke patients face as they try to find consistent rehab.

After students made their pitches, everyone networked, before forming 20 teams of three to five members each. We chose the top ten to admit to our ten-week mentoring program. We based our selections on two criteria. One, could team members justify why their group was equipped to tackle their problem? And two, did their problem apply to enough people that it made sense to establish a business that addressed it?

Over the next ten weeks, teams met with Kickstart’s group of mentors; at the end of that time, they participated in Demo Day, where they pitched to investors. We invited about 150 guests to this year’s Demo Day, held in March. This year’s winning team, Motics, wants to design wearable technology to help patients rehabilitate weakened muscles.

Our teams don’t just have a chance to secure funding at Demo Day. Some also go on to win external competitions. Two startups from two previous cohorts recently won prizes at the UCLentrepreneurs (UCLe) Venture Fund competition. This year, Motics will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Princeton University’s TigerLaunch, where it will compete for US$30,000 in prize money.

Throughout the year, we hold additional events and conduct outreach on social media to serve those who don’t make it into the mentorship program. An independent organization also has set up a sort of mini Kickstart London, and we support that venture when we can.

Kickstart London is run by a ten-member team, and we are now recruiting a new team for the next cohort. We believe that when we encourage students to work directly with other students, across universities and majors, we promote cross-disciplinary thinking and genuine problem solving. And we just might help launch the next great startup.

Luca Feser is studying for a master’s degree in information systems in the department of management at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the U.K. He also co-directs Kickstart London.