‘IT’S BEEN AN AMAZING JOURNEY’: REFLECTIONS FROM OUTGOING DIRECTOR REUBEN WILCOCK

Article Source: Future Worlds

In July 2015 I wrote the very first article on the Future Worlds web platform, explaining how my unusual career spanning academia and industry had driven me to found this unique initiative. Today, at the end of my journey as its Director, I find myself reflecting on what Future Worlds has achieved over the last four years, and how the University’s startup culture has grown as a result.

When I wrote that article, the entire Future Worlds team and its studio were all located in a tiny single-person office on level 4 of the Zepler building. We talked mostly about ‘ecosystem’, about bringing together the pieces around the University that played a part in entrepreneurship and we set ourselves targets for content on the website which, at the time, formed the core of what we did.

Today, Future Worlds lives in a purpose-built glass-fronted Accelerator Space which has room for 15 startups, my team, our video studio, a board room, kitchen and hot desk area. For meetings we have four booths, each named after a famously disruptive entrepreneur: Steve, Jack, Martha and Elon – their effigies emblazoned in a halftone pattern constructed of miniature Future Worlds arrows. Nothing here has been left to chance. From the board room glass that goes opaque at the touch of a button, to gigantic 88” screens on the walls, state-of-the-art AV system and a £3,500 coffee machine, every last touch is designed to help our startups and spinouts succeed.

The reason why we go to such efforts is that now, four years after starting, we know what an incredible difference Future Worlds can make. We know that our vision, to help Southampton entrepreneurs change the world with their ideas, has become a reality. And all this happens through our two key pillars of engagement and acceleration.

We engage though talks, workshops, events and digital content on our web platform, podcast and social media channels. In 2018 alone, our digital engagement reached in excess of 100,000 people through 100 original articles, 56 mailshots, 17 podcasts and over 500 social media posts, and reached millions through 53 press appearances across print, radio and TV. In the same period, we’ve held 10 monthly talks, two workshops, eight networking events, a Freshers’ roadshow and our annual Dragons’ Den investor event, which have attracted over 2,500 attendees between them.

This engagement inspires our students, academics and researchers to start their own entrepreneurial journey. Since Future Worlds began, we’ve helped over 250 entrepreneurs, who have gone on to form over 60 companies. We’ve helped them gain access to funding not just through our own Dragons’ Den event where £200,000 was committed to student startups in May, but through other funds we play a part in such as SEED and Z21. We’ve helped Future Worlds startups get into accelerator programmes in LondonAfrica and Silicon Valley, and between them they are now valued at over £40m. And of course, if you’ve been following our recent mailshots you’ll have seen how we are the only UK university to showcase our tech startups on the global stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

And these startups really are changing the world.

In Tanzania, Sagar Energy Solutions has been replacing the dangerous and polluting liquid fuel lamps being used by fishermen on Lake Victoria with solar charged LED technologies that have a much lower cost of ownership. Also in Africa, BluPoint is delivering educational material to school kids, free of charge, through their mobile phones and across the UK, Dynamon has analysed millions of miles of telematics data from HGVs to help logistics companies invest in fuel saving measures.

In Southampton, AccelerComm is developing key innovations in the new 5G mobile phone standard and AudioScenic is developing a soundbar which is the future of 3D immersive audio.

One of the biggest milestones for Future Worlds has been seeing our startups accepted into some of the top accelerator programs in Silicon Valley. Last year Researchably was accepted into Berkeley’s SkyDeck incubator, having pitched against around 600 other Silicon Valley startups, and we will soon be announcing that another startup has subsequently followed the same path. There are also two more startups that will reveal in the coming days that they competed against thousands of other cutting edge companies to be accepted into the top incubator in the world: Y Combinator. These four startups were founded by students who had pitched at our Dragons’ Den events, and been resident in our accelerator over the last two years, and they are now collectively worth over $25m.

Growing Future Worlds hasn’t been easy. Most universities are rightly focussed on education and research and their funding streams reflect this, making anomalies like Future Worlds difficult to justify. We don’t charge a fee or take any equity in the vast majority of our startups, making our funding model fragmented and uncertain at times. My long term vision was inspired by Stanford in the US, which sees $1bn in yearly donations from its successful founders, and I’m confident our Alum will start to give back in time.

This vision requires faith and in the meantime we’ve relied on the help of some key faculty champions, Michael Butler, Mark French and our Dean, Bashir Al-Hashimi, to name a few. Wider University help from Sarah Rogers in Student Enterprise, and Richard and Joanna in the alumni office, has also been important and more recently our partnerships with Martin Broad in the Business School and Salim Khakoo and John Holloway in the Faculty of Medicine have helped us grow.

And that only scratches the surface of the individuals I owe thanks to – the most deserving being our huge mentor network that’s now grown to over 80 members. Individuals like Chris BroadAndy DoeChris SpackmanGeoff Baker, David Watchus and many more besides have generously offered their time, money and connections to Future Worlds. Our mentors don’t expect anything in return, they are simply inspired by the passionate entrepreneurs we support, fuelled by their memories of being helped by their own mentors when they first started out.

And when it comes to thanks, my team are right up there, and not least my ever suffering partner in crime, Alex Dunlop, who was assigned to the project when it first began. Back then Alex had never used a photo studio or edited videos on Adobe Premiere Pro, but now people flock from far and wide to benefit from his skills. He has held many of the pieces together over the years whilst I came up with more and more ‘secret plans’.

Joyce Lewis was instrumental in the early days, coming up with the brilliant name ‘Future Worlds’ in the first place. Jon with his expert copywriting, Natasha, Sophie, Adriana, Aaron, Tyler, Ferrelyn and now Tom have also all been valued team members at different times. And Ben Clark, our Resident Mentor, made a huge difference when he joined the team, bringing a second strategic view and years of experience in scaling up startups. I’m very happy in the knowledge that Ben will be taking on my responsibilities when I leave until the new Director is officially appointed. Ben is well practiced at the helm of Future Worlds as back in 2017 he took over my position for the six months I was on parental leave.

I’m genuinely excited for Future Worlds and where it will go from here. The new space marks the first time in many years that the University of Southampton has had an on-campus startup accelerator and I’m immensely proud of that.

The initiative has solid short-term funding and a concrete plan for future sustainability, and the team, which is stronger than ever, is set to grow further. Our new six-month Acceleration Programme is already helping the first cohort to grow their startups and new mentors are coming on board all the time. The foundation has truly been set for growing a US west coast style startup culture on the south coast of the UK!

But for me, the time has come to move on. I always said I would stay until such a time that Future Worlds was established and secure and achieving its mission of helping Southampton’s entrepreneurs change the world with their ideas. That moment has come and so it’s time for my next challenge. I’ve worked in research, founded and exited startups, and in the last four years set up the Future Worlds Accelerator, and my next exciting step is into the world of early-stage Venture Capital. I’m joining an exciting new VC firm where I’ll be sitting on the other side of the table, helping fund and support exactly the kind of startups we see in the Future Worlds Accelerator.

It’s been an amazing journey, I’ve made friendships that will last a lifetime and I look forward to becoming the latest member of the Future Worlds mentor network!


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