Converging on the target

Converging on the target

Olga Kozlova, founder of the Converge Challenge, battled through wind and rain to tell journalist Karen Peattie about her contest for budding entrepreneurs within Scotland’s higher education establishments.

Even as Storm Gertrude does her best to disrupt the lives of thousands of Scots, Olga Kozlova braves the elements to reach the safe and civilised sanctuary of the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian. She’s here to talk about her passion: Converge Challenge, a competition and mentoring programme for students, staff and recent graduates of Scottish universities and research institutes aimed at creating a new generation of entrepreneurs in Scotland.

Joking about her “windswept and interesting” look courtesy of gusty Gertrude, Kozlova is soon taking her seat for lunch in The Pompadour by Galvin, the hotel’s discreet fine-dining restaurant that has started serving lunch on Fridays. Perusing today’s menu, she opts for the Terrine de Champagne, walnut bread, caper and resin purée followed by an aesthetically pleasing and “exceptionally tasty” Ditherier of Scottish game, says Anne of root vegetables, apple and cranberries.

The stunning views of Edinburgh Castle from the table – and, of course, the amazing food – fail to distract the creator and founder of Converge Challenge from the task in hand and she talks animatedly about the Heriot-Watt University-based programme that seeks to nurture our future entrepreneurs.

With a prize fund this year of more than £150,000 across three categories – Converge Challenge, KickStart and Social Enterprise – the programme clearly offers huge incentives for ambitious people with innovative ideas. But, as Kozlova explains, it’s not all about the money. “It’s very much about instilling confidence in people and working with them to develop their ideas and nurture those ideas,” she points out.

“You can have a great idea for a product or a business concept but where do you go to for help and advice? How do you access funding? Do you have a business plan? You have this great idea but how do you find the customers who will buy your product? You need to take it to market but where do you start? Have you thought about intellectual property (IP)? What about social media? This is where we come in.

“By bringing together the most ambitious and creative thinkers from academia, research and business, our long-term goal is to provide the practical commercial skills to enable these entrepreneurs to bring to market novel products and services,” she continues. “This then creates the sustainable, profitable companies that Scotland needs.

“It’s about providing the right support at the right time to ensure that an idea can come to fruition and result in a profitable business that will contribute to the Scottish economy.”

A joint initiative between the eight research-intensive Scottish universities and the Scottish Funding Council, Converge Challenge covers all sectors, product and service-based businesses, and commercial and social enterprises. Alumni of the programme range from companies working on medical devices and drug discovery through to businesses looking to bring art closer to the general public and even one that’s developing next-generation golf performance tracking technology.

Last year’s winner was Richard Walker of Photon Force, working out of the University of Edinburgh. His company is developing the design, build and supply of scientific sensors that can very precisely detect and measure single photons, the tiny building blocks of light – technology that is in high demand for many applications, such as biomedical imaging.
Indeed, from the 120 entrepreneurs who have gone through the programme over the past four years, 51 have formed companies that have secured in excess of £15m in funding and employ some 140 staff.

“No idea is off limits,” says Kozlova. “We support a very wide range of projects and I think that’s one of the most exciting things about Converge Challenge. You never know what’s going to land on your desk when the applications start coming in – we never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity of these young entrepreneurs, their ambition and the belief they have in their idea.”

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So what qualifies this softly-spoken Russian to offer advice to young entrepreneurs developing ideas in Scotland? Quite a lot, actually. Kozlova moved to Scotland in 1999 to study for her doctorate at the University of Edinburgh and then started her career as a Royal Society of Edinburgh enterprise fellow. She then founded her own biotechnology start-up and has also worked in business development and knowledge exchange in the life sciences sector.

“I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a lab,” she laughs. “As my own career developed, I could see that there was so much potential out there to help others and that’s ultimately what led me to Heriot-Watt, which had secured £3.5m of cash from the European Regional Development Fund for working with industry in the broadest possible way – and one of the ways was to create a business competition.

“But I didn’t want Converge to be a duplication of something that’s already out there,” she explains. “I wanted it to be collaborative, so all the universities and stakeholders supporting us get actively involved – they’re not just sitting on the sidelines. It was a challenge to come up with a concept that was original and appealing to participants and stakeholders but, when our pilot at Heriot-Watt in 2010 proved so successful, we knew we had the right formula.

“Being an entrepreneur can be quite a lonely experience and also quite a daunting one when you suddenly find yourself faced with the prospect of looking for support,” says Kozlova. “For that reason, I felt it was important to create a pathway that not only develops ‘intrapreneurial’ and entrepreneurial skills but one that gets people talking to others about how they set up their businesses – what are their successes but also what are their mistakes and what can I learn from that?”

That’s where the mentoring aspect of Converge kicks in. “People often don’t know where to go for advice but sometimes they can be swamped with advice when what is really important at the beginning is consistency of advice,” Kozlova points out. “We invite a lot of different people to be mentors – from people who have worked with small companies to Saltire Fellows and many others.

“We encourage our participants to meet regularly with their mentors but there’s more to it than just sitting down for a chat once a month – you need to find the right chemistry with your mentor and the role of a mentor is also to challenge you and make you think as well as offer advice.

“Mentoring isn’t about telling you how to do it – that’s up to you – but a good mentor will challenge and stimulate you. Many of our participants benefit from a mentor who isn’t necessarily someone who has been running a successful business for 20 years or more but someone who is two or three years ahead of them – someone who has gone through exactly the experiences as you more recently. That can be really valuable for a young start-up.”

With applications for Converge Challenge 2016 now open, Kozlova is expecting record entries. In 2015, there were 186 applicants – growth of 68% on the previous year – and the competition engaged with 17 universities and research institutes. “We were absolutely delighted with the level of interest last year,” she says. “Of course, it’s not just about numbers – it’s the quality of the applicants and their ideas that count – but to see Converge growing is hugely gratifying.

“We’re also encouraged that the male to female ratio of applications remains strong with over 30% of female participants at all stages of the competition.”

This year, the winner of Converge Challenge will receive £43,000 in cash to start their business but also included is a further £28,000 of in-kind business support. “It’s a great opportunity because this kind of finance at this most vital stage in a young company’s growth and development can be hard to secure,” says Kozlova. “However, the in-kind support is equally important because it’s all the issues I mentioned earlier – how do I do this, who can help me with marketing, who do I talk to about IP – that can slow you down and act as a barrier to meeting deadlines and targets.”

Meanwhile, the KickStart award is aimed at an early-stage idea for a new product or service, with the winner receiving £3,000 in cash to help create a prototype or secure IP rights. The runner-up will receive a £2,000 cash injection. In addition, the top 30 projects receive two days’ business support training and are encouraged to apply for the main Converge Challenge the following year – the winner is automatically eligible to be fast-tracked to the following year’s Converge Challenge Top 30.

Finally, the Social Enterprise award offers a £5,000 cash prize to the winner and £3,000 to the runner-up. Previous winners are Zoe Michell and Anne Rushing of Pop Up Scotland, which emerged out of the University of Edinburgh and brings art to unexpected places such as shopping centres in an attempt to bridge the gap between the everyday world and the world of fine art.

“We do have a lot of applicants from the life sciences and technology sectors as you would imagine as these are some of the key industries driving Scotland’s economy,” says Kozlova. “But I stress again that we are open to all sectors and we look forward to seeing what the 2016 competition brings.”

A company that wins an award in Converge Challenge will become more attractive to investors, suggests Kozlova. “Investors want to see great ideas but they also want to invest in people so we also train our finalists on the best ways to pitch to them. If investors can see that an individual can build a relationship with a customer or potential customer, then that is more likely to help that company clinch the funding support over another company and its idea.

Pompadour 01“It always comes back to people, doesn’t it? You can have the most brilliant idea but if you can’t present yourself well you may fall at the first hurdle.”

The shortlisted applicants in this year’s Converge Challenge will have the opportunity to shine at the final in September. Before that, however, they will attend a three-day training programme in Edinburgh where they must do an elevator pitch-style presentation judged by a panel of experts. At this stage they are also required to prepare and speak at an exhibition of their work as a prelude to the pitch.

From there, the competition moves on to the companies’ full business plans, which are assessed by an internal panel with just ten shortlisted then sent to an external judging panel. The final pitch, to the external judging panel, takes place on the day of the awards presentation dinner.

“It’s an intense process throughout, from the moment they send in their initial application,” says Kozlova. “People say it’s not for the faint-hearted and it’s a great reflection on someone’s strength of character when they take the plunge and apply. Even for those who don’t win, Converge Challenge is a tremendous training ground because it exposes you to what’s really involved in creating and setting up a successful business.”

The deadline for entries to Converge Challenge is 18 April – for details and to enter visit www.convergechallenge.com.

The Pompadour by Galvin

PompDiscreet and very, very elegant, The Pompadour by Galvin at the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian certainly lives up to its reputation as having the best tables in Edinburgh. After all, how many restaurants in the capital boast views over Edinburgh Castle? You’ll soon find it’s very easy to sit and gaze out of those panoramic arched windows.

The Pompadour by Galvin, the sixth instalment of brothers Chris and Jeff’s expanding empire and their first Scottish venture, takes its name from the famed Madame de Pompadour, the favourite mistress of King Louis XV of France, who installed her in the Palace at Versailles.

There’s no doubt about it – it’s very grand indeed, its listed interior décor reflecting the sumptuousness of the royal court of the day. So if you’ve been before, why not book the
very reasonably-priced lunch that is now available on Fridays? At just £29 for three courses,
it represents excellent value for money given the focus on top-quality Scottish ingredients, all in season.

With executive chef Fraser Allan’s flair for combining freshnes and flavour with a French twist, it’s no surprise that this beautiful restaurant is fast becoming a destination not just for the business market but for foodies who want to experience outstanding cooking in an exceptional setting. It’s also no surprise that it holds 3AA Rosettes.

The Pompadour by Galvin at the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian is open for lunch on Fridays, from noon to 2.30pm. View sample menus and book at www.thepompadourbygalvin.com or email pompadour.reservations@waldorfastoria.com