The myth of the solo entrepreneur, bravely launching ground-breaking innovations looms large in our cultural conscience.
We adore tales of the Gates, Bezos, and closer to home, Stewart, of the business world. But for every entrepreneurial trailblazer there are millions that fail.
Why? Because no entrepreneur is an island, and an entire ecosystem is needed for great ideas to move from planning to full-fledged execution.
Professor of Practice – Innovation and Entrepreneurship Gerry Brooks wants everyone to know that UWI Ventures is the innovation and entrepreneurial hub which anyone with a business idea can use to help them succeed, and it’s right here on The UWI St Augustine campus.
UWI Ventures was born out of the recognition that the regional entrepreneurship ecosystem is inefficient and misaligned. Brooks stresses that alignment of our national ecosystem is critical to consistently spawn successful enterprises throughout the region.
“The Caribbean has fallen behind in economic development and entrepreneurship growth globally. It is small and medium- sized enterprises that drive economies and power export earnings—just take a look at economies such as Germany with its Mittelstand, which has been at the top of the list in the SME entrepreneurship space for many years”.
A former Chairman of the National Gas Company (NGC) Group of Companies and former Group Chief Operating Officer and Sector Head, Manufacturing, ANSA McAL, Brooks is passionate about the ability of UWI Ventures to transform entrepreneurship.
“If one looks at innovation and entrepreneurship from a regional perspective, this programme will ignite growth, employment and diversification by aligning and leveraging the work of The UWI with the SME and other sectors throughout the region.”
The UWI Ventures wants to encourage people to apply for its development service and become entrepreneurial, particularly in this transformative COVID-19 era. They also want to attract investors who are interested in supporting regional projects. These new partnerships will create opportunities regionally for young people, women, retirees, manufacturers, social entrepreneurs and business itself.
How does it work? UWI students, staff and alumni can submit their projects and inventions to UWI Ventures. Applications will be open to the wider public. The Caribbean diaspora will also be encouraged to send in submissions.
But, be prepared, according to Brooks, “entrepreneurship is hard work”. Proposals will be interrogated by the UWI Ventures team for business validity, commercial rigour and marketing sustainability and effectiveness. The mandate, he says, is to help fill the gaps that most entrepreneurs miss in their efforts to get their product to market – rigorous assessment of ideas, proper business planning, financial forecasts and consideration of marketing options.
Brooks says entrepreneurs must be fully committed. Not every idea may be commercially viable, but every fledgling entrepreneur will benefit from the team’s wisdom and experience.
Incorporated in May 2019, UWI Ventures is led by the Board including Brooks as Executive Chairman; Campus Principal Professor Brian Copeland and Director of the St Augustine Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (StACIE) Professor John Agard. The team also includes Julian Henry, Programme Manager, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Department of Management Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences; Hemwatte Lakhan, Operations Coordinator; along with members from Campus IT Services (CITS) and other areas that will provide collaborative, management and operational support.
They understand the need to have a dedicated physical space where people can socialise, nurture entrepreneurial ideas and feel supported. Architectural drawings have been developed for a customised Innovation and Entrepreneurship I&E) Centre. Appropriate funding is being sought. With the support from the UWI Ventures’ I&E Digital Sub-Committee, the team is also excited about their soon-to-launch virtual business accelerator; a digital ecosystem where anyone can log on, indicate the nature of their project and immediately begin interacting confidentially with an online business coach to advance their project regardless of what stage they have reached in their business and marketing plans.
What will distinguish UWI Ventures from other entrepreneurial incubators, Brooks says, is its connection with industry and academia. Entrepreneurs will have access to technical experts, business coaches and mentors drawn from industry through Memoranda of Understanding and partnership agreements. The UWI Ventures Executive Chairman points out that a cornerstone of this process will be the confidentiality provisions. They are also ready, he says, to engage businesses on patents and prototypes developed by students that will radically change the industry.
Future goals include the launch of their digital ecosystem by the second quarter of 2020. This will include a call for viable projects. The objective is to stress-test the ecosystem at St Augustine and then roll it out regionally. In the words of Campus Principal Copeland, the aim is to have “at least two innovations ready by 2021, and one every year after… a very, very aggressive timeline, but one that can only bring forth positive results”. Pro Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles describes UWI Ventures as “a game changer that can and must help reshape the region’s growth fortunes”.
When asked if UWI Ventures had any challenges, the Professor of Practice says, “There are many. But we don’t see challenges, we see the wonderful opportunity to create an integrated system which will enrich the development experience for potential entrepreneurs and innovators leading to innovative outcomes that we can monetise for their benefit, the university’s and ultimately the region. This is a transformative imperative for the region where success is our only option.”