Start-up Nation: are entrepreneurs the future?

Saturday 17 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Frobisher 4-6, Barbican The New Industrial Revolution?

The proverbial teenage geek making millions designing apps in his bedroom is at the heart of our twenty-first-century vision of entrepreneurship, and seen by some as the key to much-needed economic renewal. TV’s Dragons Den millionaire Duncan Bannatyne declares: ‘We need to get entrepreneurialism in the psyche of kids and give them the confidence to produce multi-million pound businesses in this country.’ Meanwhile the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has given the go-ahead for an apprenticeship for entrepreneurs, on top of endless other initiatives, from the Growth Vouchers programme to the Funding for Lending scheme.

There is particular excitement around internet and tech start-ups: trying to found the next Facebook has taken the place of the paper round as the default young person’s money-making scheme. Close to half (47 per cent) of those aged 18-30 want to start their own business. Indeed, the number of newly registered businesses rocketed from 484,224 in 2012 to an estimated 581,173 in 2014. But is there a danger of over-hyping these developments, distracting from more concrete macroeconomic solutions and encouraging the young to build castles in the air?

Inevitably, schools have been charged with ensuring kids see entrepreneurialism as a viable career option. So curricula should include courses in leadership, teamwork, time management, how to raise finance, cash flow and profits, how to pitch ideas, how to develop minimum viable prototypes, negotiate with lawyers, and create a business plan. But even if we buy into the idea that entrepreneurs are the future, do we know what one is? A self-employed window cleaner, a recently redundant executive newly rebranded as a consultant and a student setting up a website to sell second-hand clothes are all counted by the government as entrepreneurs. Sceptics suggest entrepreneurship may appeal to the young only because of a lack of ‘real’ jobs; so is the whole thing just a distraction from the failings of the traditional economy? Moreover, what constitutes success for an entrepreneur? As one commentator recently asked, ‘is successful entrepreneurship the number of new company registrations, the number of people employed, the valuation, or something else?’.

As many of the most successful entrepreneurs seemed to have been spurred on by doing badly at school, are educational silver bullets missing the point? And by selling the young the aspiration of being the next Mark Zuckerberg and glamorising the virtues of being one’s own boss, do we neglect the reality that most of us will work for others? Should the government pay more attention to facilitating the growth of big business rather than investing so many hopes (and so much money) into turning small-scale tech geniuses into the motor of future growth?

Amali de Alwis
CEO, Code First: Girls

George Hull
co-founder, Bloc; contributor, the Spectator

Kevin McCullagh
founder, Plan

Kevin Mole
associate professor (reader) and head of entrepreneurship and innovation, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

Mark Birbeck
internet software and big data consultant

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
Startups Rocket To The Front Of The Space Race

Capitalizing on the falling cost of launch services and the miniaturization of satellites, a new breed of startups are gearing up for the space race under the moniker of NewSpace.

Tim Reyes, TechCrunch, 2 August 2015

Startups have figured out how to remove carbon from the air. Will anyone pay them to do it?

Three startups, Carbon Engineering, Global Thermostat and Climeworks, are making strides with technology that can directly remove carbon dioxide from the air. What they need now is a viable business model

Marc Gunther, Guardian, 14 July 2015

A New Golden Age for UK Technology Start Ups?

How can the tech sector marry today's feeling of optimism - and the private sector cash that is aligned with that growth - with the creation of both a societal and industry infrastructure that will enable technology-orientated people and businesses to flourish and grow?

Chris Ciauri, Huffington Post, 8 June 2015

California's drought is not getting better but experts look to startups for ideas

State officials are trying everything from serving less water in restaurants and doing less laundry at hotels to a $1bn emergency relief plan unveiled on Thursday. But experts warn all of that and much more will still be required to deal with byproducts of the drought

Andy Meek, Guardian, 22 March 2015

A new future with concrete and chips

Tech entrepreneurs honoured by the Royal Academy of Engineering are showing the way

Mark Leftly and Jamie Dunkley, Independent, 18 April 2014

follow the Academy of Ideas


Keep up to date with Academy of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.

Next year's festival will be packed with more debates like this one. If you would like to come, get your ticket now via our 2016 tickets page.
Session partners

in association with