The mind behind pragmatic and innovative entrepreneurship

An interview with Dr Simon Brown.

From security hologram innovation, pioneering education research and practice, to high impact roles shaping the academic, graduate and business enterprise landscape, Dr Simon Brown is a leading figure in enterprise and entrepreneurship business incubation and education in the UK.

You have a multi-sector background Simon, which includes the study of physics and a career in holographic technology, how has this influenced your design of leading practice entrepreneurial education?

A science background and a love of practical investigation influenced the pedagogical design of my first physics courses at Sheffield Hallam University in the early 90s. 

By 1995, I had shifted focus to the design of a BSc (Hons) business and technology (B&T) degree, to support technically literate graduates fit for business and commerce contexts. In 2005, the Higher Education Funding Council for England recognised us as a national Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) in Embedding, Enhancing and Integrating Employability (e3i). This was pivotal in shaping my entrepreneurial career. 

The simple, clear vision and design of the B&T continues to influence course design, including the Accelerating Enterprise Programmes at Southampton Solent University. It underpins the more recent physics degree I worked on with Dr Simon Clark at Hallam. It has informed my founding of the ‘Venture Matrix’, a unique work-related learning scheme, my consultancy work. Its reach goes as far as China. 

I did not plan to develop ‘enterprise education’, it wasn’t a thing back then, but I had honed in on a specific set of skills which are now recognised as entrepreneurial. I simply wanted highly employable graduates of any discipline, who could take control of their careers whatever the factors or contexts faced.

Which theorists or practitioners have influenced your perspectives on entrepreneurial education? 

Looking back, as a novice educator, I followed my instincts. I didn’t apply any specific theory or align to one particular guru. It wasn’t until the mid-noughties, after joining an independent membership network for enterprise educators, then UKSEC now Enterprise Educators UK (EEUK), that I met with others experimenting with similar approaches. Over time I was exposed to the ideas of Professor Allan Gibb, Professor Andy Penaluna, Dr Colin Jones and Dr Anne Kirketerp Linstad. Putting together the bid for CETL status for Sheffield Hallam University triggered my first deep immersion into enterprise and entrepreneurial research. I’ve since become a magpie. I’ve borrowed bits from Bandura, Sarasvathy, Powell, Blank, and Osterwalder. The list is long.

A key advantage of having a varied career is access to a rich network of people, and the opportunity to receive and offer support. I was so honoured to be invited to join the Visiting Professor team at the International Institute of Entrepreneurial Development in Swansea (UWTSD). Here, Andy and Kath Penaluna have created one of the strongest networks of enterprising and entrepreneurial academics in the world. I look forward to working with this team to respond to the post-Covid world.

Time spent with YouWin Nigeria, a youth development scheme, also taught me that learning and personal development is best achieved through experiential learning delivered by passionate educators. It doesn’t seem to be culturally moderated. British Council work in Sri Lanka opened my eyes to Dr Chandra Embuldeniya, and his work setting up the first entrepreneurial university there. I also adore live experimentation. I love supporting groups like Peter Harrington’s SimVenture. We learnt so much from watching my students just fly with the software. 

A trip with the British Council to Boston convinced me that while the US academics talk a good story, UK practice and expertise were years ahead. We just don’t shout as loudly. 

Your pragmatic approach to entrepreneurial skills development was seeded early on your career, Simon, but what were the main challenges faced?

Simply, gaining validation! It took my role with the EEUK, the passion and experience of Professor Andy Penaluna, and the commitment of Professor Allan Gibb to get the necessary recognition and validation by The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). This was later formalised in the QAA 2012 Enterprise and Entrepreneurship guidance.

What are your aspirations for entrepreneurial education in the UK?

I hope we don’t push it too hard. Being an entrepreneur is not for everybody. It takes a particular set of skills and competencies, and personality or mindset to live the entrepreneur life. The work on the EntreComp framework is great as it focuses not just on entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurial behaviours, attributes and competencies to create cultural and social, not just economic value, within or independent of organisations. 

How can 21st-century universities shape environments conducive for the development of entrepreneurial mindsets and behaviours?

This is VERY topical, as Covid-19 ravages our planet. It will be interesting to see what will emerge after the dust settles. I’ve often said entrepreneurs work best when systems are disrupted. The work of Schumpeter and others helps us understand the role entrepreneurs play in creating new solutions when the old ones fail. We now need entrepreneurial thinkers more than ever! Universities need to respond quickly and effectively. And not just migrate lecture notes to a VLE. Pedagogies and assessment need to be adapted or replaced. We can not be allowed to prepare students for a world of work that no longer exists. It is capability and flexibility, not theories and models, that will build the resilient entrepreneurial minds of the future. 

Educators and their leadership need humility and a willingness to take risks. Throw the rule book away and ask, ‘what is best for students in the current context?’ Just do it, don’t just play safe!

What role or responsibility does business or industry have in supporting this entrepreneurial environment?

Generating the context for students to develop. My time at AH PLC taught me you don’t have a solution unless you have a killer problem. The best assessment tools are real-world problems. They also sort the doers from the lazy loafers. Plagiarism and cheating cease to be an issue when a student has to explain to an employer what they’ve been doing for the last 12 weeks. Employers don’t have to be as polite and sensitive as us academics. They can, and do, tell the students exactly what they think. A life lesson, while still in a safe space, where changes can be made before the face the reality of work. I’ve found commercially relevant experiences are pure gold for the development of graduate entrepreneurial skills.

Simon, I understand you also are involved in a number of projects with post-graduate researchers, tell me about them?

I spent over 20 years trying to help undergrads, so I am now supporting educators, early career researchers, and doctoral & post-doctoral students take control of their careers. Projects include:

·    ICURe, Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research, is a programme funded by BEIS via Innovate UK, that helps academic teams identify opportunities for their academic research. I developed this programme with colleagues from Southampton. Now delivered by three partners, it has helped over 350 teams, raising millions of pounds of new investment for businesses and universities.

· Like ICURe, SUCCESS is a programme funded by Research England aimed at Social Scientists.

· University of Manchester’s Researcher to Innovator (R2I) helps researchers move forward with their discoveries and explore opportunities in commercialisation. We are on the fourth cohort and going strong.

· AdvanceHE’s Entrepreneurial Thinking is a very new programme that aims to help an institution’s academics identify the next steps to take their research and passion forward.  

·  Action for Impact helps academics from four north-east universities, Newcastle, Durham, Northumbria and Sunderland, not only identify research impact, but plan a pathway to deliver that impact via further research or commercialisation.

I am also engaged with programmes for colleagues in Sheffield, Exeter, Bristol, Cambridge and other universities.

In what country or context have you witnessed the most innovative entrepreneurial practices?

Hum…. hard. I have worked in Nigeria, East Africa, China, Malaysia, and a little in Europe. I am NOT impressed with the US. Despite their resources and brilliant marketing, they are constrained by their assessment models, and continue with very traditional pedagogy. Even the likes of Steve Blank follow a very safe format! There are pockets of excellent around the globe, but the UK is definitely a leading player. 

Simon, which critical skill or competence have you most relied upon in life? 

I have a fairly relaxed approach to life. I try to enjoy everything I do. I work hard when I am interested. Bureaucracy bores me. An enquiring mind is vital, but I have had the benefit of great minds to share ideas with, to refine and polish them. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Kath and Andy Penaluna, and my mates. Alan Scrase, Lisa McMullan, Alison Price, Bob Newbery, Jenny Brady, Kevin Marks, Tony Walker, Kelly Smith, Chris Hall, Kate Beresford, Laura Loveday, Shima Barakat, Marten Van Der Kamp, Anne Kirketerp and many many more. My wife’s support has also been invaluable, especially when times were tough.

I learnt early on I would not be an entrepreneur! Yet I am entrepreneurial in what I do, and in what I have achieved. I have grown from many rich experiences and support. My PhD taught me resilience and determination to overcome obstacles alone. I’m proud of my tenacity to have fought long and hard for my ‘Venture Matrix’. It lives on still in Hallam, it’s the basis of their employability offer. Fifteen years on, it’s still thriving. How many other mad schemes have lasted this long?

If you were to select your top 3 three contributions to the entrepreneurial education landscape to date, what would they be and why?

One, the BSc (Hons) B&T, it was my canvas on which to experiment.

Two, the Venture Matrix, my mad world that made everything possible.

Three, ICURe, even research profs like playing games!

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t try to use the biggest tennis racquet you can buy, find one that fits your body. I wrecked my arm by using too big a racquet. Listen to your body, not others!

Keep taking things apart. See how they work. If you can put them back together, even better!

Be scientific in everything you do!

Have FUN.  

Thank you, Simon, for taking time out to share your entrepreneurial life journey to date. I look forward to future innovations, successes, and pragmatic advice.


Further information on some of Simon’s projects:

Venture Matrix: https://www.shu.ac.uk/study-here/why-choose-us/employability/employability-is-built-into-your-course/venture-matrix

ICURe: https://icure.uk/

SUCCESS: https://aspect.ac.uk/news-and-events/success-programme/

Researcher to Innovator (R2I): https://www.staffnet.manchester.ac.uk/rbe/news/display/?id=21741

Advance HE’s Entrepreneurial Thinking: https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/guidance/teaching-and-learning/enterprise-and-entrepreneurship

Enterprise Educators UK (EEUK): https://www.enterprise.ac.uk/

Set Squared: https://www.setsquared.co.uk

Visiting Professor of Enterprise & Entrepreneurship at University of Wales Trinity St David (UWTSD) International Institute for Creative Entrepreneurial Development (IICED) https://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/iiced/iiced-team/

P2T Consulting Ltd: https://www.p2t.co.uk/


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