Seratech in 'Why Imperial College launched a climatetech Pre-accelerator'

Universities are a hotbed for young talent, ideas and potential; they’re also an often untapped resource for entrepreneurship and sustainable solutions.

by Marianne Lehnis for

1/4/20243 min read

Universities are a hotbed for young talent, ideas and potential; they’re also an often untapped resource for entrepreneurship and sustainable solutions. Imperial College climate tech Pre-accelerator co-founders Filippo Varini and Elliot Queisser de Stockalper have set out to change this with the launch of a first-of-its-kind pre-accelerator for climate tech.

The pre-accelerator aims to help students launch their entrepreneurial ideas before the pressures of needing to earn an income and repay student loans immediately after graduating prevent many would-be founders from getting started. It offers a complete support system for helping students validate and test their ideas, build a team and network, and pitch to institutional investors.

“From our experience, universities are the best place to launch a startup,” says Filippo Varini. “You have access to world-leading experts who can support your project – Imperial College has some of the world's leading experts in climate change, and their support greatly benefits your project.

“You also have access to resources such as research facilities and incubators, but also networking opportunities. Universities are a hub of innovators, and it is the best place to meet entrepreneurs and investors.

“We particularly believe in cross-university interaction. Each one has their own strength and community and by joining forces we can increase the support to student founders,” says Varini.

“We wanted to set up something that will be heard,” says Queisser de Stockalper, “but also something that will inspire people and give clear opportunities and possibilities at the end. That's how we came up with the pre-accelerator to help student founders get investment-ready and validate their idea.”

The Pre-accelerator on boards programme sponsors, collaborators, mentors and partners to help student founders in shaping their idea: “we’ll have a series of workshops, challenges and pitching days and we’ll finish with Demo Day, where teams will present in front of investors and partners, show what they are addressing, and how that idea compliments a gap in the market sector.

“It’s an opportunity for them to speak about something they’re deeply passionate about at their first pitching event and build on these capabilities in the future,” explains Queisser de Stockalper.

The programme received 200 applications from students across a range of participating universities, including Cambridge, MIT, Oxford, the Royal College of Arts and LSE. 100 students, from PHDs to undergraduates, have now been accepted into the first cohort: “half of the people we selected already have a team and idea they will want to work on and half of them are unsure about what to work on and need to find a team,” says Varini. “We have a multidisciplinary cohort because we believe something great happens when you mix perspectives from different backgrounds.”

Imperial College already has a reputation as one of the best universities in Europe for prospective entrepreneurs. Notable high-value climate tech startups that have launched from its accelerator ecosystem include GrowUp, a vertical farming startup that has raised £100 million in funding, Notpla that won an Earthshot prize for having produced an algae-based plastic alternative, Upside Energy, which was bought by Octopus Energy and SERATECH, a net-zero cement alternative.

Now with the launch of the pre-accelerator for climate tech student founders, its bringing innovation to the status quo of who can become a climate tech founder and what the support system surrounding entrepreneurs can look like.

Varini and Queisser de Stockalper are proud that, in a typically male-dominated sector, they’ve had more female than male entrepreneurs enlisted in the first Pre-accelerator cohort.

Starting young as a student founder can help reduce the barriers to entry for entrepreneurial success by encouraging risk-taking before the pressures of supporting a family or paying off a mortgage take centre-stage.

“I think the benefit of starting young is that you have energy and you also have the beginner mindset that lets you approach a problem with a new perspective and sometimes that can lead to authentic solutions,” says Varini. “However, you don't have experience and your network or skillset can't compare with people that already have experience. But it depends on the personality, if you can learn by doing and you're a resilient person, those qualities can help you succeed.”

One of the advantages of starting young, adds Queisser de Stockalper, is that “in our outlook or perspective, we're allowed to be very spontaneous, very creative, and we can just come in and propose something and the pressure and judgment is less heavy because we are trying our best and aiming to tackle something at a young age that is very close to our heart.”

Will the Pre-accelerator idea spread to other universities?

“It’s one of the things we’ve talked about – my motto is Carpe Diem. I think the pre-accelerator has the potential to shape the entrepreneur journey for lots of students and be able to touch a wider community, not only in London, but across the UK,” says Queisser de Stockalper.

“We’ll take things step by step, but there are all the ingredients for it in the future to be implemented on a wider scale.”

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