Physics course '20

Can you do a graduate degree and be entrepreneurial? Recent reports suggest that the very skills required to think and act like an entrepreneur – skills such as creative thinking, problem solving and collaborative working - are the ones that could give all students a solid advantage, both now and in their future careers. 

This Trinity Term, Oxford graduate students had the chance to test this theory and explore their entrepreneurial side by participating in a new 7-week Entrepreneurship course at the Oxford Foundry, tailored for graduate students in Physics. The course was a collaboration between the Oxford Foundry, Saïd Business School, and the University of Oxford's Physics Department, and was the first such course to be included in the Physics curriculum. Over 30 students took part in the weekly online seminars led by expert start-up coaches, Physicists-turned-entrepreneurs, industry experts, and senior Oxford faculty members.

As they progressed through the course, the students worked in teams to develop ventures ideas such as power generation and storage solutions for hospitals, improving sustainability in the fashion industry, educational software for virtual science experiments in schools and more.

We caught up with a few of the DPhil students who participated, and asked them to give us their key takeaways from the course.

"It was inspiring to learn how much support the University offers to help people realise their entrepreneurial goals."

1. Learning from those who have followed the same path is immensely valuable.

“I appreciated the number of speakers who were physicists that started companies themselves, it felt like they really understood the position we are in,” said Eimear Conroy of Christ Church. “I found a lot of value in the very practical advice they offered.”

“Listening to entrepreneurs who were once in my shoes, and who had decided to pursue their own path and ideas really resonated with me,” agreed Antonio Garcia Guerra from Magdalen College.

2. Oxford has a lot to offer in entrepreneurship and support

“Each week of the course there were new things to learn from the fascinating speakers, and from course leader Pegram Harrison, who is an excellent teacher and facilitator. said Aaron O’Neill of Christ Church. "It was also inspiring to learn how much support the University offers to help people realise their entrepreneurial goals."

"The importance of developing a product for which there is actually a demand, understanding frameworks for design thinking, learning that creative thinking is a skill that can be developed, and the importance of considering the customer’s point of view without any of your own bias - these were all valuable takeaways." said Eimear. "I had always considered the idea of starting a company in parallel to my research career. Now that I have taken this course, I feel much better equipped to take steps towards making that a reality."

“For me, the talk on intellectual property rights and patents was one of the most valuable, and it was great to understand how to protect ideas and products.” said Aaron.

3. Your team is as important as your idea.

"It was great to form a team with other physicists and get to know them, as well as develop our ideas alongside the formal teaching we had each week,” explained Laurence Wroe of Linacre College.

"For me, the greatest takeaway was that your team is just as important – or possibly even more important - than your idea. It is the combination of your personal skills and your attitude that makes an idea become something real." explained Antonio.

100% of participants said that the Physics and Entrepreneurship course improved their understanding of how to translate ideas and inventions into viable businesses

4. Entrepreneurial learning opens up new pathways and possibilities.

“I have spent a lot of time focusing on the technical side of my research, but here, I have been reminded that there is so much more to consider.” added Antonio. “Our team wanted to address global inequalities, and we came up with a new product to address the effect of power fluctuations and black outs on key medical equipment in hospitals in low- and middle-income countries. Although we are not sure the extent to which we going to take this particular idea further, as a team we are now very keen to enter hackathons and competitions in the future.”

“I would recommend this course to DPhil candidates and researchers of any discipline who are curious about entrepreneurship and the start-up world – it’s given me some valuable and practical insights and helped me to consider new possibilities for the future.” said Elisabeth Duijnstee of University College

“The interest I had in entrepreneurship has definitely been furthered by the course. In addition to looking at some entrepreneurship schemes to enrol on after my DPhil, it has encouraged me to develop ideas that I currently have, using the skills and network that the course has given me.” agreed Laurence.

In a post-course survey, 100% of participants said that the Physics and Entrepreneurship course improved their understanding of how to translate ideas and inventions into viable businesses, and all of them also stated that they would recommend it to their fellow students at Oxford.

"It is evident from our students’ responses that the appetite for this kind of entrepreneurial learning is present and growing."

Phillip Tait, Innovation and Enterprise Manager at Oxford's Department of Physics worked closely with the Oxford Foundry to develop the course. He told us:

“We were delighted to collaborate with the Foundry and Saïd Business School to bring this course to our Physics graduate students. We strongly believe in the value of embedding entrepreneurship into student training, and it is evident from our students’ responses that the appetite for this kind of entrepreneurial learning is present and growing, and that it has provided them with valuable learning experiences.” 

With thanks to all the experts who gave their time and knowledge to the participating students, including Yo PercaleDiane WilkinsonJon MoorhousePegram HarrisonLewis LiuAchillefs KapanidisSasha HacoSophie Hackford, and Oxford Physics alumni Irwin Zaid and Matt Wilson.

Sign up to become a member of the Oxford Foundry.