Oxford undergraduates have some of the sharpest minds in the world. Many of them are young, enthusiastic and entrepreneurial, making them ideal candidates to launch an innovative tech startup. Now, a wealthy Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Michael Baum is intrigued by what they have to offer.

Baum, the founding CEO of $5 billion big data pioneer Splunk, recently added the prestigious university to his Founder.org programme, which aims to find the best student entrepreneurs on the planet and help them build world-leading tech companies, with the help of a $100 million (£65.3 million) fund.

Oxford University has become the fifth UK institution to join Founder.org ©istock/peterspiro
Oxford University has become the fifth UK institution to join Founder.org ©istock/peterspiro

Oxford joins a list of academic heavyweights around the world that already includes Stanford, Berkeley, Imperial, UCL and Cambridge, along with 36 other partner schools spread across the US, Europe and Asia.

The programme, launched in the US three years ago before expanding into Europe last year, is currently on the hunt for its second cohort of 50 teams.

“We want to recruit teams to our programme that are working on what we think are really world-changing ideas,” Baum told Techworld in London, before meeting with entrepreneurs from University College London and Imperial College London.

“We’re trying to take these young leaders who have been through the lean startup methodology and explain to them that if you want to build a unicorn you need to really think about company building, not just product building.”

The programme, which is open to teams at multiple stages of development, from those who have just formulated an “idea” to those that have a product and a revenue stream, aims to do this by focusing on eight dimensions. They include: fund raising, market development, customer development, product and technology, the idea and its narration, business planning and team.


Baum is particularly keen to identify students with “moonshot” ideas that could have a significant global impact.

“We’re not looking for social, mobile, local ecommerce stuff,” said Baum. “We’re looking for companies certainly in IT but we’re doing a lot of things now in what we call food and agriculture 2.0. That seems to be an area with a lot of innovation. Also medical devices 2.0 is a huge space where young people are figuring out how to leverage mobile and cloud technology.”

Each team that is accepted onto Founder.org receives between $10,000 (£6,540) and $100,000 (£62,000), based on Baum’s initial assessment of their company idea. “Their ranking is based on our curriculum and the eight different dimensions,” he said. 

But the programme offers more than hard cash. Over the course of a year, each team is assigned a series of customised tasks to complete.

Due to the global nature of the teams, the tasks are distributed via an online learning programme that has been designed specifically for Founder.org.

“It’s essentially all these lessons from 25 years in Silicon Valley compressed into a year. The curriculum is fun. We form it into 32 different challenges that we put in front of the teams and the challenges are programmed by quarter.”

“Once every quarter we have a three day forum where we pick one of our partner schools and all 50 teams descend on that partner school for three days,” Baum said, adding that the forums act as valuable networking events as the entrepreneurs get to meet roughly 150 like-minded people, including several alumni teams.

Initially, Baum and his team were looking for entrepreneurs at just eight schools in the US but this has grown as more institutions around the world found out about the initiative and asked to be part of it.

James May, president of Oxford Entrepreneurs, said the programme will compliments the existing entrepreneurship courses at Oxford.

“We look for schools where there is innovation and entrepreneurship already happening,” said Baum. “Our job is not to spark entrepreneurship at Cambridge. Our job is to help those kids who are graduating and have a really serious idea and want to go as fast as possible and make as fewer mistakes as possible.”

European expansion

Founder.org is currently looking for entrepreneurs at five UK schools but there are several other academic powerhouses across Europe where Baum is keen to identify talented technical graduates, including four in France, four in Germany, three in Switzerland, and others in Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden and Finland.

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes for a wow experience. I think what really differentiates those things from everything else is taking customers to a place they didn’t imagine they could be. We call that the ‘unexpected benefit’.

“As a company doing something new, a startup or a big company, if you can articulate that unexpected benefit that takes a customer to an alternative future that they never imagined, that is so powerful that it makes their head spin around. That’s when you’ve arrived.”

Six other Silicon Valley gurus are supporting Baum on Founder.org. The team includes a CEO (Baum), a chief financial officer, a chief creative officer, a chief technical officer, a chief revenue officer and a chief team officer.

“If you looked at it you’d say oh it looks like a company. These are the curriculum builders and the people who act as the chief mentors for the people in the companies.”

Arthur Kay, founder of a UCL company enrolled in the programme called Bio-bean, said Founder.org has enabled Bio-bean to analyse different aspects of its business and attract some key customers and team members. 

One of the biggest problems students have is communicating their idea, so over the course of the programme the Founder.org team aims to help them develop a succinct pitch.

“Most kids today get up and spew their idea in 60 seconds but they don’t really say it in a very impactful way,” said Baum. “The real value is the change in the way you talk about what you doing.”

Any money that the companies make goes back into the foundation and gets reinvested. 

Baum said he backed 22 of the 60 graduate teams from last year with additional funding, giving them between $250,000 and $3 million each. 

He added: “In 18 of the 22 we’ve been the lead investor because the venture industry says it’s too far off the beaten path or we haven’t done that before. Or it’s too early.”

 A shortlist of the next cohort will be drawn up in June before the class is accepted in 2016.


 UK startups on Founder.org 2015

•       Skin Analytics: a startup founded in Cambridge enabling people to self-diagnose cancerous moles early.
•       Eddy Labs: established by Imperial College students, the company manufactures smarthome devices.
•       Restored Hearing: uses physics to provide simple solutions to hearing problems.
•       Bio-bean: Bio-bean is an innovative green energy company which collects waste coffee grounds and recycles them into Advanced Biofuels, biomass pellets and biodiesel, using a patented process.

Inpage image: ©Flickr/johnvey