Stanford University has a reputation for spawning graduates that go on to lead some of the world’s largest technology companies. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, PayPal founder Peter Thiel, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, SpaceX founder Elon Musk and more recently, Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, to name but a few.
The prestigious institution’s “secret sauce” for producing graduates with exceptional technical skills and impeccable business acumen is sought after by universities worldwide but the vast majority, including leading UK universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial, still struggle to compete.
And Stanford knows this. It knows that there are thousands of students outside the US that would relish the opportunity to study one of its courses in order to a) learn a thing or two (hopefully) and b) say they've been to Stanford.
As a result, the 124-year-old Silicon Valley academic powerhouse is in the process of exporting its programmes to cities around the world, with London being announced as the latest recipient of the “Ignite” entrepreneurship course last week.
The $10,000 (£6,600) three-month programme aims to offer aspiring entrepreneurs a Stanford education that might just help them on their way to building the billion dollar tech companies they dream of.
The programme, which started at Stanford eight years ago, has enrolled over 1,000 students who have gone on to create more than 100 companies, several of which have been sold to firms like Google and Twitter.
During its lifetime, the course has been expanded from sunny California to Bangalore (India), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Beijing (China), and Santiago (Chile), with the New York City (US) and London (UK) programmes both due to launch later this year.
“We looked at this programme which had been so successful at Stanford and said why don’t we export it?” said Garth Saloner, the dean of Stanford Business School while launching the London programme at Tate Modern. “Then we said there’s so much entrepreneurial activity in London, especially around the tech centre, that this would be a great place to come.”
Stanford is able to run the programmes in other cities thanks to sponsors like Microsoft, Cisco and Infosys who allow the university to run the Ignite programme from their offices. The course is delivered to students by HD video, with the help of some Stanford University professors on the ground in each of the satellite locations. In London, Ignite will be run out of the Infosys office in Canary Wharf over a series of weekends between September and December.
Saloner said it will provide aspiring UK and European students with “some fundamentals in general management” in addition to a “deep dive into entrepreneurship and innovation”.
During the course, students are organised around entrepreneurial projects that they will be asked to pitch to the course leaders at the end of the programme.
Ignite vs MBA vs something else?
The London launch event was attended by approximately 100 people, including a number of prospective Ignite students, venture capitalists and Stanford alumni.
One of the questions several of the prospective students at the launch wanted answering was "why do this over an MBA?"
Aspiring entrepreneurs often choose to enrol on MBA programmes but may are put off these courses because they typically run over two years and can cost in excess of £40,000.
While there are many things students will likely miss out on by choosing the Ignite programme over an MBA, Saloner believes it still acts as a good “supercharger” that addresses many of the questions aspiring cofounders have.
“It’s difficult in a programme to teach entrepreneurial passion and spark,” Saloner said. “To some extent you have it or you don’t. But the process of entrepreneurship has been well studied and we understand it very well. The process is teachable. The proof is in the pudding as we've nurtured more than 100 companies.”
Students wishing to build an actual product during their course, while also receiving investment, might want to apply for a place at somewhere like Entrepreneur First (EF) instead, which claims to have created over 20 startups that have a combined net worth in excess of $100 million (approximately £66 million).
Alice Bentinck, cofounder of Entrepreneur First, said: “EF is very different. Unlike this programme, which is pay to play, EF is an investor. What this means is that our incentives are strongly aligned with the entrepreneurs and our business model only works when our startups do well.
“As an in-person full time programme, EF is also able to offer tailored advice to each startup we work with. The Stanford Ignite programme looks like a fantastic introduction to entrepreneurship, but it's no substitute for hands on, experienced investors.”
Although Stanford doesn't invest in ventures directly, after graduating from the course with a Certificate in Entrepreneurship, alumni are invited back to reunion parties on an annual basis where they can rub shoulders with other Stanford alumni, many of whom happen to invest in startups.
Bethany Coates, assistant dean for Global Innovations Programs at Stanford Graduate School of Business, said: “Stanford University is a very powerful platform for bringing people together who have aligned common interests. With regard to investment, we never formally broker any investment. We have an academic mission and an educational mission. But we do put people together in the same room.”
Meanwhile, venture capitalist Will Gibbs, an investor at Octopus Ventures, said he sees Stanford Ignite as an "interesting" venture.
“I think a crucial part of its success will be how they link it back to Stanford, rather than it being a loosely affiliated satellite,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of noise in London in terms of accelerators and incubators. For these guys to be heard above that is really important and building those relationships with corporate and VC houses is what defines the potential success.”
Stanford is inviting prospective students to apply for this year's course between now and 19 May but those hoping to get a place just because they have the money shouldn’t get their hopes up.
The university is often regarded as the most selective institution in the world and it doesn’t appear as though it’s willing to sacrifice the calibre of its students just because they’re based overseas.
“It’s a very selective programme,” said Saloner. “We want to make sure the people on it are at the same standard wherever we run it, whether it’s on Stanford campus or any of the other locations.”
Saloner added that Stanford has no obligation to fill every seat on the London programme at first, highlighting how it’s likely to start off small and grow organically over time.
The announcement of the course has already caught the eye of several of the UK’s top students.
Cambridge University students are considering signing up to Stanford Ignite ©Flickr/Yang and Yung
Jacob Brown, a Cambridge University student studying for a PhD in chemical engineering, told Techworld he’s “definitely" looking to apply. “I really like the global network aspect of it,” he said at the launch.
He attended the launch with his friend Isabella Garriboldi – a Cambridge PhD student that is studying materials science under a scholarship from Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. She said she’ll be applying to the Ignite course later this year, along with several other courses, including an MBA programme at a London university.
The event was also attended by a number of ex-Stanford students.
Stanford graduate Kelly Price said: “I’m Stanford alum and I’ve been toying with the idea of going back because I miss Stanford. To have a little piece of the campus come to me here in London is in some ways the best of both worlds.
“I know Oxbridge have entrepreneurship units in their MBA programme but I’m unaware of a crash course likes this.”
She added: “Some people want the degree at the end of a course because that makes them more employable. What I like about this programme is that you’re not going for a degree. Who cares about the certificate. You’re going to employ yourself.”
Those looking to apply need to send a CV, two short essays and two recommendations via the Stanford Ignite website.
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