On Tuesday I was at the launch of the Ideas Igloo at Thames Valley University, Ealing, which was one of the Enterprise Week events going on this week. The Ideas Igloo is a roadshow of events that will visit about 20 universities between now March. This is all part of raising awareness and getting more young people involved in entrepreneurship, which is of course important for all of us since the nature of work is changing. Entrepreneurial drive and skills are needed if you're starting a new company (obviously), but are also highly sought after by established companies that are looking to be more competitive through innovative technologies or business practices.

Part of the Ideas Igloo is a workshop to give the students advice on how to turn an idea into a business, which includes advice that has been developed by our researchers at Microsoft Research, Cambridge (see below). Then we had a group of four entrepreneur-types, including Alex Tew of MillionDollarHomePage fame and James Eder of studentbeans.com, who sat on a "Dragons' Den"-style panel, to see pitches from students on cool ideas that they had come up with.

It was a fun session with some very inventive ideas. With each presenter given only 60 seconds to do their pitch, they really had to think hard about how to get their point across, and on the whole they did a very good job. The top three ideas where:

  1. A system to provide musicians with a virtual audience to give them a more realistic rehearsal environment
  2. Lifescape, a web magazine for ethical lifestyles and products
  3. A service providing personalised, customised clothing items

The winner got £150 and the opportunity to go forward to a national final together with the winners from approximately 20 other universities , where all the winners will compete to win £2,000 plus a package of Microsoft products to help them get their business underway.

The event had a great buzz about it, and Jonathan Moules from the Financial Times was there to cover it for ft.com. Then on Wednesday I got invited to chat about it on the Chris Evans drivetime show on BBC Radio 2 with an audience of many millions of listeners. My three minutes of fame happened about 2 hours and 30 minutes into the 14th of November show, which is available to listen to on the BBC web site until next Wednesday, the 21st.

So Ideas Igloo is pretty cool, and I think the advice that my Microsoft Research colleagues is useful for everyone who wants to turn an idea into reality, not just students:

Get Your Entrepreneurial Game On

Microsoft Research Cambridge Offers Five Tips on How to Be an Innovator

Ask any successful entrepreneur, and they will tell you that what drives them is not just the financial rewards but also the opportunity to do something that changes the world. With each new idea that takes hold in the marketplace, an innovator has — in a small way — changed the way the world works.

At Microsoft’s research labs in Cambridge, UK, over 100 people are focusing their talents every day on innovation in computing. They are inspired not only by the excitement of invention itself, but also by the potential of software to address some of humankind’s biggest challenges — things like sustainable living, healthcare and modeling climate change.

So what does it take to be an innovator, in technology or any other field? Microsoft has come up with a series of tips, based on learnings from its Cambridge lab, to help aspiring entrepreneurs develop great ideas and bring them into the world. The software leader is sharing these tips with Higher Education and Further Education students at a series of innovation roadshows, which launch in London during Enterprise Week and roll out nationwide in 2008.

Andrew Herbert, MD at Microsoft Research Cambridge says, “Innovation is at the heart of everything we do at Microsoft, and we believe it is within everyone’s reach – from PhD graduates working in our laboratory to foundation degree students. By sharing our experience with students nationwide, we hope to inspire a new generation of young people to start thinking in fresh ways, and give them the confidence to be the innovators of the future.”

1. Look for the gaps. Often the best ideas are right in front of you — you just have to see them. Innovators are consummate observers of what people do and how things get done. They identify gaps between existing products and technologies, and consider how a new approach might be more efficient, engaging or cool.
For example, Microsoft researchers observed that traditional answering machines do a poor job of helping people manage their voice messages, particularly for an entire family. So they developed the Bubble Board, a wall-mounted touch screen that gives families a simple, visual way to identify and manage individual phone messages.
Try this: Devote a half day to watching how different people interact with an object of your choice, such as a mobile phone or a bicycle or a ticket kiosk. How could the object be improved for a better user experience? What other objects are related to your chosen object’s function? What new strategies might be used to accomplish the same objective, but smarter, faster or more enjoyably?

2. Many heads are better than one. Inspiration drawn from numerous disciplines tends to lead to the most successful products, and rarely does one person embody all of the knowledge required to develop a viable concept. That’s why collaboration is so important to the process of innovation. Surface computing — tabletop computer displays that interact with people and objects in a remarkably intuitive way — is one such example. The research behind surface computing drew upon people who understand electronics, human-computer interaction and computer vision techniques. Microsoft’s Cambridge lab added another layer of innovation on top of this with C-Slate, which allows people at different locations to work together using surface computing. For this project, social anthropologists worked closely with the technical developers to create a useful and intuitive interface.
Try this: Invite two or three people who represent very different educational and professional backgrounds to a brainstorming session. Present your innovative idea to the group and ask them to offer their impressions and related ideas. Lead the discussion to capture their creative thinking and practical insights.

3. Do your research. If your idea is so great, why hasn’t someone else already thought of it? The internet is your first stop, to find out whether your idea has already been developed. Online articles, patent information, blogs and company websites are all potential sources of relevant information. You should also reach out to primary sources of information. What experts can you identify who would be willing to advise you and share their knowledge?
Try this: Identify a technical or market-focused expert and make an appointment to discuss your innovative idea. Consider your questions carefully beforehand, to ensure you gain the insight that this person can provide.

4. Don’t let failure get you down. Failure is an integral part of innovation and, while painful, it is one of the best teachers. The hard part is recognising when things are going badly, and being honest with yourself about it. Of course not all ideas are great ideas and timing is also an important factor in market adoption. You have to be able to admit when it’s time to quit, and recover from that.
At Microsoft, researchers minimise the number of dead-end projects by placing high value on peer review. By critiquing each other’s work, researchers receive critical help identifying the weaknesses in their concept. As an innovator, you must become comfortable listening to skeptics and develop the personal confidence to defend your convictions, while recognising that others may have insight that you do not.
Try this: Develop a 1-minute sales pitch about your product and test it on five people for their reaction. Encourage them to give you their honest impression — the positive and the negative.

5. Develop your business know-how. For any start-up, the research and initial concept typically represents 1% of the overall investment. Getting that product to market consumes about 10%. And the remaining 89% is spent on sales, marketing and support. As an innovator, you will have to develop a feel for business. This does not mean you need a business degree, but you will need the perspective to entice investors and introduce your product to the marketplace. You will also need to develop a business model that protects your intellectual property and prevents others from taking your idea and doing it better. This protection could take the form of a patent or it could hinge on your product being the first out of the gate.
There are many schemes for young people to learn basic business skills, such as Young Enterprise or The Working Knowledge Group, to help you gain perspective on the facets and pressures of running a business.
Try this: Determine what the “secret sauce” of your innovation will be. How will you secure a leading position after you have launched your product?