More and more international Oxford graduates are becoming entrepreneurs and want to stay in the vibrant Oxford startup community — and the University is doing everything it can to help them.


By Chelsea Robles

The Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur Visa (or the GEV to civil servants and acronym lovers) is a relatively new option among the post-study work provisions for international students and post-doctoral researchers hoping to stay in the UK to develop a business. It first made an appearance in 2012, and it enables international students with innovative business ideas to to draw on resources and support from the University. There is, for instance, seed funding from sources advertised through the Business School, and business coaching and workshops on entrepreneurial development from the University Careers Service. 

There are currently around two dozen students — actually, now alumni — who have been endorsed by the University and who are at various stages of developing their business. Among the people who have been endorsed are Cassipe Sydoriak with her bicycle co-op; John Horbaly, with a manufacturing technology start-up called Oxford nanoSysems; Nitn Gupta with Uniqcreate, an enterprise software development project; John Feddersen and his energy consulting business, Aurora Energy Research Ltd.; and Charlton Mak with an e-learning business called IRL.

When Cassiope Sydoriak, who has an MSt in History of Art, moved to Oxford to pursue her degree, she didn’t realise that she’d be running a growing bicycle co-operative within the year. But, appalled by the high mortality rate of cyclists on city roads, the fact that the UK is the most overweight country in Europe, and the staggering number of abandoned bikes throughout Oxford, she decided to take a career turn in order to address the issues. The result is the Broken Spoke Bike Co-op.

Thanks to the Graduate Entrepreneurial Visa, Cassiope has been able to help build a sustainable social enterprise in Oxford that has diverted bikes from the waste stream, empowered dozens of vulnerable adults to gain employable skills, and witnessed hundreds of people commit to leading a less wasteful and more self-sufficient life. The Co-op is now partnering with organisations such as Crisis Skylight, the University of Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, Cherwell School, Cyclox, Sustrans, and more. 

Reflecting on the past year, Cassiope says that she ‘learned the fundamentals of marketing, finance, budgeting, website design, and grant-writing from scratch. With the GEV, I felt more confident that our business could thrive because we were forced to think seriously about our concept before jumping in. Writing a business plan and receiving feedback from the GEV committee meant that our ideas were more financially sustainable, and we could not have achieved our current success without this feedback. If you ever fancy getting your hands dirty and fixing your bike, we’re located in the centre of town inside the Story Museum, and we’d love to get your bike back in shape!’

Another business, now in its second year, is Oxford nanoSystems (OnS), a company run by Saïd Business School alumnus Jon Horbaly. Jon started OnS while a student at the Saïd Business School in 2011.  The company focuses on the production of nanocoatings that increase rates of heat transfer, prevent corrosion, and make porous surfaces water repellent.  With  its offices and laboratories at the European Space Agency’s facilities in Harwell, it’s now working with major clients involved in boiler manufacturing and the automotive industry.

Like Broken Spoke, OnS is grateful for the support it has received from Oxford University.  The University hosts several business competitions each year and OnS was fortunate to be selected as a finalist in these competitions, in turn benefiting from the exposure and press they garnered. More directly, University staff have helped to connect OnS with resources, networks, and faculty who could help to advise regarding the science challenges the company faced. University officials helped Jon to develop aspects of his business, from introductions to professors and researchers to connections with experienced alumni advising on corporate structure.

The early success of the GEV, particularly at Oxford, has led to it expanding: GEV endorsement is now open not only to current students and postdoctoral researchers but also to alumni. The University of Oxford is able to endorse graduates who have ‘genuine and credible business ideas and entrepreneurial skills, to extend their stay in the UK after graduation to establish one or more businesses in the UK.’ For the 2014-2015 application cycle, the University is able to endorse up to 22 graduates (in any subject) or post-doctoral researchers currently employed and sponsored by the University.

Applicants who the University endorses are able to apply for a visa for one year to develop their business idea, and all GEV holders are monitored by University Careers Service to ensure that adequate progress is being made toward the development of their businesses. If the holder shows they are making good progress at the end of the first year, they can extend the visa for one further year. The programme also allows for the applicant’s dependent partner and children to stay in the UK with them.

Image by Horia Varlan under Creative Commons license.