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How I Started My Own Business As a Design Graduate

How I Started My Own Business As a Design Graduate main image

Sponsored by the Royal College of Art

Have you ever dreamed of having your own business and being your own boss? If so, you’re in good company as an increasing number of students are setting up their own businesses after graduating.

But for many students, limited startup know-how, commercial sense and experience can be a significant obstacle – but this doesn’t mean it should be impossible.

Tashia Tucker studied the MRes Architecture program at the Royal College of Art (RCA), and is now the founder of Olombria, an emerging agricultural technology company that aims to boost pollination rates with wild pollinators and insects. Though she has an undergraduate degree in business, it was with the support of InnovationRCA that she was able to get her startup off the ground.

InnovationRCA is the Royal College of Art’s center for enterprise, entrepreneurship, incubation and business support and it’s been recognized as one of the top three university incubators in the UK. The initiative has enabled the creation of more than 66 startup and spin-out companies, covering sectors ranging from interiors and fashion to agri-tech, sustainable packaging and even cybersecurity. These companies have produced over 650 UK-based jobs and generated over £121 million (~US$151 million) in turnover.

We spoke with Tashia and Dr Nadia Danhash, Director of the InnovationRCA, to find out more about the initiative and how it’s helping students get their startups off the ground.

Tashia, how did you come up with the idea for your business? What was the motivation behind it?

As a student at the RCA you are provided with a range of opportunities, including the chance to engage with industry and to take part in collaborative projects working across different arts and design disciplines.

The idea for my business developed when I was studying at the RCA. My first master's degree from Drexel University centered around Biodesign in architecture, so when I saw a poster at the RCA to take part in the Biodesign Challenge (an international competition based in New York City), I applied immediately. In small teams, thirty RCA students worked to design a product that could help solve a challenge related to “the future of food”. 

My team was particularly interested in designing biological systems that could impact some of the environmental challenges we see today. At the time, we were starting to hear reports about the devastating decline in honeybees and the knock-on effect it was having on pollination and we wanted to make a change. My family has a background in farming, so agriculture is in my DNA.

At the RCA, we spent approximately six months participating in workshops and lectures with some of the top scientists, engineers, and designers in Biodesign and Synthetic Biology. Our group won the RCA portion of the competition and we were invited to present our idea at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. 

How did you take your idea from the classroom and turn it into a business? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

Once we returned from the Biodesign Challenge in New York, we were chosen to join the RCA’s startup incubator, InnovationRCA. This incubator provided us with mentorship, business development, introductions to investors, and a supportive cohort of likeminded early-stage startup companies. With InnovationRCA’s support, we received our first bit of investment from Venrex Investment Management and the Royal College of Art. 

We have faced a countless number of challenges, as I believe most startups have. Fundraising, establishing networks, growing a team and developing prototypes can all be quite challenging at times. To overcome those challenges, it has been all about the team. Having a strong group of highly talented individuals, all focused on the same goal, has been paramount to facing adversity. 

What is it like to be your own boss?

We now have an incredible collection of shareholders, advisors and farmers who we work hard for every day. We consider them our bosses and commit to making a successful business for ourselves and them. However, it’s nice as a startup to develop our own company culture and to outline our own path. 

How do you think your experience at the RCA along with Innovation RCA has helped you achieve this?

The RCA has opened doors for us that would have been incredibly difficult to open otherwise. The RCA has a history of driving sustainable innovation and research that has a global reach. As a student, I was challenged to think differently about the impact of design on the world. 

In 2019, InnovationRCA won accelerator of the year by the UK Business Angels Association, and for a good reason. They have launched over 66 startups, valued at over £205M (~US$258M), with a 71 percent success rate. Having support and experience like this has been critical to our success so far. Almost half (41 percent) of the companies in the incubator are female-led.

As a female CEO and founder, it has been a remarkable experience to work with such a strong group of women entrepreneurs. 

And finally, what advice would you give to someone who is considering starting their own business?

Resilience, patience, and passion. Running my own startup company has been one of the most challenging things I have done in my career. I would encourage anyone interested in starting their own startup, to find a strong support network, and to be open to feedback and flexible in your thinking.

My dad says: “If it were easy, everyone would do it”. There will be incredible ‘highs’ equally matched with ‘lows’. I believe that your ability to weather the storm and navigate through uncertainty is one of the best skills you can have as a startup founder. 

Dr Danhash, can you tell us about InnovationRCA?

InnovationRCA is a company creator and builder. We help students, staff and graduates start businesses covering every aspect of the entrepreneurial journey. The journey may start when they invent something new which we believe will have wide potential. We will start by filing a patent for the invention to make sure it’s protected from copying. Then we will help them build a team with the skills needed to bring the invention to market.

We help them learn the fundamentals of business, we help them develop a business strategy and provide a small amount of funding to get started. We give them ‘investor readiness’ training and introduce them to investors. 

And what do you think makes a startup successful?  

The founder or team of founders are the most important ingredient for success. They have to show resilience and determination and at the same time the willingness to listen and learn and adapt their business as the market changes.

What makes InnovationRCA's job so enjoyable is that we have some terrific founders. They've already jumped through many hurdles and shown determination to win a place to study at the RCA. Their time at the RCA has given them a fearlessness to tackle huge challenges – such as the lack of access to sanitation or electrical power in half of the world's population. With strong founders ideas and solutions can be adapted as needed to reach the end goal.

RCA graduates are some of the world’s most talented emerging artists and designers. In response to the pandemic, the Royal College of Art’s renowned graduate show is taking place online for the first time in history. You can view their work on RCA2020 - an inclusive digital discovery platform - from July 16-31.

Lead image credit: ForbesAgTech pic: JRumans Photography  

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Written by Stephanie Lukins
As the Head of Sponsored Content for TopUniversities.com and TopMBA.com, Stephanie creates and publishes a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. She attended the University of Portsmouth where she earned a BA in English Language and an MA in Communication and Applied Linguistics.

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