The M Factor

Nov 9, 2020

Why startup success starts with mentoring?
IVMS student pitching

Front cover of D/srupt issue 3


This article is taken from D/srupt issue 3 (2020-21). View the full magazine here.




Imperial offers a wide range of entrepreneurial support programmes and competitions for student founders and postdocs, from the Venture Catalyst Challenge to WE Innovate, and from the MedTech SuperConnector to Techcelerate and beyond.

But what happen if after these intense explains. “In a mentoring programmes are relationship, a mentor over? After all, there is a big difference between working on an idea, however far advanced, and building a

IVMS person pitching

sustainable, profitable business. This is where mentoring comes in – more specifically this is where the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service (IVMS) helps founders navigate the ups and downs of startup life and ensure they continue to make progress on their entrepreneurial journey.

Founded just over three years ago, IVMS is an advisory service for any student, alumnus (within three years of graduation) or staff member wishing to realise their entrepreneurial idea via the development of a startup company. Mentoring is key for early stage ventures as Dr Harveen Chugh, Principal Teaching Fellow in Entrepreneurship at Imperial College Business School explains “In a mentoring relationship, a mentor shares their knowledge and experience with a mentee who’s in need of guidance and direction. The reason mentoring programmes are important to the success of entrepreneurs is that research shows us that mentoring makes entrepreneurs more resilient, builds their commitment to the venture and increases their self-efficacy. Mentoring communication strategies such as persuasion, engagement, criticism and provocation have been found to be effective in mentoring relationships. So, for universities with a strong entrepreneurial mission, having a mentorship programme such as Imperial’s IVMS is really a must to ensure the best shot at success.”

IVMS Director, serial technology entrepreneur turned investor Dr Paul Atherton concurs: “Most startups fail because of silly mistakes they make early on: arguments between founders, poor agreements, poor customers, lack of market demand for the product. IVMS mentors add value by helping founders to avoid most of the common pitfalls and mistakes. What makes IVMS unique is the fact we have entrepreneurs with scars and industrialists with networks. IVMS mixes scars and networks – and the ideal mentoring team is one of each.”

Based on the MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) model, IVMS has two foundational principles at its core. The first is team-based mentoring. This means ensuring objective advice from two or three expert mentors or perspectives, with the opportunity to switch mentors as the entrepreneur progresses through different challenges.

The second is unconflicted advice. IVMS mentors aren’t looking to join or invest in the companies they mentor. They are looking to provide perspective, wisdom, experience-based advice and, when appropriate, introductions that would otherwise take a founder months to obtain (if ever).

IVMS QuoteCommitment to these principles is key to the success of IVMS and marks it out as different to the ‘standard model’ startup mentoring and coaching services out there. As Dr Paul Atherton explains: “There are many coaches and mentors who aspire to give advice to startups, with good intentions. However, experienced advice is harder to find and is usually from people with expertise in the field which will inevitably lead to conflicts of interest. Naive founders can then be exploited by the mentor – sometimes unintentionally – who might advise, for example, merging with one of the mentor’s companies, taking investment from the mentor or paying the mentor as a consultant. And who can advise as to whether this is a good decision? Unconflicted and experienced advice helps avoid these situations and IVMS has developed a strict code of conduct to ensure these kinds of conflicts don’t arise.”

From humble beginnings in December 2017, Dr Atherton and the Imperial Enterprise Division have steadily grown IVMS and it now comprises an incredible, diverse pool of 71 successful individuals with deep expertise and stellar networks across all sectors. In that short time, the service has also achieved some notable

results helping teams to raise investment, secure places on leading accelerator programmes, such as Y Combinator and Tech Stars, and even complete an acquisition of one team by Google. IVMS mentors typically stay with teams between six and 12 months, or until the team has achieved a mutually agreed goal, and always leave when the venture they have been mentoring has a functioning Board.

IVMS mentors also help beyond the teams they mentor, often sitting on judging panels for the College’s many entrepreneurial competitions. Since March 2019, IVMS mentors have provided over 100 hours to programmes such as the MedTech SuperConnector, Techcelerate, the Faculty of Natural Science Make-a- Difference competition and the Enterprise Lab’s Summer Accelerator programme to name but a few. This is not only helpful to the programmes and entrepreneurs on them, but also directly to IVMS, as these programmes are where the IVMS team finds the majority of ventures who are invited to participate in the service. Founders’ performance on the programmes and the assessment of their coachability and dedication by the programme managers carries a great deal of weight when being considered for the opportunity to pitch for mentorship.

IVMS is constantly iterating and improving to ensure that founders and ventures gain more value as it matures. Like any crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to evolve, demonstrating that virtual mentoring can be hugely practical and beneficial. Before lockdown, in-person meetings were considered essential. Now, we plan for pitch evenings and mentor meetings to continue virtually and are actively recruiting mentors from outside the UK, to increase the diversity and reach of the network.

With a generous philanthropic donation recently secured from Santander Universities of £30,000 a year until 2023, the plan is to grow IVMS to over 95 mentors so that a greater proportion of Imperial’s startup community can benefit. We can’t wait for more entrepreneurs than ever before to benefit from IVMS and look forward to helping even more teams benefit from unconflicted advice in the coming year.

IVMS quotes




Front cover of D/srupt issue 3


This article is taken from D/srupt issue 3 (2020-21). View the full magazine here.

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