The M Factor

Nov 9, 2020

Why startup success starts with mentoring?

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

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 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 mixes scars and networks
– and the ideal mentoring team is one of each.
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).

Commitment 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 opportunityto 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.


What the mentors say:


“As an alumni who started his own company shortly after leaving Imperial, I truly wish IVMS was around back then. The breadth and quality of the network of mentors is a real asset to Imperial entrepreneurship. It is hugely rewarding to support and encourage hungry entrepreneurs to kickstart their new ventures, often for the first time, and I’m proud to be a small contributor to their inevitable success.”  Victor Dillard 


“IVMS has really raised the bar in terms of support provided to budding entrepreneurs at Imperial. It’s an incredible resource and an initiative I am very proud to support.” Vanela Bushi


“I really enjoy working with the companies that I mentor. It’s been great to see them develop and mature over the time that I’ve worked with them. They all have great technologies that have the potential to change the world and are fast developing the business skills they need to thrive. All the companies I work with have got a huge benefit from the collective experience of IVMS and for me, it’s been very rewarding to be a mentor.” Ashley Unitt


“It is so stimulating to help young startups tackle the problems of early-stage venturing, and a great pleasure to follow history in the making for the next generation of British business!” Dominique Kleyn


“Mentoring for IVMS is enriching in so many ways. I gain insights into new technologies across a wide range of domains. It’s energising to work with such smart and motivated people. And there’s always the serendipity of such a wonderful group of mentors, students and faculty members who are all looking to improve the world we live and work in.”  Shane Leonard


What the founders say:


“The mentors really helped us understandthe potential commercial value. They helped shift the mindset from that of an engineer to an entrepreneur. While an engineer can produce a cutting-edge piece of technology, an entrepreneur asks how that technology can provide solutions to customers.” BeetleBox


“IVMS pushed us to sell our product when we felt like we weren’t ready and I think that this has been a huge part of our success.” The Shellworks


“The IVMS mentors have been invaluable to Jelly Drops’ success. Since we started working together, we have raised £500k investment, built a production facility and launched the product. It’s so valuable to have impartial advisers that are not invested in the company and have a wealth of business building experience.” Jelly Drops


“The mentors aren’t afraid to tell us what we need to hear. The mentors are also completely independent and that means we receive exactly the right advice for us.” Breathe Battery Technologies


“IVMS has been the most powerful, biggest value-add engagement that we have had to date.” Cheesecake Energy

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