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UCL’s HELO programme reaches out to a new audience for another four years

2 December 2011


More than 150 small businesses across London can pay testimony to its success. Last night at an event at UCL, many of them gathered to support UCL Advances’ HELO (Higher Education London Outreach) team as they introduced the programme to a new group of businesses, students and staff.

The message was clear: HELO will continue in its current format for another four years, helping London’s SMEs to solve specific business problems with a free consultancy service that gives them access to some of the brightest minds from two of the world’s top universities – UCL and London Business School.

Over the past two years, around 400 students and academics from UCL and LBS are or have been involved in a variety of projects for more than 100 SMEs across 30 different industries. There are currently 165 businesses registered with HELO, and 30 projects are ongoing.

Tim Barnes, Executive Director of UCL Advances and Enterprise Operations, says: “HELO is part of a series of programmes run by UCL Advances that help small businesses to benefit from the specialist knowledge and skills that can be found among the 22,000 students and 10,000 staff at UCL. Without HELO as an intermediary, these capabilities would be largely inaccessible to the outside world.”

He added that UCL has more entrepreneurship and business programmes than any other university in the country – in addition to HELO there is also SMILE (Selected Mentors and Interims for London Enterprises), a mentoring programme, and many other programmes to support the enterprise world.

Essi Niittymaki, HELO Project Manager, stressed the variety of projects that HELO is able to take on. She says: “We can do almost anything that UCL or LBS can do – which is plenty.” Projects undertaken so far include: evaluating a business for funding, market research, market analysis, producing 3D CAD drawings, building prototypes, software testing and materials development, among others. Essi says: “What we can’t do is take on an assignment where there is no clear beginning or end, such as software development.”

Companies need to be existing businesses, with fewer than 250 employees and a turnover of less than €50 million per year. The programme is not open to sole traders, and if a partnership, one of the partnering companies has to be registered in London.

An average project lasts between eight and 12 weeks and students typically spend around 120 hours on the assignment. A team can be put together in anything from three days to six months, depending on the skills required. Companies need to be prepared to fit in with a student’s academic commitments and work out a schedule that suits both parties. All intellectual property remains with the company at the end of the arrangement.

Essi says: “Although the service is free of charge – an important draw for SMEs in times of austerity – there are other benefits to working with HELO that are equally valid: fresh ideas and enthusiasm, knowledge of new areas such as social media, and sometimes, original and cutting-edge solutions to technical problems.”

Richard Rand, inventor of Aerobic Bins, a new biodegradable system to help reduce weight and odour in waste; and Gavin Potter, Director of Introanalytics, which develops recommendation and personalisation systems for online dating and e-commerce websites, presented their experiences of working with HELO to the event’s attendees, and praised the teams of students for their “strong grasp of issues” (Richard) and “fresh strategic direction” (Gavin).

Among the attendees was Burcak Alp, winner of a ‘One to Watch’ prize in the 2011 HELO awards which took place in October. As an Honorary Research Associate, PhD in Chemical Engineering, she was one of a team of five working on a strategy project for a food manufacturer. She is now looking to set up her own company importing Turkish wine with a Royal Society of Edinburgh/BBSRC Enterprise Fellowship. “I wanted to see how HELO works first and since I was considering being an entrepreneur in the future I decided to get involved. Now I’m on the other side of the fence and I know that getting help from HELO will give me access to all kinds of resources and a broad range of experiences.”

James Marley (UCL, Law) of MTC, which manufactures high-visibility clothing, says of the event: “The presentations were clear and concise and there was ample opportunity to talk to like-minded people. What struck me was the patent enthusiasm of both presenters and guests. Schemes like these give impetus for reaching out and developing new business.”