UCL alumni Bella Trang Ngo shares her experience of applying for an entrepreneur visa and co-founding a business, with support from UCL Innovation & Enterprise.
Bella graduated from UCL School of Management in 2018 with an MSc in Entrepreneurship. She successfully applied for (what's now called) a Start-up visa, with sponsorship from UCL. Her startup Brarista is based at The Hatchery, a dedicated startup space within BaseKX (UCL’s entrepreneurship hub in King’s Cross).
Brarista is a deep-tech solution that aims to help the 80% of women wearing ill-fitting bras. We make it possible for women to use any digital camera to self-measure their correct bra size across different brands and styles.
The idea stemmed from my thesis on virtual fitting in the lingerie industry, which proved useful in helping us understand the problems from their root causes. As we want to build the most holistic solution, we invest heavily in our R&D to make sure that what we’re building works for women of all different shapes and backgrounds.
The next big milestone is to finish our prototype and conduct proof-of-concept testing with potential users.
We're actively looking for women who believe in our mission (of helping women find their correct bra fit) to join the community. By joining, you can tell us how you think the product should be built, and what we can do to better educate bra-wearers about bra fitting. You can join by signing up on the Brarista website, and following us on social media.
Applying for UCL visa sponsorship
The process of applying for sponsorship involved completing a 10-page application detailing our business idea, validation process and future planning. Once shortlisted, I gave a pitch to a panel of judges who decided my application was successful.
The process was pretty straightforward and I found useful information on the UCL Innovation & Enterprise website. The business advisors were also really approachable and helpful in guiding me through the process. I started working on my application around five months before the submission date.
Validating and developing our business idea
I took my time (during my MSc) to validate the concept by:
- speaking to almost any women I could find to understand the problems that I’m solving
- participating in the Explore, Build and Launch programmes run by UCL Innovation & Enterprise (I won the prize for 'Most innovative idea' on the Build programme)
- building a landing page to gather initial interest
I also held a small bra-fitting pop-up to interact with different types of bra wearers. The idea was to A/B test certain aspects of the pitch and consumer behaviour around professional bra-fitting by sight (versus bra-fitting with a tape measure), and to gather early interest in the idea. I was very lucky to have the trust and support of a group of professional bra fitters who helped me with this.
Support from UCL Innovation & Enterprise
I found it helpful to be part of Explore, Build and Launch (now called Imagine, Explore and Launch) as they helped me progress and pushed me to learn and refine my idea. I also got to make like-minded friends who’re always there to give us help and advice.
The business advisors have been very enthusiastic in helping us reach the next stage of the business. They’ve been spreading the word about Brarista to their networks which is incredibly helpful. They’re also cheerleaders, getting us through the hard times, and helping us put things in perspective.
Advice for others applying for a Start-up visa
I'd say it’s never too early to reach out to the business advisors for a conversation. You need to understand what’s required and how the process works before putting in the hard work.
It’s also important to be serious about the process – you’re trying to convince someone who (most likely) has never heard of your idea before that you’re worth a shot. So do the leg work needed to have strong-enough evidence to defend your case.
Being part of the entrepreneurial community
As Brarista is based in The Hatchery at UCL BaseKX, it’s convenient for me to attend the First Mondays and Women in Enterprise networking events. It’s always great to learn from other founders, and support one another.
Given that we’re starting out, it’s incredibly helpful to have a permanent base to arrange meetings with team members, advisors and potential investors.
Moreover, the community of staff and entrepreneurs at BaseKX have been critical in helping us reach the milestones so far. They act as our advisors, volunteers to trial our product, facilitators connecting us with useful contacts, and motivators cheering us on. I’m truly grateful to be surrounded by such an approachable group of do-ers.