International education start-up links China, UK

Universities are playing a more active role in encouraging students to be enterprising and in promoting internationalisation of education with the involvement of students and alumni in different countries. Pan Xiaohan, a former student from China, has successfully combined both into an international education company that she founded in April 2013.

Pan completed a PhD in 2009 in biotechnology at the University of Cambridge with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund postgraduate study for students "committed to improving the lives of others".

A start-up company may not have been on the cards, but she was encouraged and inspired by Chris Lowe, a professor of biotechnology at Cambridge who has set up 11 businesses linked to his biotechnology expertise.

"Many colleagues in his [Lowe's] lab have set up their own businesses, with or without his involvement. I guess this kind of entrepreneurial environment woke up my enterprise gene," Pan told University World News.

Her father had set up his own textile factory in China from scratch, and she had studied for a minor course in innovation management and entrepreneurship at Zhejiang University before going to Cambridge.

Based in Zhejiang, Eastern China, Pan's start-up company Wedge Education brings Chinese university students and entrepreneurs to the United Kingdom to learn how the UK does business and innovation.

"My role is always to recognise entrepreneurial traits in individuals and try to give young scientists the confidence to back their own aspirations to create new businesses," said Lowe, who found Pan to be highly motivated.

"She just needed to know that she could follow her dream in establishing her own business. Wedge Education is bringing a new cohort of young, mainly female, Chinese students to Cambridge to show them that they can do it too."

Enterprise course

The first two-week enterprise course of Pan's new international education business has just been completed. Drawing heavily on her own contacts and experiences in the city, it aimed to showcase Cambridge as an innovation cluster and to highlight how it achieved that status.

Participants from China attended lectures by academics including Lowe and Professor Sabine Bahn, head of the Bahn Laboratory at the University of Cambridge and co-founder of Psynova Neurotech. "Cambridge academics are unique. The lecturers who were speaking are not pure academics," noted Pan.

Cambridge is an appropriate setting for learning about innovation networks.

According to the Cambridge Phenomenon, an organisation set up to celebrate Cambridge's role in enterprise, there are now around 1,000 technology and biotechnology start-ups in the Cambridge area, with the university playing a key role in creating a network of spin-off companies.

Participants also visited the Cambridge Science Park, banks in London and the London Metal Exchange as part of the course.

"We became like a big family," said Zhang Anqi, one of the course participants who is majoring in financial management and government management at Zheijiang University.

The 16 students were divided into groups, comprising five to six students each, with a Cambridge mentor who would keep in touch with them when they returned to China. Twelve of the 16 were female.

Zhou Tianqi, a third year student of a four-year degree majoring in agronomy who is also doing a course in innovation and entrepreneurship management, said many Chinese believe girls should be restricted to stereotypical female roles like teaching and make "a good marriage" rather than go into business.

Zhou said the course had given her courage to pursue her ambitions in business.

All the students said the course had widened their perspectives on how business is done outside China and given them a taste of what it might be like to study at Cambridge as well as inspiring them in their chosen field.

The students said the highlights of the course included their mentors, the course content and the elevator pitch contest in which the students had two days to work in teams to put together a business idea and pitch it to Cambridge professors.

Yang Shilin, who is still deciding what she wants to do after completing her undergraduate course at Zhejiang, said a visit to the Standard Chartered Bank in London was interesting because it made her reflect on the importance of customer relations.

"The manager spoke of his role being to connect the bank and its customers. This idea of the social role of a bank was new to me, but it makes sense as we are social beings," she said.

China challenge

For Pan, the key challenge at the beginning was marketing in China.

"We had no brand awareness and no track record so it was quite difficult to persuade customers that we provide quality courses, in fact courses which are 10 times better than those already on the [Chinese] market."

She promoted the first course at Zhejiang University. The links with Cambridge also helped to sell the course, she said.

While at Cambridge she was elected president of the Zhejiang University Alumni Association in the United Kingdom and used the role to create more opportunities for Zhejiang, promote her Chinese alma mater in the UK and foster understanding between China and the UK.

Zhejiang University's Chu Kochen Honors College, for the university's top students, offered financial support for three students to travel to Cambridge in February 2009 to spend three months in Lowe's lab, as part of an exchange programme organised by Pan back in 2009.

Pan has kept in touch with those students. One is now doing a PhD at Yale. "He said that if he hadn't attended my programme he wouldn't have won his scholarship to Yale," said Pan, clearly touched by what he had said. She said it made her change her perspective after working for a hedge fund after leaving Cambridge.

"That's why I made the transition from investment to education. I firmly believe in the power of education in changing people's lives."

Wedge Education's enterprise course is just the first of a range of planned courses, she said. Other programmes will follow on topics including family succession, security analysis and social enterprise.

Many are tailor-made to suit demand. "Unlike many other overseas programmes in the China market, we do not take whatever speakers offer and organise a kind of tourism programme or so-called 'edu-tourism'.

"In contrast, we set a clear subject for all of our programmes. We coordinate with our speakers on course content and the way the course is delivered, which usually involves many hours of planning and discussion.

"We want to make sure that our participants get the best quality courses, which are systematic, practical and inspiring," said Pan.

Currently, the main focus is on China, given UK interest in strengthening ties with China, and on Oxford and Cambridge universities. But in the long term Wedge Education plans to branch out to other countries, such as Thailand, Pan said.