As you may have noticed from our recent participation in the Cambridge EdTech Startup Weekend and our coverage of various EdTech accelerators on the blog we’re fascinated by watching what is happening on the peripheries of the EdTech field. It is on the fringes that ideas are able to really push the boundaries and to reevaluate the relationship of tech to learning. 

It was, in fact, at the Startup Weekend that we first met Paola Cuneo, Campaign Director of the Government-backed Sirius Programme (Paola was kindly giving her time as a mentor). We were intrigued by the work she was doing with startups and entrepreneurs so we took a trip down to her office in the UK Trade and Investment building to find out more. 

Paola Cuneo

Paola Cuneo, Campaign Director of The Sirius Programme

ELTjam: Hi, Paola. Can you tell us a little bit about the Sirius programme?

PC: The Sirius programme is the execution of a government policy that states that the government wants to bring talented individuals to the UK who can set up businesses, scale them, create groups of companies and create lots of jobs.

So, at Sirius we are looking for graduates from around the world – either graduating from the UK or from foreign universities – who want to apply to be part of the programme. They have to apply via a competition that, last year, was very selective. We had 1,500 applicants for 100 places that we then ramped up to 150 places. The winners will get an amazing landing package. We will pay them monthly fees for twelve months, we will give them a place in accelerators, we will give them mentoring help, we get them funded, we get them clients and we will get them endorsement for a visa.

We have five accelerators – two in London, one in Manchester, one in Newcastle and one in Scotland.

It’s not really plain sailing because whichever team wins they need to make sure they make progress, so we monitor them closely. They have to pull their weight and be an established company by the end of the twelve months.

ELTjam: What do you expect to see from the applicants in terms of their ideas? Do you want a fully-formed business plan?

PC: Because the programme is for graduates we are at the very beginning of the entrepreneurial journey. They can apply with just an idea.

We have two streams – ideas and business plan – so a team with an idea can apply and the judges will look at the idea but also they will be looking at the team talent. We’re really looking out for talented individuals.

ELTjam: So you’re really looking out for potential?

PC: Yes. Skills, inclination, desire, passion, track record, and the potential to become entrepreneurs.

ELTjam: What do you think the appeal of the UK is for overseas entrepreneurs, other than the generous landing package?

PC: I don’t think people should apply because of the money. The money is an enabler to help teams to develop, to make their dreams come true. I think the appeal is the UK. The applicants see the UK as a great place for entrepreneurs; as a great culture, a great ecosystem. They see the potential of the market. They see the potential for setting up in the UK and moving abroad to scale the company. It’s a cosmopolitan environment. As a foreign graduate, you’re not feeling like an outsider. You’re feeling very much at home.

ELTjam: And what sort of countries are people coming from?

PC: We had applications from ninety-three countries and the winners are from all over: the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, France, Nordic countries, Italy. We have winners from America.

ELTjam: So how much of a headache is coordinating all of that?

PC: Massive! We totally underestimated it. It’s a logistical nightmare.

ELTjam: Are the applicants you’re getting quite new to entrepreneurial world?

PC: The majority are really new entrepreneurs because they are graduates.

ELTjam: So do the teams get mentorship and coaching across a full-time course at the accelerators?

PC: Yes, it’s very full time. They have to be based in the accelerator premises because they get Startup Bootcamp and then they get on-going mentoring and support.

ELTjam: So, at the end of that time are they supposed to demonstrate a launch-able product or are they supposed to just pitch their idea?

PC: Well, at the end of the twelve months they have to be self-sustainable businesses, either because they got funding or because they’ve got clients. Ideally, they have both so we’d assist them along the way but, because the teams come to us with different degrees of maturity, we cannot say at the end of the first three months “You have to be fundable” because they have to go at their own pace.

ELTjam: And in the event that the business becomes completely sustainable do they give up any equity to the programme?

PC: We don’t take any equity because it’s a very early stage. I expect that some of them who might not be ready to be completely self-sustainable will go into another accelerator and release some equity to then get some additional support because they came in so early.

We take them at the very, very beginning. We bring the talent in, We help them develop their idea so they’re ready to either be totally independent and self-sustainable or to join other programmes.

ELTjam: Are you seeing any particular industry that is being represented?

PC: Yes. Tech. EdTech. We also have FinTech and CreativeTech – anything to do with Tech.

ELTjam: Can you tell me more about the EdTech teams you have in the programme?

PC: Yes. We have Edukit, Teech.io and Wibbu. Wibbu is developing an application to help Spanish speakers to learn English. Spanish is the second/third most spoken language in the world so they have a huge market potential. Edukit is an application that helps school children.

ELTjam: Are you expecting to see more EdTech companies based around language learning as the programme evolves?

PC: Yeah. This is interesting because we are targeting the foreign market so foreign people tend to be sensitive to those ideas. Also, we are targeting graduates so education is something that is very fresh.

Education in languages is really close to their heart and very close to their experience. I have no doubt we will see more applicants and one of the big EdTech technologies is big data and big data in education has a very strong correlation.

ELTjam: Do you have a team or teams that you’re really excited about?

PC: Yeah! Yeah! I cannot tell you why or who, but yes. I’m really, really excited. They have real potential.

ELTjam: So, a year from now we’ll start seeing some really interesting products coming through?

PC: Yeah even before. I will have a few teams, not many, but I will have some teams getting ready to raise funds in the next month. A few of them will get clients in the next 3-6 months.

Over the next couple of weeks we will take a sneak peek at a couple of EdTech teams in the current Sirius cohort, Wibbu and Teech.io, to see what they’re working on.

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