Chasing higher education and starting a business at the same time takes effort. But a challenging schedule won’t deter a motivated student with an entrepreneurial mindset. How can you become an entrepreneur in college?
Sebastian Horstmann joined the EWOR podcast to discuss his road to entrepreneurship. After his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in medical physics in Düsseldorf, Sebastian pursued a PhD at the University of Cambridge. During his studies, Sebastian co-founded open-seneca, an air pollution monitoring initiative.
In this article, learn from a young entrepreneur in the early stages of his business. Let Sebastian’s ambitions inspire you to step outside your comfort zone.
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How Did Open-Seneca Get Started
Sebastian is unlike many of our other podcast guests and advisors. He’s not an established entrepreneur yet and his start-up is still in its infancy.
In 2018, Sebastian and a group of fellow PhD students had to create a summer project. The team soon pinpointed their topic: air pollution monitoring. The idea was to combine air quality science and citizen science. Thus, the students developed sensor kits that citizens could mount on their bicycles.
The project evolved into open-seneca. The team has distributed sensor kits in ten cities across five continents so far. The idea is to build and sell open-source hardware kits to ordinary citizens. These kits are easy to assemble and mount to vehicles. Customers can watch youtube tutorials as technical support.
Air pollution poses harmful long-term health risks. To prevent harm, open-seneca’s devices collect data along the user’s routes. They import that data to their smartphones and create pollution maps of the city. The open-seneca team shares these maps with city councils and political leaders. They even had the opportunity to present their findings to the United Nations.
This initiative aims to share data intelligence with those in charge of air quality in big cities. At the same time, the devices educate citizens on air pollution and health. With an open-seneca device on a user’s vehicle, they learn healthy habits around the city and adopt a better awareness of pollution. Sebastian summarised open-seneca’s mission: “Education empowers people.”
Funding a College Initiative
As a sensory engineer, Sebastian lacked the technical knowledge to build a successful company. He identifies as a fundamental physicist rather than a “business guy.” Since founding open-seneca, Sebastian has learned about entrepreneurship on the job. Becoming an entrepreneur in college requires a hands-on learning curve when your studies don’t revolve around business.
One of the biggest challenges was funding a group of PhD students. It’s hard to scale a business as a student entrepreneur. Luckily, Cambridge’s Centre for Global Equality offered not only their mentorship but also a €20k travel grant. Through their guidance, the open-seneca team seized the opportunity to travel to the Makerspace in Nairobi.
The team’s Africa trip resulted in further improvements to their sensors. They co-created new prototypes with customers on the ground and raised awareness of air pollution.
Open-seneca operates on public funding for now. The team has plans to look into VC funding opportunities in the future.
The Role of the University
Starting a business during your PhD is a time-consuming process. But, there are perks to becoming an entrepreneur in college as well.
Without his university’s support, Sebastian and his peers wouldn’t have had the resources to kick off their project. They used laser cutters in the university’s labs to create the first sensor kit prototypes. Unlimited access to facilities with top-notch technology helped the team save on production costs.
Additionally, there is an accelerator program at Cambridge University that supports aspiring entrepreneurs in college. The program teaches students the basics of business and helps them develop new skills.
Founding a start-up during his PhD years meant that Sebastian didn’t have to worry about money. The open-seneca team didn’t have VC funding pressure or the need to develop a viable business model right away. They had the freedom to grow into the project and naturally develop a broader understanding of entrepreneurship.
Growing a Side Project Into a Full-Time Business
Since the open-seneca team will complete their respective PhDs in 2022, Sebastian has plans for the future of the start-up. As they currently don’t make a profit and are unable to pay salaries, he wants to grow it into a viable business.
One of open-seneca’s self-proclaimed weaknesses is their lack of market research. With a team of engineers and scientists, their strengths lie in engineering prototypes.
Developing the skills to market their products and work outside their comfort zones is hard. Sebastian still values his technical background and is proud of the progress he’s made. “It’s useful to have both skills,” he said.
One of the next steps for open-seneca will be to focus on customer centricity and generate useful feedback. “It’s hard to ask the right questions,” Sebastian admitted. “We have a product and it’s just about getting it to the people.” The goal is to talk to customers, research competitors, and network with peers and investors.
Optimising prototypes and analysing the market will be top priorities for open-seneca.
Another area of improvement is the team itself. With the need for more expertise, Sebastian wants to expand the open-seneca team in the future.
Bringing in new people can be a refreshing choice for a company. Open-seneca has worked with volunteers thus far and hasn’t had outsiders involved in the project. It’s going to take trust to grant new team members the freedom to develop the sensors further. Yet, Sebastian is confident that they’ll be a positive addition to the team.
As a sensor engineer, Sebastian is keen to improve open-seneca’s current prototypes. Pivoting based on market research will be key to developing even better kits for customers worldwide.
“We always wanted to be the good guys,” Sebastian said, “and you need to align that vision with what people need.”
Design issues arise when you target different cultures around the world. African customers like colourful designs and creative ways to use the product. In the UK, Sebastian noted the Western trend towards neutral and minimalistic designs. He’ll have to address these differences in future prototypes to meet every customer’s preferences.
This is where Sebastian has felt their lack of market research the most. Without analysing what their target customers want, it’s difficult to build successful prototypes.
Becoming a Full-Time Entrepreneur After College?
Sebastian wants to finish his PhD and then dive head-first into growing open-seneca.
He has plans for website designs, customisation, ideas to develop bikes, and an interest in blockchain technology. But before they can focus on details like this, Sebastian and the team will need to create a viable business model.
By focusing on market research, customer centricity, and expanding the team, Sebastian wants to turn open-seneca into a successful business. “We could take this to the next level,” he said of their future plans.
Tips and Lessons for Entrepreneurs in College
Are you in a similar situation as Sebastian? If you want to pursue your studies and build a start-up on the side, this section is for you.
“Just go for it,” Sebastian encouraged students with an entrepreneurial interest. You’ll learn along the way and develop the skills you need to run a successful business. The chances of becoming successful aren’t that slim if you put in the time and effort.
Don’t let gaps in your CV discourage you from chasing your dreams. Take a few months – if you can afford to do so – and build your products and business model. It depends on your educational and financial background, of course. Don’t listen to other people’s doubts and concerns and take calculated risks.
Sebastian recommended listening to podcasts with successful entrepreneurs. To get you started, check out the EWOR podcast where we highlight entrepreneurs from around the world. Listening to Brian Armstrong’s interviews – he’s the CEO of Coinbase – has inspired him as well. Find resources that work for you and let other people’s stories encourage and teach you.
Being a student doesn’t have to stop you from pursuing your entrepreneurial dreams. Sebastian’s story proves that you don’t need money and experience to start your first business. It’s possible to become an entrepreneur in college. Be smart with your resources and find good co-founders and a support system.