How we’re addressing the mental health crisis in tech entrepreneurship

École polytechnique — J.Barande via CC license

When Conception X was launched as a small pilot within one of the largest university systems in the UK, I knew I wanted to create a different kind of space, an inclusive community of aspiring entrepreneurs with deep science backgrounds coming together and experimenting freely in a low-risk environment.

But I hadn’t yet considered the implications of such a model for mental health. As cohort after cohort completed the free, nine-month programme, I began to realise what the Conception X team had created was quite unique.

It’s been a few years si the University of California, San Francisco, found that approximately 49% of entrepreneurs report suffering from a mental health condition that includes anxiety and depression. Regretfully, not much has changed since in the way we understand tech entrepreneurship.

There is an assumption of high risk taking and high rewards that comes with the idea of making it as a tech startup founder. Entrepreneurs often have to prove that they want nothing but their business to succeed, and that they are ready to willingly give up everything else. Although this concept can be quite exhilarating, it can also be quite lonely.

At Conception X, we question whether this should be the leading model on a daily basis. We don’t believe startup founders need to be under some kind of existential threat at all times when developing their ventures in order to be successful.

We operate in a flexible space at the intersection of tech and higher education, so we’re ideally situated to push the boundaries of existing assumptions.

Most of the entrepreneurs joining our programme are PhD students with deep knowledge in their fields of research and a strong desire to make a difference with their ideas. Several of the startups developed by our cohorts are mission-driven companies.

For nine months, our student founders train as entrepreneurs and learn how to commercialise their ideas, but they don’t operate in a vacuum, and they end up learning more about themselves and how their ventures could improve the society we live in.

Throughout the programme, founders can rely on their existing PhD support network while experimenting freely and risking little as part of the Conception X community, in an environment where the choices they make aren’t irreversible and the worst that can happen is their business venture not working out and finding themselves back in their research lab a few months later.

We strive to create an environment that is nurturing and collaborative, without making it any less excellent.

In less than three years, our cohorts of early stage startup founders have raised more than £7M in investment, with the percentage of startups obtaining funding during the programme rising steadily year on year. Several companies have gone on to join renowned programmes such as Y Combinator, Entrepreneur First and Barclays Techstars, and get interest from international players such as Amazon, Google, Deloitte, and others.

At the same time, this approach has opened up access to a larger, more diverse pool of people that would be otherwise excluded from this kind of experimentation because of the high level of risk that usually comes with tech entrepreneurship. Being able to rely on a PhD stipend and have access to a lab and equipment while exploring whether a startup idea can become solid enough means PhD students from most socio-economic backgrounds will be able to join our programme and get a chance to start their deeptech venture.

Of course, this doesn’t completely eliminate stress for founders. Managing a startup alongside a PhD isn’t easy, but as Conception X was designed to fit around postgraduate students’ busy schedules, startup development becomes part of their research rather than an entirely separate effort.

In most instances, startups are integrated into students’ theses to demonstrate the real-world impact of their research, and Conception X supports them in commercialising it. For this reason, so far, none of our founders have abandoned their PhDs to focus exclusively on startup development.

There is another model possible, and we’re well on our way to creating one that works for us. If there’s a universal lesson to be drawn from our experience, it’s that attempting to redefine the values that surround tech entrepreneurship doesn’t mean compromising on quality and drive. It means rejecting the idea of venture building as a solitary achievement, developing networks and communities to support startup founders, and giving them the space and time they need to grow their idea without the threat of financial loss.

We’d love to hear more from similar organisations and programmes that are tackling these issues. How are you addressing the mental health crisis in entrepreneurship?

Apply to join next year’s cohort

This article was written by Conception X’s CEO Riam Kanso.



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