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Design lifts barriers to success

The Times: Design lifts barriers to success

April 3, 2008
Clare Dight

Simon Phelps explains how a US fellowship scheme gave him the impetus to build his own company

A short stint of work experience or a brief internship is all that many recent graduates manage to cite on their first CV. But not Simon Phelps, a graduate in computer-aided product design from Bournemouth University, who has set up his own company, Fluvial Innovations. In developing the portable flood-barrier system that he designed at university, he won many accolades and now, most importantly, a government contract.

The Flying Start Global Fellowship programme, a government-funded scheme run by the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship and the Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City, Missouri, was the springboard for Phelps’s aspirations.

As a global scholar, he and 15 other science, engineering and technology graduates spent six months in the US last year, soaking up its can-do entrepreneurial culture. The participants spent weeks at the foundation learning about the business of entrepreneurship on an intensive, masters-style programme, as well as being mentored through an internship and spending time on the campuses of Harvard and Stanford universities, well-known hothouses for enterprise.

Phelps knew that he wanted to set up his own business after a frustrating work placement at university. It’s difficult to sustain the same level of momentum when you are working for someone else, he says. “I spent a year in industry. It’s mind-numbing. One day there’s a lot of work to do. Another day you’re twiddling your thumbs.

“I’m not really prepared to work hard to line someone else’s pockets.”

The US experience proved to be a catalyst and a “massive driver” that gave him the confidence to really go for it. “Not on a small scale, but to do it big,” he says.

“In the UK, no one tells you that [you can set up on your own] but in the US, it’s part of daily conversation. In the US, it’s not something out of the ordinary for someone of my age to set up a company.”

Back at home, he spent many more months developing the product with help from Bournemouth University and then undertaking a feasibility study funded by a grant from the Department of Trade and Industry.

He’s just made his first really significant sale to a government department, the details of which are under wraps for the moment. Not all of the scholars who took part in the fellowship have been as lucky. But then, given that he won a business pitching competition at Harvard, made the final of the Shell Livewire Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards and has been short-listed for a Dorset Business Award – luck probably has little to do with it.

So what does the future hold? The next two years will be make or break, he says. “Either [it’s going to be] a massive success or I’m not going to be doing it any more.” and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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