This year, for the first time, the winners of start-up competitions have had the opportunity to present their business projects at St Petersburg University as graduation theses. We talked with the pioneering graduates to find out if they had a difficult time at the project defence and what pitfalls their followers should expect.

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This right should be earned

It may seem that it is substantially easier to present a business project than to defend a regular graduation paper.

‘We chose this option because we already had a ready-to-scale project. So we did not need to worry about writing a graduation paper,’ explains Anna Malkova, a graduate of the Department of General Medicine, who presented the project ‘DiaPlast’. Her team created a patch that tests blood glucose in sweat. If the blood sugar level is elevated, the indicator line on the patch will appear. The product is intended for diabetes screening.

In order to be recognised as a graduation project the start-up should meet a few criteria, which are not so simple. Firstly, the start-up must be either a research project or an innovative, high-technology business model with the potential to become commercially successful, created as part of a start-up competition. The second criterion concerns the competition status: it can be held by either St Petersburg University or by any other educational institution included in the top 300 established international rankings. In addition, the students should be included in the winners’ list, while the project idea should correspond with the students’ academic programmes.

Omnipotent multidisciplinarity

Ekaterina Baranova is a graduate of the Graduate School of Management and a member of the team ‘In Sapiens’ that is developing a HealthNet system for health monitoring. The team designed a whole range of devices including: a headband; a waistcoat; a bracelet; and an application that tracks data. The application monitors a patient’s general condition and has a function of a medication reminder. If necessary, it can refer you to a medical practitioner or offer to call an ambulance.

Ekaterina Baranova noted the complexity and diversity of the Graduation Commission’s questions she was requested to answer: ‘I presented the project that I had previously submitted to the start-up competition. However, I adapted the project to my academic specialisation area. I am a market analyst; yet, at the project defence I was also asked questions regarding finances. For example, I was asked about the formulas I used for estimation. Some of the questions were, indeed, not easy to answer.’

Maksim Kuznetsov studied general medicine at St Petersburg University and participated in the ‘DiaPlast’ project. He believes that a multidisciplinary training enables you to handle the project presentation with confidence: ‘Each project participant should have knowledge well beyond the boundaries of his field of study. For example, a chemist should be able to correctly evaluate the actions of his colleagues majoring in economics, marketing and business planning.’

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Speak with caution

For the project defence, students have to submit a business plan, a report on their participation in the start-up project, a final presentation, and a winner’s certificate. However, this is just a list of the formal requirements. The reality, as usual, turns out to be more complicated and interesting. Maksim Kuznetsov recommends emphasising the relevance of the project at the final presentation. ‘Students who defend their theses present their research data, which are numbers together with their interpretation. We, however, didn’t have these. For this reason, the commission seemed to have been somewhat surprised at the presentation format. In the end, however, we managed to answer all the questions and get high marks,’ he says.

Although they can be rightfully proud of their accomplishments, the aspiring entrepreneurs are advised to talk about their successes with caution. Moreover, some information may be even worth keeping a secret. ‘Do not show any precision mechanisms or digital data about your product at the presentation. In the future, when you decide to register a patent, this may complicate the matter,’ warned Anna Malkova.

Expert review

There is another aspect of presenting a start-up as a graduation project: at the defence, students say nearly the same things as they did at the start-up competition. Yet, this can be extremely useful for young entrepreneurs. ‘The great advantage of presenting a business project is the opportunity to speak to an expert audience who may give you priceless advice,’ stressed Anna Malkova.

Everyone who chose to present their start-up project in lieu of a graduation thesis had their ideas tested comprehensively. After all, the main goal of any business project is its practical implementation. Therefore, if the project has some weaknesses, it is salient to learn about them at the early stage.

Preparing for ‘adult’ life

According to Maksim Kuznetsov, the question of whether it is easier to present a business project than defend a graduation thesis cannot be answered unequivocally. He believes that much depends on the research topic and interaction with the research supervisor, as well as on how much the student is interested in transferring innovation from science to business. If there is no entrepreneurial propensity, you may as well choose to do it the classic way.

Nonetheless, presenting a start-up as a graduation project is a big plus in terms of university achievements and ‘pumping’ your skills.

Maksim Kuznetsov, a participant of the ‘DiaPlast’ project

Ekaterina Baranova is certain that the opportunity to present start-up projects in lieu of graduation theses is a timely and relevant initiative: ‘It is great to present your business project instead of defending a graduation paper. Due to this, students need not spend their time writing a research paper. They may focus on the realisation of their ideas instead. We presented a real business plan developed for a particular company. And indeed, we are going to implement it.’

At present, the ‘In Sapiens’ team is dealing with the patents and company registration. By 2021, their HealthNet system is expected to pass all the tests and to be released to the market. The ‘DiaPlast’ project is also underway.

We have found new investors. They have slightly different requirements for the product, so we have altered the original business plan by 30-40%. We are continuing our research work. The near-future prospects include creating device prototypes, which will meet the investors’ requirements.

Maksim Kuznetsov, a participant of the ‘DiaPlast’ project

The choice of the form of the final examination is a matter of personal preference for each student. Nonetheless, the opportunity to present your own business project in lieu of a graduation thesis is a gift for those who have set themselves the goal of becoming successful entrepreneurs.