Gaming teenagers get set for a career in neuroscience while reducing lab waste

Two University of South Wales graduates are bringing together the worlds of neuroscience and computer games after taking part in the first inter-university bootcamp hosted by straight talking entrepreneurial support service, UNpreneur.

Jake Spanswick (25) and Quinn Byron-Dyer (22) studied computer games design at the university before setting up their company, Blank Pixel Games, last November.

Their business specialises in instructional and educational video games, with their maiden product focusing on the workings of a neuroscience laboratory for high school and undergraduate students.

Working with contract research organisation, Neurosolutions Ltd, the duo has been able to source technical demonstrations and the necessary supporting theoretical material to create lab simulations.

After securing £2,000 from the University of South Wales’ Springboard Start-up Fund, they signed up to the first inter-university bootcamp.

Jake Spanswick said: “The pandemic has resulted in a drop in student numbers across many institutions as pupils consider whether they want to study online but demand for neuroscientists is growing. With 100 billion neurons in the brain, it can sound overwhelming to a school pupil thinking about their next step.

“For students completely new to the field of neuroscience, the pandemic has made it difficult to gain lab experience and, more importantly, learning the scientific techniques. Our virtual environment helps students to get familiar with lab techniques, theoretical content, and equipment. The benefit of using a virtual lab is less waste, particularly when training students. The virtual learning tool means they can reset and learn from their mistakes much sooner and jump straight back into an experiment.

“Teenagers love to game so our products will help to excite pupils about studying neuroscience and support teaching the subject when lab access isn’t possible. This could help pupils living in remote areas who don’t have access to any facilities for example or plug the gaps created by lockdowns. Right now, we’re working to create a full virtual walkthrough of the ‘electrophysiology technique’ which is used to record electrical activity in the brain.

“This is our first attempt at using our knowledge in video game design to make a virtual learning tool for a highly specialised area of education. However, we hope to apply the same principles to other areas such as Chemical Sciences, Natural Sciences, Engineering and Technology and Physical Sciences. Full testing of our neuroscience game starts in September this year.

“Taking part in the bootcamp was great because it brought us together with more than 170 other people who were starting their own companies or who had ideas for businesses. Quinn and I were focused on our product, but the bootcamp helped us to think about all the other aspects of our business too.”

The eight UK institutions taking part included: Sheffield Hallam University, Birmingham City University, Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University, University of Glasgow, University of Liverpool, University of South Wales, and University of Sunderland.

The bootcamp was fully funded by all eight participating universities, and so was free for the students and graduates who took part. Participants attended six weekly two-hour workshops which covered a range of themes: develop the right mindset to run a business; finding customers; market products and services; setting goals through increased self-awareness; build and develop a team; making connections to gain advice and investment.

The UNpreneur bootcamp was conceived in response to the challenging job market* resulting from the Coronavirus pandemic. It allowed new graduates to explore the alternative career path of self-employment.

Following the success of the pilot project, UNpreneur and lead partner Sheffield Hallam University are already planning an expansion of the bootcamp for 2022, to include more universities and in person delivery.

Kallum Russell, Chief UNpreneurship Officer, co-founded the Dundee based business in 2017 to provide the entrepreneurial support he wished he’d received when he launched his own businesses after graduation.

Kallum is a multi-award-winning businesses owner and was included in the prestigious Sunday Times Maserati 100 List, which recognises innovators in the business world. He is also the host of a weekly YouTube show: Student Enterprise TV, powered by UNpreneur:

He said: “The damage that the coronavirus restrictions have done to our economy means that it’s harder than ever for graduates to find employment.

“We know from previous experience that bringing together participants from a range of backgrounds and regions can help support and accelerate their business journey through shared learnings and collaboration.

“As we build back better following the coronavirus pandemic, we need young companies with innovative ideas, who will create the jobs and wealth that we need to rebuild our economy.

“We want to share the learnings we’ve built up over several years of running business incubators and enterprise training in universities, to help budding business owners learn the skills they need. These tricks of the trade can turn a good idea into a viable and thriving company.”

Darren Chouings, Business Incubation Manager from the lead institution partner, Sheffield Hallam University, commented, “We want to send out a clear message to students and graduates that setting up their own businesses is a feasible and exciting option.

“Together with the team at UNpreneur, who are leaders in student enterprise, we brought together seven other universities across the UK to give students and recent graduates the skills and confidence they need to launch or grow their own companies.

“If you’ve got a great idea for a business and you get the right support then being your own boss is hugely rewarding and a valid alternative to a traditional graduate job. The workshops helped students and graduates develop the confidence and gain the skills needed to launch or grow a business venture.”

* A bad time to graduate: April 2020 Institute of Fiscal Studies