Imperial College Pre-accelerator co-founders share their journey to building a first-of-its-kind launchpad for student entrepreneurs

Imperial College has just had a star-studded lineup with Bill Gates and Rishi Sunak helping to kick off the climate tech accelerator Undaunted which is for full-time founders ready to run with their ideas. But it’s got another first-of-its-kind programme that has just launched for students with brilliant entrepreneurial ideas who want a chance to sharpen these ideas in a supportive environment.

For pre-accelerator Co-founders Filippo Varini and Elliot Queisser de Stockalper, a passion for protecting nature came from life experiences that were close to home. While growing up in Geneva, Switzerland, Elliot saw ecosystems, quite literally, melt away: “watching the snow, the glaciers, the little details from my home region dramatically changing, it made a difference. It pushed me to address these problems and these unmet needs in a tangible way.”

In Italy, Filippo had always been in close contact with the sea as a sailor, fisherman and a free diver; “I witnessed it firsthand – the depletion of the sea – which brought me to start to look for solutions into the area of biodiversity and climate change.”

“It was so nice to find each other because we had this passion that was so raw for everything climate, sustainability and entrepreneurship,” says Elliot.

They developed the idea for the pre-accelerator programme last summer after noticing that many students who wanted to make a difference and help solve climate change had entrepreneurial ideas that died on the vine: the pressures of needing to find work and repay student loans immediately after graduating meant many would-be founders never got started.

Their solution? Provide students with a complete support system for validating and testing their ideas, building a team and network, and pitching to institutional investors – a pre-accelerator.

“We wanted to set up something that will be heard,” says Elliot, “but also something that will inspire people and give clear opportunities and possibilities at the end. That’s how we came up with the pre-accelerator to help student founders get investment-ready and validate their idea.”


How do you help student founders validate their ideas at the pre-accelerator?

Elliot: We give student founders every tool in hand to propose either an MVP at the end of a programme, or at least a solution that has the possibility to become a startup in the future.
We have programme sponsors, collaborators, mentors and partners on board to help in shaping the idea. We’ll have a series of workshops, challenges and pitching days and we’ll finish with Demo Day, where teams will present in front of investors and partners, show what they are addressing, and how that idea compliments a gap in the market sector. It’s an opportunity for them to speak about something they’re deeply passionate about at their first pitching event and build on these capabilities in the future.

How many student founders are in your first cohort?

Filippo: We’ve had 200 applications and have launched our first cohort with 100 students – from PHDs to undergraduates – after opening up applications to students from universities including Cambridge, MIT, Oxford, the Royal College of Arts and LSE. Half of the people we selected already have a team and idea they will want to work on and half of them are unsure about what to work on and need to find a team. We have a multidisciplinary cohort because we believe something great happens when you mix perspectives from different backgrounds.

What are the benefits of starting young as an entrepreneur?

Filippo: I think the benefit of starting young is that you have energy and you also have the beginner mindset that lets you approach a problem with a new perspective and sometimes that can lead to authentic solutions.
However, you don’t have experience and your network or skillset can’t compare with people that already have experience. But it depends on the personality, if you can learn by doing and you’re a resilient person, those qualities can help you succeed. Obviously, you will need help from mentors and a good dose of enthusiasm to learn everything as you go along, but it’s totally doable.
Elliot: One of the advantages is that in our outlook or perspective, we’re allowed to be very spontaneous, very creative, and we can just come in and propose something and the pressure and judgment is less heavy because we are trying our best and aiming to tackle something at a young age that is very close to our heart.

Is this an idea you see spreading to other universities?

Elliot: it’s one of the things we’ve talked about – my motto is Carpe Diem. I think the pre-accelerator has the potential to shape the entrepreneur journey for lots of students and be able to touch a wider community, not only in London but across the UK. We’ll take things step by step, but there are all the ingredients for it in the future to be implemented on a wider scale.

Who are your role models?

Elliot: Jacqueline Novogratz is certainly one of my role models. She’s the founder of Acumen and what I respect in her journey and her ethos is the intersection between entrepreneurship, activism, inspiring people and the power of speech.

Speech can unlock lots of doors and it has something very subdued, it can really touch you emotionally – the gestures and also the words can make the difference.
Filippo: the first one is my Grandfather because his life and connection to nature are an inspiration for me, and the second person is Astro Teller, the Captain of Moonshot X, which is part of our summit.
I look up to him and his company’s mentality of radical creativity and disrupting current technologies with a beginner’s mindset. It’s something I’ve always believed in even before hearing about him.
I recommend people look him up because it inspires people to be creative and find radical solutions to problems.

Do you have a favourite quote or a life philosophy you follow?

Elliot: Being able to enjoy the present moment. Reflect on the past and have good objectives for the future, but I feel like time is the modern-day missing piece.
I think it’s how you can accomplish all your goals in life – understanding that in the present moment there’s so much happening and you don’t have to overthink, sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

Filippo: More than a quote, I have a story, which is from a book by Paulo Coelho. He talks about a voyager who goes into a Master’s castle to learn about the secret of life. The Master gives him a spoon with water and tells him to explore the castle. The castle is amazing and he runs around and comes back and asks again about the meaning of life, but now the spoon is empty.

And so it says the meaning of life is to enjoy the beauty of the castle without losing the water in the spoon. That resonates with me, because I think there are so many important things in life, that you should always be balanced and not lose sight of what is right in front of you.

What do you do when it’s time to unwind and relax?

Filippo: I love surfing, so I never miss an opportunity to surf. I enjoy free diving as well, which is something you can do in London.

Elliot: I love to read and it’s something that really shaped me as a person. Given the literary background of my Mother, I’m very sensitive to the arts, thanks to her. I also enjoy handball and windsurfing.

If you could teleport yourself into the future and be anywhere, doing anything, where would you be?

Filippo: I’d be working on ocean conservation and restoring marine biodiversity and global biodiversity. It’s a problem that I fell in love with many years ago and it’s something that still intrigues me to solve.

Elliot: I’d like to be somewhere where lots of different questions and problems are addressed; being able to unite people around the power of discussion, communication and awareness-building around different themes and proposing concrete solutions for it. I’ve been always very interested by the intersection between life science and diplomacy; that’s something I will be considering in the future…and I hope to still be the person I am today.

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