A creative studio specialising in multi-sensory experiential installations, and a grief counselling service and community won their young creators prizes worth £10,000 each at last week’s StartUp Sussex awards.

The annual enterprise programme, delivered by Sussex Innovation for students and recent graduates from the University of Sussex, reached its climax as the recipients of prizes worth a total of more than £37,000 were announced. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s new-look programme has been delivered remotely, with an intimate virtual celebration between the finalists, mentors and judges taking the place of the traditional live awards ceremony on Thursday 25th March.

The 2021 StartUp Sussex winners are MA Music & Sonic Media graduate Catherine Ireton and Human Computer Interaction PhD J. Luis Berna Moya. Their business, Curious Connectors, is a creative studio that will deliver experiential installations built around engaging the senses of touch, taste, sound and smell.

The 2021 StartUp Sussex winners are MA Music & Sonic Media graduate Catherine Ireton and Human Computer Interaction PhD J. Luis Berna Moya. Their business, Curious Connectors, is a creative studio that will deliver experiential installations built around engaging the senses of touch, taste, sound and smell.

The Social Impact Prize is awarded each year to the enterprise with the most potential to bring about positive social change. The 2021 winner is MA Literature & Philosophy student Louise Harman, who has developed a unique model for grief counselling. Louise on Death will change the narrative around mourning with a focus on curiosity instead of recovery. Profits from the enterprise will be reinvested into support services for the elder generation.

As well as earning the title of University of Sussex Entrepreneurs of the Year, the winners received a £10,000 prize consisting of a cash award from the programme’s sponsors and ongoing membership, consultancy and marketing from Sussex Innovation.

“We were hopeful, but it was a pleasant shock to hear our names read out!” said Catherine Ireton, co-founder of Curious Connectors, “It’s such a big idea which we’ve only talked about for so long, so it was brilliant to hear that we’d made a convincing case to the judges. This process has really helped us to turn our focus from what we know we’re capable of doing, onto what the customer needs. That kind of insight is why, even more than the prize money, we’re excited about the opportunity to continue working with Sussex Innovation.”

“It’s so overwhelming that I can’t quite take it in,” said Louise Harman, founder of Louise on Death. “Start-Up Lab has taught me so much, I’ve gone from zero knowledge of how to start a business, to being able to write a winning business plan and pitch. My social enterprise is informed by some very personal experiences, and I’m grateful for being given this space to fully embrace my vision. Everyone involved has been so supportive of each other, and we’re all hoping to meet up once lockdown ends.”

The 2021 competition involved a change from the format of previous years, with a separation between the autumn term’s training and workshops – now rebranded as the Start-Up Lab – and the final competition phase, which was open to submissions from all Sussex students and graduates. The University’s Careers and Employability team have also stepped into a more active role in the programme alongside mentors and coaches from Sussex Innovation.

Finally, 14 finalists were selected from the pool of business plans that were submitted, and each presented their ideas in a live video pitch to the StartUp Sussex judges, a ‘Dragons’ Den’-style panel consisting of local investors, entrepreneurs and representatives from the University.

“Congratulations to the winners – and all of the finalists, who’ve had to work incredibly hard to prepare their business plans, whilst studying for their degrees in the middle of a pandemic!” said Simon Chuter, Student Enterprise Manager at Sussex Innovation. “We’re delighted to continue supporting some truly pioneering enterprises, and wish them all the success they are due. It’s an absolute honour and a pleasure to have run this programme over the past six years and watch these young entrepreneurs gain the insight and inspiration to harness their ideas and have a real impact on the world.”

“The University has increased the support it provides to student entrepreneurs this year, and we are already seeing the results,” said Luke Mitchell, Business Adviser at the University of Sussex Careers and Employability Centre. “It has been a pleasure to be involved with StartUp Sussex and collaborate with the diverse array of talent that we have in the University community, from the students and graduates that bring forward their ideas, to the staff, mentors and donors that support them.”

“I really enjoyed the broad range of ideas in the StartUp Sussex competition,” said angel investor and serial entrepreneur Sam Simpson, who sat on the 2021 judging panel. “Selecting winners in such a strong field was challenging, as all entrants had spent an incredible amount of time and effort producing ‘investment ready’ business plans and pitch decks and delivered the presentations with passion and confidence. I look forward to following the progress of the course alumni as they execute upon their plans.”

The StartUp Sussex prize is underwritten by the University of Sussex as part of its commitment to support student entrepreneurship, while the Social Impact Prize is funded by a generous private donation from a Sussex alumnus. In addition to the main prizes, every finalist received a £500 bursary, courtesy of the University, to help cover early-stage business costs.

Previous StartUp Sussex winners have included Molly Masters with Books That Matter, a feminist literature subscription box that has won multiple national start-up awards, and Darren Tenkorang with TRIM-it, a mobile barber service that has received £1.1m of seed investment and been the subject of features on BBC Business and Forbes.

The other 2021 prize winners:

In second place in StartUp Sussex 2021, Michelle Chimuka (MSc Entrepreneurship & Innovation) received a £6,500 prize for her product, Rivuuz, Zambia’s first online marketplace to connect customers to trusted and reliable service providers.

In third place, Christian Saraty (BSc Computer Science) and co-founder Stefano Di Gregorio received a £4,250 prize for their enterprise, Boogie Search, a comparison site for finding the cheapest music event tickets online.

In second place in the Social Impact Prize 2021, Thomas Stokes (BSc Psychology with Finance) received a £6,500 prize for his social enterprise, Connect.com, a mental health platform connecting care home residents in need with people to help and support them.