Sunderland: University Enterprise Zone Digital Incubator

The University of Sunderland was recently awarded funding as a University Enterprise Zone to create a new physical Digital Incubator space.

The key focus is to support University of Sunderland digital and creative students and graduates looking to explore the possibility of working for themselves as digital freelancers.

The Digital Incubator aims to develop cross collaboration opportunities for technology and media incubation which will leverage the expertise of the University to create new digital student and graduate businesses who will engage with external clients to respond to live project briefs.

Development and Delivery

How did you develop and deliver it?

We developed the idea for the Incubator in collaboration with our existing Enterprise Place and the Faculties of Technology and Creative Industries.  The idea was to create a physical space which would encourage undergraduate students with a digital skillset to explore the option of developing as Freelance practitioners whilst they were studying. This would provide a route into either their own Freelance venture or into graduate employment within the region.

We offer students a 12-month membership which includes access to one to one advice, workshops (tax, legal, social media etc) and the support of a dedicated academic mentor.

How was it funded?

The project received funding from UKRI, as part of a University Enterprise Zone Project, and NE Local Enterprise Partnership to establish and resource the Digital Incubator until Sept 2021.  The project has also received additional funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) until June 2023 to continue this activity.

Were there any partners? In addition to our funders we have worked in close partnership with the University’s existing Enterprise Placewhich has an established history of supporting Student/Graduate start-up business in all sectors.

What were the obstacles (if any) and how did you overcome them?

The biggest obstacle was the fact that we had to develop this activity virtually.  Although the physical space was completed on time, we were unable to open our doors due to the pandemic.

We quickly moved to a fully virtual offer and, working remotely, we opened a virtual membership with online applications, mentoring and workshops delivered across various online platforms.


Although the pandemic meant we were unable to welcome members into our new physical incubator space, the digital launch was successful. We found that as more of us were spending time in our own virtual worlds, our student members had the time to explore their ideas through our virtual membership. Additionally, we saw an uptick in more digitally focussed ideas.

It has had a positive initial impact, which we hope will only be enhanced once we can expand the community. Moving forward we see it as a positive opportunity to collaborate in a blended environment, using a mix of the new Incubator space and online activity, so that we remain accessible to all.

Since opening membership in September 2020, there has been over 60 applications with over 30 being accepted and offered 12 months membership.

Impact Measurement

As we are relatively early in our journey, we have captured the impact in terms of qualitative evaluations.  Longer term we will be measuring impact in terms of the number of Freelance starts and the number of individuals who have accessed enterprise support activities.  We will be recording their progress and skills they have gained, producing a series of case studies to highlight successes.

Entrepreneurial Organisation

The Digital Incubator builds on the work of the University in establishing the Enterprise Place which has seen graduate businesses, start, develop and grow. The Incubator specifically enables us to extend our reach to support academic areas where entrepreneurial education is embedded into undergraduate programmes.

The Incubator will allow us to engage students at an earlier stage in their undergraduate programmes. This will transform their experience, with access to new facilities and learning approaches which will challenge and enthuse them as they progress through our dedicated support programme. It will give them the option of becoming entrepreneurs and achieving improved graduate outcomes via self-employment.

Next steps?

Next steps will be to finally access the physical space and allow our members to work and collaborate with each other in the real world.

We will also engage with external clients, bringing about opportunities in order to prepare our members to work on live project briefs.

Contact Name

Louise Dixon

Contact Email Address

The Internships and Enterprise project is receiving up to £3,326,399.02 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020. ‌The Department for Communities and Local Government is the Managing Authority for European Regional Development Fund. ‌Established by the European Union, European Regional Development Fund funds help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information visit