Meet Brunel Entrepreneur Francis Jones
Founder of STEM@Home
STEM@Home is designed to make GCSE science education equitable for all students. Our products are designed so students who may not be able to access conventional education, such as SEND students or home learners, could access and perform their science practicals outside of the classroom. Our curated science boxes allow them to do their science practicals multiple times without location limitations with basic adult supervision such as with their learning support assistants. Each box contains all the equipment, guidance and exam practice for three different practicals. Each practical has been modified to maximize safety and reduce risk whilst allowing the practicals to be done in an ordinary classroom and not just a science laboratory classroom. Dangerous chemicals or equipment are removed whilst also ensuring that students get the same end-results and go through the same experience they would have in a normal science classroom.
Tell us a bit about your business and entrepreneurial/freelancer journey so far...
During my placement year at Nottingham Trent University, I realised I was not a fan of the claustrophobic nature of laboratory work so when the option on doing a science education module came up in my final year, I took it on a whim and discovered I really enjoyed being in the classroom. After graduation, I worked abroad as an English teacher for a few years before returning back to the UK to do my PGCE in secondary education (Chemistry). As soon as I completed my PGCE at Brunel University, I ended up working in an inner-London school as a science teacher before rising to management. When in management, I ended up obtaining a scholarship for a masters degree in STEM education at King’s College London which I took to develop my pedagogy. At King’s, I undertook a micro-course about desiloing science and the arts which lead to me developing an art piece about the inequalities in science education in the UK. This art piece became an interactive art piece which became a piece of EdTech software, designed for policymakers in schools. This introduced me to the world of entrepreneurship where I experienced first-hand, the highs and lows of being a start-up. The baseline algorithm to my Edtech software, which was a tool that let school policymakers maximise academic attainment for each GBP spent on extracurricular activities was sold to a larger EdTech firm who could expand the algorithm further. This led to me developing my true passion, STEM@Home. Due to the time commitments of running a start-up company as well as my dissertation research in my masters degree, I left my role in management at that inner-London school and worked full time on STEM@Home.
What does a typical day involve for you?
As a start-up founder, every single day varies. I might be having meetings, writing up funding applications, preparing orders, designing advertising campaigns, organizing our invoices and maybe even designing new products. Early on in the entrepreneurial journey, you will be working ON your business but when you make traction, this is when you start working more IN your business and it’s at this point when you realize; “I need to hire people”.
What have been the highlights of your entrepreneurial/freelancer journey so far?
It is hard to decide what has been the biggest highlight of my entrepreneurial journey so far. I could say it was pitching at London City Hall or at the Oval stadium but nothing compares to the feeling when you secure your first B2B contract and the client pays off their invoice. Seeing all those numbers go up in your business account for the first time is a magical experience.
But to me, my personal highlight was when we started collecting our case study data. STEM@Home was making a positive impact to students, outside of what we were expecting. We were initially only expecting to improve the academic attainment of students but finding out that not only were we making the lives of science teachers easier but being told that students who normally felt like they "didn't belong" to science, were now liking science and improving their outlook on school, was really nice to hear. Turns out that the best way to help a student feel accepted in school is to make a subject fully accessible to their needs.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and how have you overcome them?
Working in your own company is nothing but pure challenges. No matter how much you prepare, challenges come out of every single opportunity. An example is when we were releasing our first product line in Summer 2022. Our biology products were severely delayed due to a delay in receiving our shipment of ceramic evaporating basins. This was due to a worldwide shortage of porcelain which was caused by COVID-19. Another example was how we had to pivot our business model. Our initial market research indicated that parents were our target customers and how parents were eager for products like STEM@Home. When we launched officially in Autumn 2022, our B2C sales were drastically lower than expected due to the cost of living crisis. However, we were noticing a massive uptake in schools purchasing our products. When talking to these schools, we discovered that our products were filling a massive pain point for them which we were not aware of. We pivoted our business model from B2C to B2B and it resulted in some massive B2B orders and most importantly, a major B2B contract with a multi-academy trust. These sales meant that within the first six months on the market, our products already had a 0.24% market share in our target end-users.
What advice would you give to other students and recent graduates wanting to start a business?
The support systems in place at universities, especially Brunel, are amazing. Don’t be afraid to try something new and maybe try making your own start-up. The support Brunel University provides is amazing and legit, university is one of the only times in life where you can fail and it won’t impact the rest of your life. Brunel University will always help you pick up the pieces and get you back on track. Make a start-up, try and learn new things and crash spectacularly. Learn from the failure and try again. Your undergraduate years are the only times in your life when you can do this.
What support have you received from the PDC (including the Entrepreneur Hub) and how it has helped your professional development?
The Entrepreneur Hub at Brunel have been vital to my success as an entrepreneur. Every single person has supported and guided me every step of the way, from refining business plans to pitching. However, I would like to specifically mention three people who helped me a lot;
- Emmy Botterman- Simply an amazing and empathetic head of the EH. She's someone you can cry to when a business deal goes really badly and she helps you pick up the pieces and carry on. She's a perfect mix of cut-throat business expertise and empathy.
- Andrew Mossop- An amazing mentor who goes out of his way to help people. Truly, I could not have got this far without his constant support.
- Emily Arnold- The unsung hero of the EH. Really helps co-ordinate all my frequent requests for help in a very timely manner.
"The Entrepreneur Hub at Brunel have been vital to my success as an entrepreneur. Every single person has supported and guided me every step of the way, from refining business plans to pitching."