With its aim of generating in a very short space of time not just new products but new businesses, Springboard is only the third in the UK of a new generation of ‘Accelerator’ – a rapidly growing approach from the US.
Born of US parents and a UK initiative, Springboard is a new UK ‘Accelerator’ programme, launched in Cambridge and expanding in the Autumn of 2011 to a second location. From one such programme in the US in 2005, there are now dozens, funding hundreds of tech start-ups a year. So fast have they grown that Accelerators seem destined for a big future.
Their essence consists in five things (see Nesta’s recent report: The Startup Factories. http://www.nesta.org.uk/library/documents/StartupFactories.pdf).
1. an application process that is open yet highly competitive
2. provision of pre-seed investment, usually in exchange for equity
3. a focus on small teams not individuals
4. time-limited support comprising programmed events and intensive
5. startups supported in cohorts or ‘classes’.
After receiving over 230 applications, ten startup teams were selected for Springboard, (each with 2-3 founders per team) for a 13-week programme – of intensive development for their idea for a new business, each of which had access to a shared office space.
The first month of the programme consisted of Mentor Days, a sort of speed-dating process, and Corporate Days. The first three weeks of the Mentor Days, it was twenty minutes with each of ten mentors per day, three to four days a week (there are around a hundred mentors involved); some of whom got teams to pitch, and then grilled them on eg What’s your unfair advantage? What’s your USP? Have you thought about this business model? Others started the meeting off asking, “Ok we have 20 minutes – what would you like my help with?” What they offered was a mix of (1) ideas and (2) contacts. From the entrepreneur’s point of view, Mentor Days seemed like a relentless grilling, with often brutal feed-back, and you do your work on your project in the evenings or at the week-ends. Other days featured Corporates (PayPal, Amazon, Microsoft, Google etc) or specialists (PR, Angel/VC funding, Law, Accounting), discussing trends, developments etc or about the doing of business. For the next two weeks, it was 40 minutes following up with selected mentors; and thereafter it was up to you to use your mentors as you thought best. The second month focused on building the products, and the third month on pitching the business.
Recruiting the mentors
Prior to getting involved in the programme Jon Bradford who runs it has a chat with each mentor about the programme overall and what commitment to mentoring would entail ie. pick one day to join us, and only return for a second day if there are teams they genuinely want to see again; pick one team if they want to stay on further, and expect to spend about x hours per week with them; but it is highly flexible, and mentors are free to offer feedback as they see fit; and the feedback each mentor offered differed greatly.
What startup teams get
Teams are provided with seed investment at a rate of £5000 per founder, (ie at a total cost of around £125,000) which takes the pressure off the cost of living and eating during the period of the programme. At its conclusion, they have an opportunity to pitch to an assembly of business angels and VC funders what may then be a business with paying customers or an embryonic ‘product’, but they have no guarantee of obtaining any funding. Indeed, some teams opt to bootstrap instead of immediately raising a large investment round.
A model that confirms its promise; but depends upon support
Jon Bradford has an extensive record of working with pioneering early-stage ventures. This programme seems likely to be a successful approach to accelerating web-based projects – in terms of generating new businesses (it has many similarities with Seedcamps, which has proved to be a burgeoning concept); but programmes like this do depend on financial support (from such as public funds, angels or the VC industry) and on extensive help from a large number of mentors (offered on a voluntary basis). It looks like an outstanding opportunity for incubators, angels and venture capital to work together to create lots of latter-day Brunels.