BT’s R&D uses Hothousing in a big way

BT’s R&D uses Hothousing in a big way

BT has for some time had special spaces designed to support small problem-solving conferences, used for ‘problems to fix’ and ‘[new] concepts to market’, but also for reviewing and developing strategy. They are now being used as the precursor for all R&D teams, where projects are divided into 13-week stages, and are all prefaced by a Hothouse – an intensive workshop designed to search out new approaches for the ensuing stage of the project.

Suites of rooms have been built in two locations, where 40-50 Hothouses a year are run, each focused on a significant business problem or opportunity – identified by a Business Unit of BT (‘tangible outcomes are essential’). Expensive though each is (they can involve 50-100 during the Hothouse itself, though less both before and after,) they are seen as the only solution to the waterfall approach (the project handed on down the line to its next stage), in which the danger of an unforeseen problem arising late in the development process can and has involved expensive iterations and missed opportunities.

These are better described as small problem-solving conferences than workshops. Between three and eight teams (each of 6-8 people) compete (for small but significant prizes) in the presence of the problem owner, other stakeholders, his boss (and often his boss). Participants are chosen to fulfill a specific mix in a team and while fully briefed beforehand, they may or may not have hade previous experience of  Hothouses. Teams are composed through an electronic auction; and the 3-day process is marked by presentations at the end of each day, and the presence throughout the proceedings of a carefully chosen panel of judges. Each team’s space in the large communal break-out area has its plasma screen and white board; and Microsoft’s Sharepoint Online software is used for enabling each team to share material, with two other programs for sharing software in development. The Facilitator will regularly call very brief ‘stand-up’ meetings to ask about progress, obstacles, needs, and resources that might be made available.

The ‘conference’ space is institutional and Spartan (no toys – what would their bosses think!); and the process is intensive and full of energy. There are no signs of any input – either of people or materials – from outside BT, (though that will apparently depend on the business problem, and no doubt customers will often form part of the process); indeed the technical members of the teams ensure that use is made of relevant existing BT platforms.

The main uses are currently for ‘Troubles to fix’ projects – whose aim to overcome obstacles in the development process; but now that the tide has turned a little for BT, there is increasing interest in ‘Concept to market’ Hothouses – about the development of new products, services etc.

All of BT is now being equipped with these large plasma screens, interactive white boards and video conference facilities (round half the outside of a circular conference table), around the perimeter of which project teams are co-located, enabling their members to conference or hothouse alone or with fellow teams eg in Ireland or Bangalore.

             Formalised methods more than experience or expertise in this type of activity distinguish BT’s Hothouses; and they are very process-driven. 


Accelerator Learning Programmes for very early-stage venturers

Accelerator Learning Programmes – for very early-stage venturers are emerging, designed to develop their capabilities to the point where their propositions are of investable quality. The formats of their learning element are very similar; but the mentoring element and their sources of funding differ – according to how commercial they are likely to be.


Many venture capital houses receive several times more new business proposals than they invest in, yet these many potential entrepreneurs may still have a nugget of an idea for a new business but not be able to shape it in such a way as to attract investors. It is for these that a new patterm of accelerator programme in the UK is emerging.

The aim of these programmes is to help early-stage venturers (entrepreneur clubs are said to be now the largest clubs in UK universities) to develop their capabilities, and hence their propositions, to such an extent that they become investable.

A common pattern is that they are 13-week programmes of learning, based on meeting for a half-day, once a week, sometimes with an added tutorial. Programmes have a thorough selection process – accepting of the order of 10% of applicants. The programme covers the basic subjects entailed by new businesses, especially marketing and finance; they include lectures from experts (preferably people who have ‘been there’ already); part of the session will provide an opportunity for the participants to wrestle together with aspects of their proposition that do not yet work; and they will finish (sometimes in a separate tutorial session) by discussing a key issue and how they will go about addressing it between now and the following week, when they will have to discuss how that process went and what is their new solution to that issue. Alongside the formal part of the learning agenda, a third approach to the learning content is to require participants to exchange their learning experiences by internet; and when they meet to discuss them together.

These programmes finish by providing a forum to which funders have been invited, at which they have an opportunity to pitch for ongoing funding. (Those who run these programmes require in exchange an equity participation of around 5%.) The objective of their founders is commonly to build exponentially a group of people who have ‘been there’ and can help the next cadre of participants to follow in their footsteps (and thus provide a continuing business model for the organisers.)

Of these programmes, some are purely commercial (but may have attracted commercial sponsors), and the participants pay; others (particularly those whose objectives include social benefits) have attracted grant-funding. Some include mentoring; others (notably where radically new approaches are being developed to address social issues) do not – as likely to be too directive.

Examples include Accelerator Academy ( and Bethnal Green Ventures (

Bethnal Green Ventures – a social enterprise Seed Camp

Bethnal Green Ventures [BGV] is an accelerator programme for technology startups that has grown from the team behind Social Innovation Camp, a not-for-profit organisation started in 2008 that now runs a variety of competitions to find uses of technology that solve social and environmental problems  around the world.

BGV has just opened up applications for the second round of their three month accelerator programme for technology-based social ventures in the UK. The first round, run last year, was a test run of the programme. It attracted 60 applications, out of which six were selected, however at the time no investment was offered. None have gone on to attract substantial investment; but two have developed significant revenue and continue to thrive.

This year, 6-8 teams will be chosen for the programme and given up to £15,000 of equity investment in return for a 6% stake for Bethnal Green Ventures. This investment should cover a small team of 2-4 people for the 3-month period of the camp – enough to cover board and lodging.

The programme consists of an afternoon and evening meeting one day per week, with talks from experienced startup founders and discussions between the teams. Each team also has a weekly discussion with the programme director, who is effectively a Learning manager – of one hour a week – about their work and based on the concept of action, at which participants discuss what they will do in the ensuing week that might take their project forward and commit to bringing back the results for discussion the following week. 

Mentors are available for the teams when they need them – but they’re encouraged to work directly with potential customers rather than take expert advice as gospel. 

Applications are taken in April for a programme which will run from July to September. At the end of this period, BGV arranges a pitching session with its contacts, for raising further funds to take on projects to a future life

Participants are selected for their passion in relation to their objectives, with much less emphasis placed on the idea itself. Indeed the accelerator process is designed to enable them to experiment by exploring for what will work in social and commercial terms so their idea may change significantly during the programme.

The cost of supporting this second cohort of ventures are expected to total £150k, or which £110k goes directly to the participants as investment, and the remaining £40 is to cover the costs of running the scheme. BGV will take a 6% stake in each business (putting a nominal value on each business of £250k).

This project is seen by Social Innovation Camp as part of the development of special purpose accelerators – as pre early-stage ventures that might turn into investable propositions which will be available to social capital funds.  It is hoped that these projects might grow exponentially, ie 16 next year, 32 the following etc; and that one in eight might go to Series A and perhaps be valued at £1mn or more.



A plethora of opportunities for new businesses – fuelled by IT and telecoms.

A plethora of opportunities for new businesses – fuelled by IT and telecoms. Among highlights for 2012: apps for people on the move’s Smartphones; advanced ‘analytics’, enabling organisations to make even more use of search engines for selling; and businesses made possible by the ability of mobile devices to enable people to share and exchange things; but existing Angel organisations are not yet proactive in their support.  

              Ron Conway, Special Adviser to SV Angel – in the Economist’s “World in 2012” ( suggests that the continuing rapid growth in Facebook and the social web is seen by Angels as a good opportunity for entrepreneurs with start-ups that attract seed-stage investments. In particular the explosive growth of Smartphones offers all sorts of strong opportunities for providing content related to their users’ context, by offering innovative and engaging experiences for people on the move so that they can get what they want where the want it (eg the LinkedIn page of the person across the table from you; or (suggests another article) onto your glasses the name of the person to whom you are talking, together with their recent postings).

            Commerce will also benefit from this trend, says this article in the Economist, since more people are paying for experiences online and experiencing them offline. Merchants finally have access to the tracking and measurability that are key pieces of internet economics (and businesses that help them to do so by means of advanced ‘analytics’ will make good investments). They are thus able to design offers that are tightly contextualised (eg that relate to their profiles of their customers/to where they are/to what their friends are buying/to the brands that they like). Social shopping sites – Groupon derivatives, and social gaming and social experiences that can lead to customers and sales will be another area of interest to Angels. Businesses that make use of user-generated content and personal recommendations will attract entrepreneurs; licensing and spin-offs will be increasingly common avenues for revenue; and video will be an increasingly significant medium.

            Another field that is attracting the interest of Angels is peer-to-peer markets and the growth of collaborative consumption. The age of networks and mobile devices has created the opportunity to set up networks for the sharing and exchange of assets as well as information – from cars, to bikes, to skills, to spare space. Zipcar and Rentcycle are given as examples as is the Paris electric car network and a similar scheme in London into which you pitch your own car – both schemes about to be launched.

            A few Angels have been co-investors in at least one of the new Accelerators – short intensive innovation programmes that select small groups of teams with promising ideas for new products and then provide them with dramatic challenge and support (see Nesta’s The Startup Factories, 2011 (; but Angel organisations in the UK have yet to dip their toes into this water. Most see themselves as no more than a passive conduit to enable investors to find business opportunities and vice versa; their involvement in the successful development of their businesses is still negligible.



Pressure Cookers for business

Pressure Cookers for business

I was recently given a glimpse of Springboard – the 13-week Cambridge based Accelerator – in operation, which set me wondering what might be the next developments in processes or programmes for the development of innovations and new businesses. I suggest here that some will be longer and some shorter; they will become specialised to different fields; longer ones will be split up into smaller bites; learning will be personal and on-the-job; and mentoring will become a team effort.


From their origins in the 1940s to their latest embodiment as Accelerators in 2011, ‘Pressure Cookers’ in business have been getting longer and longer; but there are some that are even longer than these 13-week Accelerator programmes. So what will happen to the concept of the Pressure Cooker? How will it change and develop?


From Brainstorm to Bootcamp

Brainstorms, first described by Sydney Parnes in 1942, were initially short periods, perhaps of hours, devoted to generating ideas – for solving a particular problem. Synectics’ work and the famous CIPSE programmes at State University at Buffalo expanded their scope – by starting the process of the brainstorm by addressing the need to identify the right problem, and finishing it by sorting and identifying the best solutions.

The concept of the Future Center as a place where people could

come together to solve problems in the context of the future,

originated in Scandinavia in 1996 and took hold quickly in continental Europe, appearing first in the UK in the late-1990s in the shape of iconic Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab at Rugby, where day-long workshops on creativity and innovation were focused both on problems and on new product development. (See also ‘Innovation Workshops: what they do and how they do it’

In the US, the consultancy IDEO had espoused this more comprehen-sive approach to new product development, which was epitomised by the film of their work on a week-long project that was shown in 1998 on NBC Newsnite (

The ‘pressure cooker’ process began to take a more extended form in the UK when BT’s R&D adopted a new stage-gate format under which all the project teams worked to 13-week stages, each new stage being launched with a ‘Hothouse’ – a 3-day creative problem-solving session. 

The BBC in 2002 was among the first to run week-long programmes in the UK – their Watering Holes, based on what they had seen at Stanford Research Institute, were aimed at developing and selecting ideas for new programmes. By 2004, the Research Councils, led by EPSRC, had adopted a similar approach – a week-long project, but for identifying areas and opportunities for future research, and initiating projects to tackle them (see as above in ‘Innovation workshops’ In 2007, Seedcamps set up their stall (, whose objective in running week-long programmes was to develop concepts for new businesses and support the selection of promising entrepreneurs.


Accelerators of different sorts and kinds

Since then the concept of a development process has burst open with the arrival in the UK from the US of Accelerators – 13 week programmes for small groups of entrepreneurs (see ‘The Startup Factories’, Nesta 2011; Some Accelerators, like Springboard ( are primarily about developing concepts for new businesses, others like Accelerator Academy ( are more oriented to developing the capabilities of their entrepreneurs; and others like Bethnal Green Ventures ( are more about identifying and developing concepts for social enterprise. All of them include an opportunity to select the best for the next stage of development, many of them also providers of further funding for doing so.

There are other fields in which the product requires longer periods of development before its benefits can be tested. Rockhold in the US, backed by corporate healthcare organisations, has a 5-month process for the development of IT applications in hospitals and other healthcare sites, and GlaxoSmithKline has recently adopted a new research structure consisting of focused inter-disciplinary teams – which bid to Dragons’ Den type events for further funding at the end of 3-year periods (for a description, see


And what might the next developments be?

*         The length of Accelerators might become more closely adapted to

     their objectives, perhaps 6 and 12 months becoming as common as

     13-week programmes.

*        Longer programmes could be divided up into smaller segments, in

          each of which the pressure would be more intensive (as at BT).

*         Participants may well become more closely matched to each other – in

     terms of experience and nature of the project (as in the Arts Council/ 

     Watershed’s research project with Pervasive Media in the theatre.)

*         One consequence of this would be that collaboration and learning

     from each other will become a more dominant them; and will be more

     closely adapted to the needs of individuals.

*         And we can expect mentors to be more closely matched to project

     stages and to entrepreneurs; and they will act more as a team – more   


In the face of evidence that tight control of such projects leads to early death, we can however predict that freedom and play will remain key elements in the pressure-cooker process. 


John Whatmore                                  The Centre for Leadership in Creativity

February 2012                                                           In association with Nesta                                                


Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus – a new centre of innovation and enterprise with an interesting model

Mix together different disciplines and technologies, theory goes, and the sparks of creativity and innovation will fly; but many science parks (like incubators) have been more like property companies than crucibles of alchemy. So I have been keen to explore the success of a new science park, the Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus, a Phoenix that has arisen over the last seven years out of a laboratory whose heart had been ripped out by the loss of a contract for the big new Synchrotron Radiation facility (evidence for another theory: that there is no opportunity like a crisis!) Does Daresbury work; and if so, why.


Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus is a new centre of innovation and enterprise with an interesting model ( – centres of excellence in three fields of science (accelerator science, computational science and sensor/detector technology) beside a large number of hi-tech small businesses, all glued together by an ethos of openness and collabor-ation); it can show excellent metrics of success, and just now is about to enter a more challenging but potentially yet more rewarding phase (ie attracting the interest of large corporates).


The campus and its several special components

The Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus might be described as a ‘third generation’ science park – it is an open and collaborative community of research and hi-tech businesses. Opened in 2005, it now houses four entities: theScience and Technology Facilities Council’s Daresbury Laboratory, formerly home to an earlier Synchrotron Radiation facility, the Cockcroft Institute of Accelerator Science and Technology, an Innovation Centre that houses nearly a hundred hi-tech small businesses, and a “grow-on” facility Vanguard House accommodating larger technology companies both from the Innovation Centre and off-campus. It has strong links with many UK universities and the local council.

The campus is run by a public-private joint-venture bringing not only the expertise from the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Halton Borough Council but also private sector property developer and investor, Langtree. The Campus is supported by what would seem like an ideal combination of experience: a Business Support Manager whose background is hi-tech small business and a Business Development Manager whose background is sales and marketing in international blue chips

The science component’s special areas of scientific research are particle accelerators and high-performance computing, where the laboratory has just been awarded a £40mn government grant.

The campus’s policy is to admit only hi-tech businesses; and these are attracted to pay the relatively high cost of space on the site by virtue of the value added in terms of relationships with other businesses already on the site; and by the science facilities and research on the site. They have been funded in more or less equal proportions by venture capital, IPOs and family and friends; and several have already been bought out by larger enterprises.

The atmosphere of openness and collaboration – maintained by collegiality

The most distinctive characteristic of the whole site, which would be the envy of every university, is this open and collaborative ethos – epitomised by partnerships and relationships among the tenants – in their close proximity. This ethos is generated by regular meetings aimed at introducing people to each other – firstly inside the campus, and secondly those from outside the campus who may be useful to the former.

There are four kinds of these meetings:

·      monthly breakfast meetings, which regularly attract some 150 people. The managers of the site make themselves aware of the needs of as many as possible of the businesses on the site, and seek to introduce them to other businesses that may have knowledge, experience or contacts that fit their needs, both on the site and from the area round about;

·      in a session that follows this meeting, a corporate will have been invited to have the floor for an hour – to expand on its needs and interests, and/or its potential contributions;

·      twice a year, the Innovation Centre holds networking meetings for tenants of the site – which attract from 25 to 30 participants. The first hour is spent in a pitching process; and the second hour is devoted to networking;

·      the fourth kind of meeting, a slightly different kind, has just kicked off: six MDs of companies on the site have elected to meet – to see what they can do for each other. (If successful, this may be replicated with MDs of other companies on the site; and it might be added that it could herald a stronger element of mutual support among senior people in businesses on the site and/or in the area.)

In addition to this there is an e-network of people and organisations interested in the campus, its work and its activities, called Newshub, which currently has 3,500 members and is growing at the rate of some 500 new members per annum.

Just one or two other tenants on the site – providing services

While most companies on the site are small, IBM has a strategic base on site – for two reasons: its interest in the research on high-performance computing, and secondly its software, which is very often vital to the small hi-tech companies on the site. Likewise, UK Trade and Investment has an office; and a representative is present every week to advise and help with export markets, as many of these hi-tech businesses, though small, have international markets for their products.

The metrics indicate success

The Innovation Centre has made a comprehensive assessment of its performance on a large number of criteria, but has found that there is a lack of comparable data from other similar science park or incubator locations. However the response of BIS to these evaluations has been that the campus is one of the most collaborative of all such organisations in the UK, and that it is among the best in terms of survival and growth rates, and on innovation. John Leake, the Business Development Manager for the Innovation Centre, has found the Science Parks Association very valuable and he has contacts with leading science parks, such as those at Manchester, Birmingham Aston, Surrey, Cambridge and Tamar; and he would like to learn more about counterparts overseas.

Growth expected from corporates, but the ethos of collaborativeness will be more difficult to maintain

He foresees the continuing growth of the science park, firstly through the presence of more big corporates, that may start with a small presence, as has IBM, and then grow (eg Intel, Microsoft, even Chinese); secondly through the interest of big corporates who may become users of the technology being developed on the site (eg Unilever); and thirdly through the continuing addition of small companies taking space (and there is an almost endless potential supply of space).

            This will of course add enormously to the opportunities for collaboration, but it will make it increasingly difficult for anyone cast with the role of creating useful connections between the tenants – where the campus has been so outstandingly successful. It will stretch the resources for connectivity, and require the need for new and innovative solutions (probably through technology) to resolve this


John Whatmore

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity                                             February 2012


in association with Nesta