Guide to innovation in Corporates

This might include…

  • Open Innovation
  • Delivering Innovation
  • Managing Innovation

Government launches £10mn social Incubator Fund


Government launches £10mn social Incubator Fund
I read about the Cabinet Office’s launch of a £10mn social incubator fund feeling that this was a remarkable bet on the future of an unproven horse. There are so far very few examples and no ongoing experience of running them.
A £10mn ‘investment readiness fund’ fund is launched in parallel, and the £10mn ‘incubator fund’ is designed to ‘provide start-ups with intensive support to enable them to take advantage of social investment opportunities so they better serve communities and people most in need’. The intention seems to be to start ten incubators – in three phases over the next three years.
Nesta’s work on Incubators made it clear that it is very difficult to evaluate their performance for two reasons: first they have a wide variety of different kinds of objectives – some are about developing products, some about local employment and some about financial returns; and second and linked to this, because they are very high risk and their outcomes may take many years to crystalise – you might achieve your objectives in a year or two – or ten, you might need to put yet more into the project, and the enterprise might never come to anything at all.
Incubators took off in the late 90s and there are now some 300 of them in the UK, many attached to universities. More recently, a new version of the incubator has arrived after showing rapid growth in the US. The key ingredients of the new ‘Accelerator’ are: pressure – the opportunity to launch your new enterprise is (in most cases) just 13 weeks from conception; and secondly: support – the fulsome provision of advice from people who have ‘done it before’, in the form of feed-back, guidance and contacts.
Accelerators house together a small number of teams, each developing their own idea, drawing ideas and inspiration from each other and from the intensive support and learning regime that is offered by the accelerator. There have been fewer than half a dozen so far in the UK, and only one specialising in social enterprise – the first cadre of Bethnal Green Ventures is just now about to complete its 13-week course. More importantly, there is at present no organisation with ongoing experience of running them, (and only one – just started – in the commercial sector).
Hopefully, the parent and the children will grow up rapidly and successfully together, but they will have to develop their own nursery as they grow!

September 2012

There were three winners under this contract: Nesta + Bethnal Green Ventures, Telefonica’s wayra Lab + Unltd and HubLaunchpad, all of which I have written about on my website

“What will Innovation be like in 2020?” – first in a series

Steve Welch, CEO of the electronics Knowledge Transfer Network imagines the future

The UK, once a leading centre of academic output will be eclipsed by the desire for education and the academic might of eg India and China. And our relative inventiveness will continue to be hobbled by the UK’s once advanced infrastructure. The personalisation of design, manufacture and our environment will combine with a social climate of increasing distance from one another and asynchronicity, to make relationships and collabor-ations more ephemeral.


The changing status of the UK

   The dedication to education that culture, parents and children show in India and China contrasts with our relative indifference and uncertainty about it. This means, given the inexorable rise in populations there, that they will soon have more and better boffins driving technological progress; and that they will be hungrier for innovation. While we are currently among the countries filing the most patents and depending on our creativity, we will inevitably be overtaken by newly developing countries. 

   Moreover it is difficult for early-developing countries like ours to throw away existing infrastructures (copper wires/the London Underground/even systems of government) and start afresh; developing economies can jump over us. Standards cease to develop and infrastructures become a sunk cost trap.

   Can we perhaps foresee an economy of small parts: of individuals and small organisations participating in a group eco-system, linked by internets. 

The changing nature of consumption

   Learning-to-make has become learning-to build-systems. The 3D printer means that a library of parts can be made at home. We will evolve a culture of sharing designs; and we will make things via the internet and through exchange. The lone inventer can buy so much technical “lego” with which he or she can organise his life (for example new products such as the Rasberry Pi computer make home automation via a smartphone an easy prospect for DIY). Hand held computers can be quickly programmed to find out where is the ferry that you have just missed. All of this could empower individuals to conduct their own R&D. 

   Three roadblocks stand in the way: current IP protection is out of date and needs replacing; we need new models of interaction that understand sharing/collaboration; and we need a new method of making small payments eg from users to what may become a myriad of inventers (or creators).

   Where will this leave us a nation; where will our niche areas of expertise be? At present we give it all away: our inventions and ideas tend to be exploited by others; and we teach others how to do it. Maybe all that will be left to us will be our relative creativity and inventiveness.

The changing social climate

   A number of factors combine to make us more remote from one another: social websites with their own concept of ‘friendship’ replace face-to-face encounters; many more things can be monitored from afar – not just which websites you may have been into, but whether Grandma has not been using the kettle (and so might have had an accident); and people work more and more from home, and more therefore live locally. And this will be reinforced by the fact that life will continue to become more asynchronous.


   One consequence of our new forms of interactivity is that groups will assemble together of their own accord, for their own specific purpose, and for a short time. Companies may exist for only a short period of time. And experts whose interests cross boundaries will become even more valuable.



Oxford’s Begbroke Science Park prospers despite its focus on nanotechnology, where any UK lead seems to be slipping away

Oxford’s Begbroke Science Park, miles from Oxford, prospers even though leading-edge work on nanotechnology – its original focus, seems to be passing to other countries, despite its evident potential benefits.  Typical of businesses of this kind is that they cannot easily find the necessary level of funding, nor are they located close to relevant scientific facilities and manufacturing clusters. The TSB needs to recognise early on how best to proceed in supporting new emerging technologies. 

Begbroke Science Park’s particular focus was originally Nanotech-nology and Advanced Materials. Though miles from the university, it houses University research groups together with some 24 businesses – of which few are now directly related to nanotechnology. It employs a total of some 450 people of which around 180 are members of the University. It claims to be the top self-sustaining UK Science Park (after excluding subsidies from the calculations) and has outline planning permission to add another 9,000 sq m of office and laboratory space.

The ethos of the interaction between these two parties is maintained by regular meetings and informal interaction – Wednesday morning coffee and snack social events – some have external visitors involved; every day interactions in the restaurant; lunchtime meetings around one per month; and detailed workshops around twice a year. Many of the tenants use the microanalysis facilities and meet academics there. ‘SMEs need help and guidance, especially at these times’, says Professor Peter Dobson, who operates an ‘open door’ free consultancy policy to help make introductions to others who can provide solutions – he is also the strategic advisor on nanotechnology to Research Councils UK

Peter Dobson has emphasised the potential benefits that nanotech-nology could deliver in fields such as energy, water purification, food production and healthcare, but he also points to the financial and technical challenges and the commercial competition that developments face. Because the lead times to go from invention to commercialization are long and often determined by regulatory issues.

In the field of energy, nanotechnology is contributing to improve-ments in energy storage in batteries and super-capacitors – carbon nanotubes and graphene in particular are contributing to the design of electrodes. There is a solar photovoltaics research group and a spin-off company on the site. One firm on the site has worked on a technology to coat glass and other surfaces to improve the harvesting of energy from the sun. But it will require significant investment to scale up the process into a commercial proposition and will take several years unless partnership with other global manufac-turers can be arranged, during which time other countries seem likely to forge ahead.

In the healthcare field, nanoparticles are likely to be used inside the body both as diagnostic tools and as drug delivery mechanisms, but their injection into the body raises issues that regulators may take a considerable time to permit. And there are few organisations in the world likely to be capable of and willing to invest the sums needed for development on the appropriate time-scale, and none of them are in the UK.

Typical of this kind of business is one that happens to be located on the neighbouring science park at Harwell, which is developing a novel

X-ray source for medical, security and industrial that will be cheaper and highly portable, with a lower maintenance requirements and therefore greatly more useable. It requires £2.5m to take it to being ready for product-ion, but this funding requirement exceeds that which (typically) UK funds will put in to pre-revenue companies, and as a result the founders have had to look internationally for funding where there are deeper capital pools. Moreover the development work would benefit by being close to a related manufacturing ‘cluster’ which does not exist in the same way as it does in Ireland, Singapore or the US.

         Dobson points to the need to recognise early on how best to proceed in the case of these new emerging technologies. In these cases, perhaps it should be via multi-national collaborations. It seems that in many cases, grant funding for early nanotechnology research was spread widely among units that were too small, and that were not located close to related manufacturing capabilities, and that political considerations overruled technological and economic essentials.

         Forecasting and the management of development supply chains in these new emerging technologies needs to be thought through on a global basis, Dobson suggests. Perhaps this is where the TSB could play a valuable role, to avoid pauses and gaps in the development process of emerging technologies?


With Entrepreneur Clubs so rampant in our universities, how might the universities respond

They will need to provide communal workspaces, mentors with specific expertise and with contacts, and expert architects of networking; access to formal learning programmes about aspects of business; support in deve-loping business plans, and practice in pitching; and they will be offering concentrated ‘accelerator’ programmes for the development of new businesses. 

 Universities have been taken by surprise at the rapid rise of their Entrepreneur Clubs, and have yet to develop their response. So here are some ideas about how they might support their cohorts of budding entrepreneurs.

Like Watershed Bristol ( and ideaSpace in Cambridge (, universities could provide a large space of hotdesks where entrepreneurs can work together on their project, interacting and drawing from each other. (A film company in London provided big kitchens on every floor so as to encourage incidental discussion; Microsoft’s R&D facility at Redmond provided white boards above each desk on which people could headline their current problem in case someone who passed by might have a useful idea.)

The most recent mentoring programmes have made available large numbers of mentors whom budding entrepreneurs can first meet in staccato sessions (a sort of contact sport), which have then led on to both parties deciding who can help whom best – with feed-back, advice and/or contacts. Universities can draw on alumni, and in some cases, like UCL’s Smile, on mentoring services they have already set up.

Silicon Valley has an almost unique ability to link together entre-preneurs to stimulate, help or inspire one another – through its webs of social webs. Stanford University appointed an ‘Entrepreneurship Concierge’ (see whose role in Stanford’s culture of collaboration is to ‘match students with a dizzying array of resources – from trustworthy mentors and potential investors to the half-dozen student clubs that focus on start-up creation.’ At its best, those who play this role have used their experience to develop a nose for generating fruitful contacts (like Heston Blumenthal with flavours).

          Most universities have formal learning programmes which include finance, marketing, legal and HR, and mentors can help students to draw on the most relevant of these.

Many budding entrepreneurs often use their time at university, as did Sir Stelios for Easyjet, to develop Business Plans, either in his case for a new business, or often in the case of family businesses to further develop their existing business. Developing a business plan is an iterative task that in reality extends into and beyond launch, in which vision and reality collide. The University of the West of England has evolved an electronically-based programme for helping students to develop their business plans, for which the experience of several people is probably essential (maybe with the help of a ‘leading mentor’), providing technical help, business help, and help in relation to the product offering.

It seems more than likely that universities (and perhaps science parks too) will very soon offer ‘Accelerators’ to leading potential entrepreneurs – ( – 13 week programmes designed to help develop business proposals into marketable propositions for up to a dozen teams at a time, programmes that contain all of the above and more (like YCombinator in the US and Springboard in the UK.) Springboard’s experience suggests that these may be able to be funded by angels (of whom the university may be one) in return for equity.

These invariably culminate in Pitching Sessions, at which these proto-businesses pitch their proposal to potential investors. Pitches can fail at many levels, but most frequently because their entrepreneurs do not identify user needs clearly enough. The art of pitching is itself taught (with varying degrees of success to judge by Dragons’ Den), and learned essentially by practice – another role for expert mentors.

Directors of Enterprise/Innovation in universities may well be able to mobilise support from their enterprising alumni and mentors to capitalise on this new tide of interest in entrepreneurship. 



John Whatmore                                                                        May 2012

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity

Nesta Associate


Helping some charities to articulate their problems

Helping some charities with their problems

      I spent a day last week on teleconferences with a number of charities, trying to help them to articulate a big problem of theirs – which they had agreed to submit to a ‘Troubleshooter Day’ – to be run by a big telecommunications corporate as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility work.

       As one might expect, the cuts feature big among these problems – how to find funds to compensate for them, often by earnings from social enterprises. Communications was another big topic – how to keep in touch with geographically widespread locations and with volunteers with their individualistic contributions. 

      They had found it extraordinarily difficult to express their problem on paper – its nature, its dimensions, its causes, its implications etc. They seemed either to be too close to it to be able to articulate it successfully or else too baffled by it.

      A small group of us had been put together by VolunteeringEngland, the charity whose mission is to encourage volunteering, that runs England’s Volunteer Centres. We sat round a speaker phone talking to two or three people at a time from each of the five charities, trying to get them to elucidate their issue to as to make it easier for the corporate’s Troubleshooter teams to come up with some useful ideas for those charities to help them to resolve their issues.

     All of them had indeed identified a persistent and important problem, and one that could be successfully tackled. But not all of them had found the nub of their problem: one was in reality a deeper and more general problem – not its huge and increasing deficit, but its very governance; another was more specific – not about buying new computers but about managing its use of existing communications networks. 

     What was common to all of these problems was that their problem-owners lacked contacts with people who had had experience of successfully dealing with this kind of problem. When we asked them if they could name anyone from whom they could usefully beg, borrow or steal, we drew a complete blank.

     Organising, shaping and running this Troubleshooting Day is proving to be very challenging: so many points of contact, so many different interests, such uncertain commitments by participants, such unclear issues, that it feels like flying though the clouds without any glimpse of the ground!

     One of the charities gave us a useful clue. It had had a period of very valuable ongoing contact with individuals in this corporate, and we began to wonder whether a valuable model might consist in attaching mentors to problem-owners for the duration of their problem (a time-scale some Boards have sometimes adopted) eg an experienced change leader for the charity with the enormous deficit; a communications manager for the charity with the communications issues. After a careful matching process and a suitable introduction, their modus operandi might consist in regular phone calls (once a week or once a month) and occasional meetings – over a pre-determined period (say six months, with the possibility of a short extension). If the mentor was part of a group of mentors, this would also make it possible to draw easily on related experience and on a wider range of contacts, as well as making it easier to change the primary mentor (if that were necessary.) 

     This role would be a very valuable and manageable way in which they could deploy their experience to make a practical contribution to charities.