DesignLondon, the Royal College of Art’s incubator – a remarkable pedagogical odyssey

With the intensive and sophisticated learning regime that it has developed, the RCA feels that it has a lot to give other incubators. But will it deliver on this? Nesta will undoubtedly expect it to do so.

         DesignLondon, the RCA’s four-year old incubator, has developed a carefully curated learning regime for those of its graduate students who seek to take the entrepreneurial route of trying to develop a new business. This incubator regime is in the nature of action-learning, and appears to be both at a very high level and outstandingly comprehensive.

         There is a two-and-a-half week training programme prior to selection and the RCA runs a number of networking events to help candidates to understand their own business roles and skills and to match up with appropriate team members; and the RCA handles contractual details and Articles of Association etc in order to relieve incubatees of this administration.

The RCA’s contributions consist of services and cash – including loans, though these are not as flexible as incubatees might like. Access to design, prototyping and testing facilities is the essence of the RCA’s contribution to its incubatees.

There are some visiting contacts, including RCA alumni, and one-to-ones [tutorials] with the ‘senior coach’ are part of the regime, as are panel days in which ‘everyone is sitting round the table’.

Exploring values is of the essence in the programme; routes to scaling is a topic; ‘benefits’ and ‘confidence limits’ are explored mathematically; Options Theory is considered; and time ratios help to sensitise students to prioritising. A large number of parameters about each project are logged on spreadsheets.

Annual investment evenings are held with a panel of investors (some of whom come back from one year to the next), for which short, sharp training is provided in pitching. Some incubatees are invited to return a year later when they may have a more solid proposal and better understanding of business.

The learning regime that DesignLondon has developed seems to have been aimed at providing its participants a taste-in-use of a wide variety of techniques for directing, controlling, assessing and making decisions about the progress of new businesses, to such a point that its recipients are would-be directors of new incubators. 

Over these four years, it has nurtured sixteen new businesses (‘all of the students very bright … and would succeed anywhere’). One estimate offered to me was that the RCA’s investment had made a good return for the RCA, but others pointed out that this ignored the substantial grants provided by Nesta.

DesignLondon now recognises that what it has developed ought to be made available more widely – to those who run incubators – to enable them to benefit from its experience. But there is a big question over whether it will deliver on this.

Nesta, I imagine, will expect to ensure that it does.


“Tax crackdown on company awaydays: don’t make it too much fun, advisers warn.” FT 23/24 June.

Memo: to all Tax Inspectors

From: Chief Inspector of Taxes

Subject: Corporate AwayDays as benefits in kind


It is becoming evident that the descriptions of corporate Awaydays are hiding activities which Inspectors should examine closely as possible benefits in kind. For example:

*      Introductory sessions with people like John 

        Cleese should be regarded as stand-up comedy

        rather than serious corporate analysis;

*      Personal therapy sessions are being disguised as

   what appear to be called SWOT analyses; and

*      Party games are being given pretentious titles

   like Team-building Exercises, Role-playing and 

       Thinking-outside-the-box, or in some cases even

       Strategy Sessions.

While sandwiches are a legitimate deductable expense, blinis, caviar or mangos should be treated as benefits in kind.

Second glasses of wine have been classed as benefits in kind; (water bottles should be examined as possible hiding places for Vodka or Gin.)

Descriptions of home work or ‘thinking time’ are so unquantifiable as to be totally unallowable.

In future, Inspectors will receive bonuses for disallowing one-third of all such claims.


Chief Inspector of Taxes



Making use of to-morrow’s IT

Google and Facebook announce new link: not only do to-morrow’s Googlespecs have an embedded camera and phone as well as internet access, but they also have an embedded RFID tag and a QR code tag. Your Googlespecs can ‘recognise’ other wearers and bring up their features and their Facebook, Twitter and Googlplus details on the lenses of your own Googlespecs.

Scene: Zak calls up Phin on his Googlespecs when he discovers that they are drawn to play against one another in the club golf competition.

Zak: I know we’ve met before but without my Googlespecs, I can’t think who your are.

Phin: I’ll just put my specs on then you’ll be able to see me, and my Facebook too. [Pause] There we are!

Zak: My goodness, so you’re off 21 handicap – according to your Facebook: that’ll make it a tough game for me! And I see you have been playing below your handicap. Shouldn’t they have brought your handicap down?

Phin: Oh, I put that stuff up onto my Friends and Family site just to impress!

Zak: I expect the Club Secretary has aleady been searching members’ websites about their about their handicaps.

Phin: But he’ll be searching my official Facebook Golf site then.

Zak: Hold on a minute, an ad has just appeared on my Googlespecs – for a golf ball – ha,ha! What a good joke!

Phin: What’s so funny?

Zak: Well, the joke is that the golf ball is right on the end of your nose! So, what is your true handicap?

Phin: Sorry, my credit is just running out: I’ll have to call you back.

Zak rings again. And I see from your Facebook site that you won the competition last year.

Phin: No, no, not at all … I think I must have picked up my wife’s Googlespecs by mistake – she’s a great player, you know,…wait a minute… [The connection goes down.]

Zak rings again. And that’s a pretty fine swing you show on your home page.

Phin: Oh, that’s not me, that’s a few frames of Ernie Else, the Open Champ that I put up just for fun.

Zak: Well, I just searched the club’s Accounts on Google – these new rules on transparency do change things, don’t they. And I read on page 172 that you haven’t paid your subscription this year, so I’ll be claiming a walk-over!

Two weeks later they are enjoying a whisky together at the bar, but both of them have left their Googlespecs behind.


'Adapt: why Success always starts with Failure' – Tim Harford

I’ve been reading Tim Harford, (the ‘Undercover Economist’s) new book:‘Adapt: why Success always starts with Failure’, and I’ve relished the insights that behavioural economics offers about the real reasons why people make the choices they do. Seek out and try new ideas, expecting some will fail; start small; solicit feed-back and learn from your mistakes are the valuable mantras he offers for anyone with a new business and for any organisation aiming to innovate successfully in this disruptive world of to-day. But failure is not just difficult to manage; in some contexts it is unacceptable.  

      Harford’s premise is that the world is too complex to make it possible to see into the future.  Identifying causes and effects is far from simple in complex situations, as the repeated failures of government support for emerging and failing industries testify. So how should one go about this innovation business?     

    Harford quotes a Russian-born engineer – Peter Pachinsky, whose principles he summarises thus:

1. Seek and try new ideas and new things, expecting some will fail.

2  When trying out something new, do it on a scale that is survivable; create safe spaces for failure and move forward in small steps.

3. Seek out feed-back, make sure you know when you have failed, and learn from your mistakes.

    ‘Fail early; fail often’ is the gist of this message. And its corrollary is: in unpredictable conditions, back a number of horses (or perhaps back the Bookmaker!). But the strategy more commonly followed in business in the face of uncertainty is to back only those projects with short odds, and to abandon anything else, thus closing down the range of possible innovations.

    And secondly, it pays to back good reputations more than backing your own judgement. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute backs people rather than projects (the Medical Research Council used to close down his laboratory when its head retired or died.) Not only did HHMI-funded researchers produce the most important, unusual and influential research, more highly-cited articles, and win more awards; but they also produced more failures!     

    Harford argues that actual observation of what happens on the ground – trial-and-error – and ‘knowledge of the particular circumstance of time and place’ is the best way to advance. Create as many separate experiments as possible, even if they appear to embody contradictory views on what might work; and encourage some long-shot experiments, even though failure is likely, because the rewards are so great. Solutions to one problem often unlock another, and different strategies may combine to create entirely new possibilities. 

    There is no better way of proving a case than through the use of randomised trials, Harford avers, and few more effective methods than stratified trials – in which an approach is used in a number of similar but slightly different forms (with different methods of evaluation ) – because solutions effective in one situation often need adapting for others. 

    But it is never easy to get untainted feed-back from trials: observing outcomes requires care, open-ness and perceptiveness, and often persistence; and too many people in reporting chains depend upon the reporting of success. More like action-research than randomised trials, it often involves a series of small steps (from which learning from the latest experiment may get passed round on the grapevine.) Moreover, cause and effect are not necessarily easy to identify.

    With a story about how the choreographer Twyla Tharp rescued a show that was about to bomb, Harford identifies important elements in the process of failure: being willing to fail; finding space in which to fail; acknowledging failure; and reacting to failure. Not acknowledging failure can be the result of simple denial – because it damages one’s self-belief; one can convince oneself that the mistake doesn’t matter; or simply re-interpret failure as success; and failure can influence one’s judgment (see it in ‘Deal, no deal’!). We need a validation squad, he suggests: friends who will tell you how it is, take out the venom, identify what needs fixing – ‘people with good judgement in other parts of their lives who care about you and will give you their honest opinion with no strings attached’ (Twyla Tharp).

     There are indeed some roles in which to make a mistake is unforgivable, among them those of pilot, doctor and judge; and many where ‘success’ is what is expected, among them, minister of state, police officer and CEO. The ability to adapt takes real courage, concludes Harford, at other times happy self-delusion, but the process of experimenting and correcting mistakes can be more liberating than the mistakes themselves are crushing, even though at the time we so often feel that the reverse is true. And it should be added that it requires a Champion and Shielder to argue your case and to protect you.



Might an Olympic swimmer’s ideas for cross-training suggest how to make inter-disciplinary and inter-business working more effective?

There are a number of examples of successful ideas emanating from intriguing inter-disciplinary partnerships, but finding useful partners seems more like an exercise in progressive trial-and-error than a logical process. So is speed-dating the best way of helping young businesses to get inspiration from one another in science parks, incubators and accelerators? 

It is easier to see that inter-disciplinary partnership is going to be important in some projects than it is to see who the partners should be.

Projects in areas like ageing, climate change or green technology are of their essence inter-disciplinary, but partnering research into how law firms operate with Zoologists (Gillian Tett in the Financial Times Magazine section 21.7.12) might seem to pre-suppose given kinds of findings. I am intrigued with exploring the nature of the vision that is necessary to make inter-disciplinary projects successful.

In a recent interview, a top Olympic swimmer mentioned that he had worked with kick-boxers – as embodying controlled aggression, with rock climbers – as developing muscles in the upper body, and with ballet dancers – for the sensitivity to their own bodies. These links seem to result from analysing what could enable the swimmer to perform significantly better with an understanding of other fields in which that may be a similar objective.

A similar process can be seen in other cross-disciplinary projects.

British Airways used often to pay for a day of his/her time to a specialist from a different field in order to get new perspectives on old problems. On one occasion, faced with the problem of how to stop grease trails developing along the aisle floor-covering from the galley of an aircraft, they invited an expert on the lay-out and equipping of surgical theatres to help them.

         A group of cardiac surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital, concerned at the dangers involved when an infant was handed over from Surgery to Intensive Care because monitoring and feed lines had to be disconnected and new ones re-connected, asked Maclaren, the Formula One racing company, to help them because of their expertise in the pit stop.

         First Great Western wanted to develop new products, and invited a Cabin Service Director from British Airways to their session along with specialists in Stress Relief, in Yoga and in NLP – with the result that the ideas for new products had a much broader scope than otherwise.

         The skills involved in making these connections seem to consist in knowing where best to find comparable operations that might produce fruitful insights. York University has had philosophers work with its epidemiologists – to see how understandings of causation might help the latter. The Professor of English has worked with a big pharma – inter alia on the role of trust – a project subsequently taken forward with 3-year funding from the Wellcome Foundation. Another department has worked with the European Space Agency – on issues to do with safety; and environmentalists have worked with lawyers – on issues of climate change. (At one workshop, a computer project was enabled by actors acting out how this would play out with users.)

         Professor Tom Inns at Dundee University has specialised in inter-disciplinary working. Choreography and theatres are metaphors central to his thinking; and he is interested in spaces, props, (loose) scripts, characters etc; and play, ownership and structure are concepts that would be part of his design-led approach. He makes use of co-experience activities as a source of ideas. He likes taking methods out of the areas in which they are commonly used and turning them into 3D realities or happenings, with the aim of making tacit information explicit.

         What seems to mark these exercises is an experimental approach – trying out several approaches and seeing what happens. For example at York University one approach has been to take an abstract theme, and to start by having expert speakers from several different depart-ments or disciplines (including leading experts from worldwide), then allowing the discussions to go where they will.

Some call the game one of ‘silo busing’, and Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab calls it ‘anti-disciplinary’ rather than ‘inter-disciplinary’. At all events, it would seem to be a field in which simile, metaphor and analogy have a big part to play. But whether research will show that successful lawyers turn out to behave like Meerkats is another question. 




A new accelerator with a different slant: EntrepreneurFirst

A new, highly-sponsored* programme is attempting to produce better start-up teams to generate hi-tech IT businesses – by means of a series of escalating team-building events prior to its 13-week programme, which will culminate in an event enabling some teams to raise funding for their future and some individuals to use their skills in other start-ups. 

In December last year, 425 applicants responded online. After two interviews, one with the project’s managers (two people previously at McKinsey, and now running the start-up ‘EntrepreneurFirst’) and one with a pair of investors and entrepreneurs (32 of whom gave their time over 4 days). 33 people (some of whom had already been offered a job out of university) were selected to join this initiative. Entrepreneur-First is a year-long programme of development and support – at no cost to participants, (that seeks no equity,) as it provides no financial support; and is funded by corporate partnership.

Over the course of the summer, they have participated in team building selection and development days, including a 2-day session in which three teams of 5 had to make a 3-minute film on a theme around the Year 2022, and then get as many people as possible to view it – all in two days. The theme of one was that the world would become Apple-ised and another was of interviews with startup founders for this programme.

Two months later, when in early August their university exams were over, they had a fortnight’s residential bootcamp, where they received training and support from entrepreneur mentors on how to build a lean startup. This also required them to test their early startup ideas with customers – a task designed to help understand product communications and the difficulty of getting heard!

The initial part of the programme is a13-week  intense accelerator in September, where they have no more than a desk, a chair and wi-fi provided, and they work alongside one another in simple offices in London. Every Friday everyone participates in a catch-up session, where each team gives an up-date on their progress, there are learning sessions with subject experts, and a presentation by someone well-known for having successfully done it before. And they are provided with a mentor whom they meet weekly; and every two weeks with ‘carousel mentoring’ sessions, in which they have 20 minutes with a series of mentors.

During the 13-week period, they have three or four sessions with venture capital businesses at which each team makes a 2-minute pitch, to which they are offered feed-back.

In December, the teams will be provided with an opportunity to pitch for further funding for their embryonic business, mainly to angels but also to one or two venture capital companies, and those for whom this is not right will be helped to find a role in other start-ups.

  *The sponsors are Microsoft, Silicon Valley Bank, McKinsey, The City of London and Experia 






An initiative with several new twists on the business ‘Accelerator’

A competition is being run by a start-up to find a new start-up that will itself be ground-breaking in their industry, and will be provided with substantial launch-funding, showered with contacts and mentors/advisers – all in the glare of publicity. 

Some 1,500 applicants from 60 countries applied and have been whittled down to three, who are now to have an hour in which to pitch to a typical customer of the future. The finalists apparently must show how that customer can use digital and social media and video content; and the winners will receive launch-funding of £100k. The competition is heavily sponsored, and evidently the subject of successful publicity – in, you have guessed it, the advertising industry!

The competition has been launched  by a young advertising agency 

(see based at London’s Silicon Roundabout, a totem pole to which innovative businesses have been attracted.

The contest was unveiled by the Prime Minister and featured in the Times, and the progress of the competition can be followed blow by blow on the Times’s website and on Twitter.

The short-listed three are: a pair who ‘grew up with the web’, and met at the Manchester digital-media incubator Hyper-island, off–shoot of a Swedish initiative; an anonymous pair from a leading independent agency, all ready to set up a new agency; and an individual who has already built an innovative agency who believes that the entrepreneurial energy of start-ups is well suited to the fast-changing digital world, and who is seeking to create a business with a small and agile model.

This is an initiative that is using the publicity value itself of all that the ‘accelerator’ offers in an attempt to give a head-start launch to the winner of its competition.




A competition is being run by a start-up to find a new start-up that will itself be ground-breaking in their industry, and will be provided with substantial launch-funding, showered with contacts and mentors/advisers – all in the glare of publicity. 

An initiative with several new twists on the business ‘Accelerator’