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.

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