Watering Holes – the BBC's creativity labs

For a time, the BBC used an approach borrowed from Stanford Research Institute for looking for ideas for new programmes

 At one stage, a staff survey in the BBC revealed that many people felt that the Corporation did not value their creativity. As a result of a visit to Stanford Research Institute, the BBC took one aspect of SRI’s approach and used it for the purpose of developing ideas for new programmes into fully-fledged proposals.

The BBC’s Watering Holes brought together, alongside the idea’s originator, producers/directors, audience experts, commissioning agents, marketing people etc, with the aim of turning the idea into a mature proposal in which its market was more clearly identified, the potential programme more robust, and its issues more clearly addressed, so that it was ready to be pitched to those in the BBC who commissioned programmes.

At one stage, the manager of this exercise was touring parts of the UK running Creativity Labs in which people selected for their promising ideas were invited to participate in a week’s Watering Hole. In practice, while some of these ideas have indeed evolved into broadcast programmes, it seems that more of to-day’s programmes have evolved from or translate out of previous significant successes, to the exclusion of radical innovations; and the BBC discontinued this exercise.





I visit a uniquely successful Open Innovation incubator – in the Arts

If innovation is of the essence to the performing arts, the ’Studio’ of the National Theatre – which has a unique reputation as a powerhouse of creativity and innovation – seems to be a playground of collaborative experimentation – like no other. Seemingly best described as a semi-curated space for creative collaboration, by artfully managing to bring together those who might in some way contribute to one another, it readily attracts people who can benefit from the simple safe spaces that it offers in which to experiment, ‘to dream, to work, to sweat over ideas that aren’t ready and to hone stuff that is nearly there’ – a vibrant, active, welcoming place for unexpected and interesting things to happen for a wide range of artists in the nation’s performing arts. 

  The National Theatre’s Studio is a building beside the Old Vic that used to be the latter’s paintframe, but is now a unique powerhouse for original work in the performing arts in the UK. It was described to me as a ‘development house’, like a semi-curated playground for people whose ideas look to the curators as if they might burgeon there, whose essential ingredients are ideas, potential and space.

Nicholas Hytner describes it thus: ‘The Studio is the National Theatre’s engine room. It’s also an irreplaceable resource for the whole of British theatre. Actors, directors, theatre-makers of all sorts – and above all writers – use it to dream, to work, to sweat over ideas that aren’t ready and to hone stuff that is nearly there’; and it does so ‘under the radar’, where there is no explicit objective or goal, thus allowing them ‘to fail’ – from which further development, the next idea, or the next project might emerge. 

About a third of its work is for the NT, a third for the wider theatre sector across the UK, and the remaining third on ideas that seem to have a future but have not yet found it. And its work encompasses people who play most if not all of the roles in theatre, from actors to writers, composers, designers, directors and producers and even including researchers and historians.

Primarily it is about creativity via collaboration and collaborative experience. Some of what happens in the Studio takes the form of semi-curated collaborations (eg writer with composer, chef with actor, established writer with abstract performance artists).

The core staff – of under ten people, each with dramatically different backgrounds and experience are above all else interacters and matchmakers, ‘playfully curious’, and lateral thinkers with associative minds. They are very active in going out and seeing work, to learn about everything that is new in the arts world, that seems to have potential and that might succumb to collaborative development.

And from the knowledge that they acquire and from their considerable experience, they invite people to get in touch and pitch their needs – individuals, groups, even organisations that have open minds and collaborative cultures, with a view to their spending time in the studio – often in unlikely and unpredictable pairings – just to see what happens from their workings together, or to develop some work-in-progress. 

These opportunities for experimentation are much sought after and the pressure for space is considerable, putting heavy responsibility on the expertise and experience of the staff for making decisions about the allocation of spaces. Directors, designers and actors are readily attracted the 500 yards from the NT itself often just to draw inspiration from or to contribute to the playful atmosphere that the Studio exudes (everyone gets the same daily fee.)

The Studio contains two separate performance studios, the smaller of which is furnished with digital technology and comprehensive rig, and for movement, but without the prospect of much scenery; and is more suited to working on ideas and concepts. The second is larger and more like a theatre space where ideas for theatre are experimented with in terms of how they might be portrayed and how they come over. The third space is generally used for reading scripts aloud (although the room is currently being used as the ‘War Horse’ production office, a ground-breaking production that was substantially developed at the Studio.) These spaces are used primarily by writers, directors and producers trying out their ideas about something, simply to see what happens if you do it this way or that – without any particular goal; and thus, the failure to make it work is neither here nor there, except as perhaps representing a milestone in progress, from which a new problem or opportunity emerges.

There are other spaces – of various sizes: a smaller room, currently being used for two weeks by a small young group with a new idea but no home base in which to work it out together; and yet smaller ones (with no ornamentation – Peter Brooke’s The Empty Space being a universally pervasive theme) – one currently occupied for several weeks by a writer, and another by an historian writing a treatise on Gender in the Theatre. And then a further section of the building houses the Archive of the National Theatre. There is a small and carefully tended roof garden, described as a ‘thinking space’. And there are office-type rooms, meeting rooms, break-out rooms, dressing rooms and music rooms.

On the ground floor, there is a kitchen and a Green Room, and an area where every Thursday sees a significant but totally informal joining together – to eat lunch and to talk, when some group will show a performance-in–progress, which will be followed by lively discussion and comment, (and which will often spark new projects).

The Studio also has an educational role. It runs a programme for Staff Directors (one of whom is attached to one of the three NT theatres) to provide them with the opportunity to learn craft from an NT director, as well as occasionally to develop a project of their own. And there is an annual two-week course for some twenty emerging directors, chosen on the basis of recent work that the staff members have seen, in which specific experts contribute to their development, and which helps them to benefit from meeting their peers. And the Studio works in this context with the individual departments at the NT (Literary/Casting/Music etc)

As to the future, the closure for six months of the Cottesloe Theatre, the smallest of the NTs three spaces, has led to an opportunity to use the Square – the space formed by the L-shape of the National Theatre – for performances of a different kind. In temporary buildings, they will be smaller, shorter runs, and less dependent on scenery and technology, and hence simpler and more experimental, and that might carry over into the Cottesloe itself. As such, they take a place in the current fashion for performance art that pervades many genres, inspired in part perhaps by the overbearing developments in personal communication.

       With many champions, the Studio has a unique position among a small number of discreet organisations that play a similar role (eg Arts Admin and Metal), but none so comprehensively or so egregiously.

Related posts:

Incubators in the Arts (2011) see http://goo.gl/hldCr

Watering Holes – the BBC’s creativity labs (2010), see http://goo.gl/9l2ov


Copyright 2012 John Whatmore


Three pieces of Pixie Dust: Bethnal Green Ventures 'accelerates' six new social enterprises

The workings of Accelerators may tell us something more general about how better to help to turn ideas into innovations: what is the Pixie Dust?

In the more effective Accelerators, the mentoring is more intensive and more pervasive than it is for example in most incubators; in some accelerators (this one among them), the proximity and interactions between the teams are much closer (‘the kitchen a vital place’); and the pressure to deliver within the given period something of value is the third significant piece of Pixie Dust.

But what about leadership? Empathy, experience, contacts with top people who have ‘done it before’, willingness to force issues, regular meetings and support, and ‘getting people to interact on their own terms’ – all of this in a quietly understated style (‘self-effacing facilitation’): probably a rare collection of skills. 

 After ten weeks of its thirteen week programme, the six social enterprise teams selected by Bethnal Green Ventures all looked likely to make it; and that would be an outstanding success. With Demo Day only three weeks away, all of them (‘fingers crossed’) looked as though they had either positive cash flows from customers, contracts in place or potential deals that would ensure that they could move on to their next stage and with good prospects. And they did make it.

 So what might have been the magic ingredients that made this Accelerator so successful? Paul Miller, its Director, hints at three things: the mentoring, the space, and the entrepreneurial culture that surrounds it.

 The philosophy around mentoring has changed dramatically. There are now three strands to it. Firstly Paul has weekly progress tutorials with each team – called ‘Office Hours’. Secondly, incubatees, who have met the forty odd mentors at an introductory meeting, can e-mail them about their needs, and make arrangements to meet those who indicate that they may be able to help, for example with advice or contacts. And thirdly, there is a panel of mentors at Google with whom incubatees can make online bookings any Friday evening.

 As to space, the Accelerator occupies a floor of a building called the Campus in Tech City in London. The space, designed by Google, consists of a compact area of desks and chairs, all with good broadband connections, two meeting rooms and an event space, each divided by glass partitions from the others. Beside the entrance door, the kitchen occupies a vital position.

 Every Monday night, as at YCombinator in Silicon Valley, there is a dinner and a speaker, but the whole building throbs with a pervasive intensity. In addition to Bethnal Green Ventures, two other floors house other incubators (one of them Seedcamp); then on the ground floor, the ‘Working Space’ is a cafe cum public hot-space area – with hardly a spare seat when I visited. And in the basement is an event area of about 100 seats; and perhaps two ‘events’ take place there every evening – essentially with people who have ‘done it before’, or who have special expertise or experience, or have inspiring tales to tell.

 Whether it is cookery, artistry or alchemy, it does seem to be turning ideas into social gold!

 Bethnal Green Ventures was a 13-week programme designed to help the participants to develop innovative enterprises that bring social benefits. With the teams all working together side by side, their regime consisted of an afternoon and evening meeting one day per week, with lectures and discussions, with a weekly discussion with the programme director. At the end of the period, BGV arranged a pitching session with its contacts, that would raise further funds to take on projects to a future life. Each participant received £6.5k for the 3-month period of the camp – enough to cover board and lodging. The programme was funded by Nesta. See http://goo.gl/MBClN


A Social Enterprise Seed Camp

Bethnal Green Ventures [BGV] is a unique new venture of Social Innovation Camps, itself a commercial social enterprise started several years ago by two individuals, and now offering a variety of short accelerator-type programmes (of up to a week long) of social camps and in a number of different countries. Comparable ventures only exist in Chicago and in India.

BGV is now just starting a second round of 13-week accelerators – for technology-based social ventures in the UK. The first round, started last year, focused on enterprises that would support the elderly – by pairing older people with younger people. It attracted 150 responses, out of which six were selected for ‘investment’. None have gone on to attract a round of Series A investment; but one of these has gone on to maintain a commercial existence – which has a unique technology being used by a developing a cadre of social entrepreneurs who can manage its applications through to commercialisation.

This year, 200 applicants are expected, from which 8 to 10 will be chosen for ‘investment’. This investment covers the payment to each participant of £6.5k 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 lectures and discussions. There is also a 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. There are no mentors, because it is felt that their contribution would be too heavy-handed – in the situation of these businesses whose essence is trying to evolve innovative enterprises that bring social benefits. 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. Applications are taken in April for a programme which will run from July to September, enabling participants to pitch for ongoing funds well before the Christmas break.

Participants are selected for their passion in relation to their objectives, not because of their ideas. Indeed the accelerator process is designed to enable them to experiment by exploring for what will work in social terms.

The costs of this second venture are expected to total £150k, or which £110k is the cost of board and lodging for the participants, and the remaining £40 is to cover the costs of running the scheme. This total is expected to be covered as to £100k by a grant from Nesta, and the remaining £50k by contributions from three angels. BGV will take a 7% stake in each business for a nominal charge of £15,000 (putting a nominal value on each business of £250k).

This project is seen by Social Innovation Camps 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, of which 7% would return £70,000 to BGV.

(See http://bethnalgreenventures.com/)

 The Centre for Leadership in Creativity, London                                    February 2012 



BioCity – an Incubator fed by its own Bootcamp and its own Accelerator

For its success in turning ideas into innovations – in Life Sciences, BioCity’s incubator is fed by its own Bootcamp and its own Accelerator

BioCity, a public/private enterprise Incubator in Nottingham, has grown opportunistically and organically over the last ten years to support the evolving changes in the life science industry; and has plans to expand its contribution further. 

BioCity was founded in 2003 on what was the Boots R&D site in Nottingham, when BASF took it over, managed it for two years and then gifted it to Nottingham Trent University, at which point it was run jointly by the University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University and the East Midlands Development Authority. It is managed by a Board of eight members and Glenn Crockett has been its Director since the outset – previously Head of Biotech Practice at Ernst and Young, and with a DPhil in Immunology.

Grants for refurbishment of £9mn were provided by EMDA and by the European Development Fund and initial running costs were covered by a university loan of £800,000. It took two and a half years to break even and it now operates with a reasonable surplus. While 450 people were made redundant on the closure of Boots R&D, there are now 600 people on the site (and some who have already moved on), and perhaps a total of 800 employed in all as a result of these developments.

A pipeline of businesses was developed gradually for the site, based on the philosophy of helping companies to succeed by providing them with space and services, but also with support.

For the last five years, BioCity has run – Wednesday to Friday – an annual 3-day bootcamp for aspiring businesses, consisting partly in learning and mostly in lots of opportunities for people to test their ideas. These have been run by three senior people in Biocity, six people from outside, and contacts available with some 40 people available as mentors, all of them working in life sciences. In 2010, when Astrazeneca closed a local site, the Bootcamp generated 12 new businesses for the site, and in the last quarter of 2011 it produced another dozen.

Incubatees, when they have an implementable or fundable proposition, can then pitch for further period of structured support – on a one-to-one basis (though a second person may also be brought in) for six to nine months (the period made clear at the outset). People with their own day jobs or part-time work many of whom have experience (and other clients) in Life Sciences, are made available – to provide guidance and challenge, offering different perspectives, getting the participants to challenge the market, to look for revenue sources, to make a business plan, and to iterate that plan; teaching about investors and shareholdings, helping them to pull together a package for potential investors, and to handle possible due diligence; and then possibly but not always taking a board seat.

In addition to the life science businesses, active steps were taken to bring onto the site businesses with expertise that was relevant to these young businesses, such as in IP, finance, PR etc, so that their advice would be readily available on tap. 

Investment in these businesses has been provided by the 2-year old Mobius Investment Fund, which plans to invest up to £500k, and matching funds have been provided by the City Council; and these have been leveraged by Angels approximately 6:1. Initial tranches of investment have been of the order of £25-50k, but there is an emerging need for tranches of up to £200k, which falls in a gap between the scope of existing investment funds.

In addition to the 73 businesses in the incubator, there is a small hot desk area, and people on adjacent desks have on several occasions paired up; and there is a small group of virtual tenants, who have all the benefits of the physical tenants, but no office; and there is a café which is used for informal meetings and lunches. And there is a big stairwell which provides a ready opportunity to meet many of the occupants!

There are regular events – of many sorts: five-a-side football, golf club meetings, Christian groups, business lunches with invitees – finishing with a discussion of one person’s problem; there are events where medical conditions are the subject of discussion; and every few months, there are no-agenda curry evenings – for CEOs.

Under consideration is a 13-week programme for people who are already self-earning and are interested in being involved in a life sciences business; and an application has been made for a grant from European Funds to start this.

Among successes have been R5 Pharma, a contract formulation and early-stage manufacturing company that started life in the incubator, that has made a 40 times return for its investors; and Sygnature Discovery, another successstory.        

Around half of all life science start-ups are service based, and it is felt that these will overtake the jobs lost as big pharma has closed its research sites. The expectation is that the UK life science industry will increasingly be dominated by businesses providing discovery and development services, with a lot of that activity being undertaken in a more commercial manner with our universities. Drug discovery and new therapeutic businesses will still be created with a small number obtaining greater levels of investment from just a handful of specialist investors. And a larger slice of that funding is expected to come from China and the East.

After very careful analysis of appropriate opportunities, it has been decided to attempt to start a similar operation in Scotland, where there appear to be as many active and thriving life science companies. A site has been acquired, with ample space and a considerable amount of equipment left behind by the former occupant; and there are already 10 companies based there. A CEO is in course of being appointed; and the proposal is to make use of a professional fund manager and to seek funds from the Wellcome Trust, Capital Growth Fund and Pension Funds.


Incubators are becoming more sector specific; and more tightly managed

New Directions for Innovation 
Incubators become more sector specific – a huge new bioscience incubator is born at GSK, and the Cabinet Office launches a £10mn fund for Social Enterprise Incubators; and more tightly managed – with novel forms of ‘accelerator’; and the first corporate to run incubators as a continuing series of accelerators, and on a global basis (see item 1 below).

Applied Creativity
An E-/Bulletin from
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity
Edited by John Whatmore
Nesta Associate               
September    2012

*      I visit perhaps the biggest business ‘accelerator’ in the world and ask
        what it does and how it does it.

*     Harwell’s Incubator spaces are developing fast

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

*      McKinsey (and others) support a new accelerator with a different

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

*      I’ve been reading Tim Harford, (the ‘Undercover Economist’s) new
        book:’Adapt: why Success always starts with Failure’

*    Making use of to-morrow’s IT

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

                                    *                        *                        *

I visit perhaps the biggest business ‘accelerator’ in the world and ask what it does and how it does it.
Telefonica, an international telephony company, comparable in size to Vodafone, and owner of O2 among other international businesses, has committed itself to establishing an international network of the latest form of incubator – out of concern that it was becoming dependent on Silicon Valley for it new products and at the lack of available support for the growing number of innovative start-ups in South America.
London’s Wayra Academy is its tenth such accelerator, and its largest so far; and after London, three more will open in Europe. Wayra claims to have had some 12,500 project proposals for places in its academies, and to have started 172 new businesses from its global accelerators so far. And I ask what are the advantages and the disadvantages of size.
The generous terms are likely to have attracted high quality candidates. Both the teaching and the learning from one another will be more diffuse than in smaller ‘accelerators’; and the mentoring will be more difficult to manage; but the big throughput and the possible benefits to the sponsor will be enhanced, though the investment is substantial.http://goo.gl/3VP7P)

Harwell’s Incubator spaces are developing fast
The new European Space Agency Incubator at Harwell has yet to establish itself as a new-business community. It has available outstanding technical support in the shape of a number of world-class scientific organisations on the site; and it provides generous funding for technical support. But its business support is limiting: it provides no business mentoring; it provides little business advice – there is little call for it; and channels to access for venture funding are at present small in scale. (http://goo.gl/AtY5X)

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 (advertising), and will be provided with substantial launch-funding, showered with contacts and mentors/advisers – all in the glare of publicity. http://goo.gl/uDYDg

McKinsey (and others) support a new accelerator with a different slant
A new accelerator 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. (http://goo.gl/CpFpH)

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? http://goo.gl/nqezV

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. http://goo.gl/YyHlW

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.

“Tax crackdown on company awaydays: don’t make it too much fun, advisers warn.” FT 23/24June.
 Memo: to all Tax Inspectors
From: Chief Inspector of Taxes
Subject: Corporate AwayDays as benefits in kind

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity (a ‘virus for creativity’) carries out research and provides consultancy and peer-to-peer learning for organisations where creativity and innovation are vital.

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity          138 Iffley Road,London W6 OPE           
Tel/fax: 020 8748 2553                          E-mail:  john.whatmore@btinternet.com