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