Leaders of Incubators, Accelerators and Science Parks provide opportunities for their participants to learn from others – other innovators, creatives and mentors, as well as to reflect on their learnings. What makes for a good cocktail of support?
Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn is reported to have said that ‘Entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down’. Figuring out how to do things you have never done before is of the essence in innovation – from opening a new payment system or pitching to a potential customer to using a new IT system or a new form of chemical analysis: who and what can best help you to figure out how to do it?
Some programmes now include a preamble at which experts in a particular field present some of the issues in that field (eg healthcare/energy/ communication) that are of topical concern, widespread interest and substantial benefit – in the hope that participants will focus on such issues, even though they may not be easy-wins.
Many of the great creative minds of to-day have had mentors – among whose contributions are feed-back, advice and contacts. In early stages, feed-back – about the advantages, risks and disadvantages of ideas and concepts can help in their evolution. As an idea matures, advice about how to take it forward becomes increasingly relevant; and then contacts – with those who can help to implement it – suppliers, experts, customers – are essential.
A regular mentor, in whom you can confide, is like a life-support machine: part friend, part supervisor, part coach, part super-fine address book. Technical help will often be necessary in the development of the product, as from time to time will be advice and help with the development of one’s team; and marketing soon becomes an area that demands continuing attention. In a period of intensive development, mentoring needs will come and go like the wing-beats of a butterfly, sometimes even before its author is fully aware of them.
Working in close proximity, for example in incubators, accelerators and laboratories (and often meeting in the kitchen), provides opportunities to discover that someone else has just the knowledge or experience that you need right now! And it makes it easy to gather together people with different backgrounds, with whom to tackle knotty problems – a recipe which the new Crick Institute for biomedical science is espousing.
BT Labs runs ‘Hothouses’, some of one day’s duration, at which plans and progress for the next 30 days are evolved; and some of two or three days duration whose aim is to bring all relevant parties together to develop solutions to major issues (rather than continue with iterative work on a problem only later to discover insuperable objections.)
EPSRC and AHRC run Sandpits of up to a week’s duration which aim to identify major issues of strategic importance that are ripe for solution, as well as to form teams with a remit (and funding) to tackle them.
Many incubators have frequent visitors who make presentations – Tech City’s ‘Campus’ in Shoreditch will have as many as a couple every evening. Most popular are people who have ‘done it before’, (and especially those among the pantheon of heroic entrepreneurs and inventers). Visionaries, inventers and reformers, even eccentrics are often invited (Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio, IBM UK Labs) – in the hope that they may offer an idea that transfers, a technology that works in a different context or with a different effect, much as TRIZ does (Siemens). A high proportion of the problems put up on websites like Nine Sigma and Innocentive receive solutions from experts who have already solved them in other contexts. Among the visitors to EPSRC’s Sandpits are IT experts, ethicists and even poets. One of the explicit roles of the National Theatre’s Studio is that of curating creative collaborations – bringing together for example playwrights with people who resemble the characters about whom they are writing, as well as actors, directors and producers.
Carlsen, CEO of Stanford Research Institute required his scientists to pitch their project regularly to their fellow scientists. Sophia Antipolis in France is not the only incubator to enable its participants to get feed-back on their pitch from venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and bankers (and then to re-pitch their proposal). Carlsen’s rationale was that pitching reveals not only the strengths and weaknesses of one’s pitch, but also the strengths and weaknesses of the underlying proposal.
Watershed, Bristol requires everyone at its Friday meetings to talk about their progress and what they have learned in the past week, including their pivots – the changes they have made to their concepts, products and plans; and an edited version is then circulated on its intranet.
The emphasis of the curators of the various kinds of development programmes will no doubt depend on the objectives of the programme and the difficulty of the projects, and upon the capabilities of the participants and the progress of their plans.