Managing Accelerators – the latest developments


Managing Accelerators

At a recent Workshop I ran with people involved in Accelerators, it was clear that Accelerators are becoming more institutionalised. They are no longer one-offs, they are part of continuing programmes; they are working with more established entrepreneur ‘teams’; Accelerators are no longer being managed by just one or two individuals but by teams; and they are involving a wider cohort of followers. Moreover they are developing fast.

Choosing candidates is becoming a more sophisticated process (see also ‘Accelerators getting more choosy and more targeted’ Many Accelerators now filter their candidates through some form of short bootcamp or hackathon (eg of a couple of days, see also ‘Mini ‘Accelerators’ go global’  Are teams looking to achieve big changes – do they have big ambitions. Are the members of teams well matched among themselves and in relation to the task and its context; has the team evidence of working well together. Are they willing to evolve, and are they amenable to the Accelerator’s regime; and are they complementary to other teams in their cohort. Or even, as in theatre, can team members find an aspect of themselves that may just be useful (agitator, mediator?)

Most facilitators see themselves as highly flexible – at one moment challenging participants, at another suggesting ways to do something, at another moving chairs; but most valuably introducing participants to people who can help them with to-day’s

problem. One programme facilitator told us of the four questions that the leaders ask of participants each week:

1.            What have you done this week?

2.            What are you trying to do?

3.            What do you need help with?

4.            What have you learned?

However, it was also clear that they always feel stretched. (A straw poll at this Workshop revealed that the ratio of programme leaders to (individual) participants was about 1:15 i.e about one for every five teams.)

Leaders of Accelerators are finding that their various roles as producers/directors/leaders/facilitators give them too little time with individuals and their teams. Consequently they are enlisting the help of mentors, potential partners, investors and customers in the support roles that they might have carried out themselves, and in the process helping their teams to deliver propositions that confront real needs and so have better prospects.

Ways forward include annexing the help of people or organisations related to the programme in question: seeking sponsors and mentors from the industry or sector to which the programme is related (including potential customers and potential investors); getting mentors to help with the selection of candidates, find useable contacts, and to manage the mentor programme; and getting them to provide speakers, coaches and personal mentors.

Two of the most frequently mentioned roles for the leaders of Accelerators are: that of encouraging teams to desist from continuing to develop their brainchild – their new product, and to find, and get it in front of potential customers – to shift from what they are comfortable in doing onto discovering what actual needs their new product or service might meet. And secondly, encouraging teams to shift their concept in response to evidence of customer needs (ie to pivot).

Accelerator programmes are clearly evolving fast: as one Workshop participant said: we try to re-invent ourselves every week.





Level39, Canary Wharf – a throbbing new Innovation Centre


This unique tailor-made innovation eco-system has been carefully designed to meet the varied needs of those who are looking for innovations and those who are seeking to develop them in this part of London; and to bring them together in successful collaborations. What it does and how it does it might have some useful lessons for all those involved in innovationism.

With a simple remit – the development of the area (Canary Wharf) – Level39, 1 Canada Square, opened by Boris Johnson in March of 2013 and headed up by Eric van der Kliej – formerly CEO of Tech City, has quickly become a lightning conductor for those looking for innovations and those with innovations to offer in the kinds of businesses in this area.

Creating the connections and providing a ‘connectious’ space is what its Ideaspace is about – providing space where ideas can be found, developed and connected – without being overwhelmed by the legacy of any corporate culture.

Among its early work was the hosting of the Accenture-backed Fintech Innovation Lab London, a 13-week Accelerator in which a dozen of Canary Wharf’s big banks participated. Seven SMEs – drawn from all over the world – with innovative technologies of potential value to the banks, were housed at Level 39 and provided with a ‘chaperone’ from each of the banks to help them find their way around the labyrinth of people with buying interests and requirements in the bank.

Level39 is now hosting a number of other innovation and acceleration programmes – created by ‘Pivotal Innovations’ which provides custom-designed programmes for corporations and governments looking to innovate and grow.

One of these is the Future Cities ‘Catapult’ Centre (supported by the Technology Strategy Board), which in partnership with Pivotal Innovations is convening cross-sector dialogues (starting with executive breakfasts) with key stakeholders and thought leaders – in finance, real estate, industry and government. The debates will explore viable solutions including critical issues in financing future cities.  They will explore models (eg Rio de Janeiro, Portland Oregon, Songdo in South Korea) and will ask what will interconnected, high-tech, smart cities be like. What new kinds of partnerships might be needed? What investment models might be called into existence? And what enabling policies might make it all happen?

Dassault Systemes, Europe’s second largest software company, has chosen to partner with Level39 and Pivotal Innovations as it expands its strategic focus on financial services in the UK. Its 3D FinTech Challenge 2013 ( invites startups to develop solutions for the visualisation of client data in financial services, as a way to condense and simplify such data, such as capital exposure, risk and identity, of which it is often difficult to get a clear perspective, into “single views”, which can be readily understood and acted on. This collaboration too has involved a series of breakfasts with senior executives from London’s banking and insurance industries. Dassault is also showcasing some of its current technology at Level39, such as 3D visualisations of cities like London and Paris on giant touchscreen display units, as an innovative way of presenting information

Designed by Gensler, who also designed Google’s and Facebook’s offices, Level39 has a very wide variety of spaces. It has attracted early-stage businesses eg in retail and financial technology, to take small scale spaces – both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs – because of its unique ‘connectious’environment. It has 77 drop-in desk spaces, in all sorts of configurations – either for individuals or for startups – most of those startups already post-revenue.

It also has spaces that are specially tailored for innovationism: there are four ‘Sandboxes’ – for Hackathons, for cafeteria-style meetings, for board meetings or discussions, and for presentations, as well as a superb conference room – all with great views over Canary Wharf. Facebook recently held a 48-hr Hackathon in one Sandbox; and the local banks recently held one whose aim was to test their security systems – by trying to hack into each other’s!

It has a cafeteria area with its unique iPad controlled coffee machine; and a Club Lounge will open shortly – for meals, where you can meet and entertain guests (and where you can get a discount if you also agree to commit a certain amount of time to mentoring.)

So what is its secret? In addition to the spaces, perhaps its most valuable asset is Pivotal Innovation’s capabilities in generating and curating provocative innovation events and programmes; and its ability to bring together people with common interests and purposes but who don’t yet know one another.

Its extraordinarily rapid growth (it will shortly open more drop-in spaces on Level 42) and its vibrancy suggest that it has some magic that might be of interest to other cities, like Bristol, Manchester or Liverpool; to other retail centres like Blue Water, Brent Cross or the Airports; to other clusters like the Thames Corridor, Science Parks or Dundee as a centre of the games industry; or even to the NHS or the MoD.

Managing Bubbles – a new role


The government would like to discourage ‘bubbles’ caused by overheating, but to encourage others where they are the green shoots of the future. How can they do so?

It was undoubtedly confidence in the future that drove much of the investment that led to the booms of the 1900s – in property, mining, transport and energy. And perhaps it is the volatility of to-day’s markets that has sapped confidence and inhibits investment to-day.

Recent lack of confidence in the growth of the economy as a whole has undoubtedly hampered the development of new technologies, including those with more obvious futures, as it has investment and innovation in the UK.

Global interdependency, short-termism and news mania may account for some of this volatility, but if sentiment, fashion and beliefs can carry more weight than facts and figures, whose role is it to manage them; and how should they do it?

There is nothing traders like Warren Buffet appreciate more than volatility, and the trading of assets has become big business, as has that of their derivatives (and disproportionately so). Markets, they say, are driven by sentiment, but housing and construction ‘bubbles’ have almost overwhelmed entire economies, with the result that bubbles of all kind – as inappropriate sentiments – have become of major concern to governments.

Values and preferences have become more influential in the economy. The Thatcher era removed swathes of the economy from state control and enhanced competition, leaving the UK a more competitive economy than many others in the world. In turn this has made it more subject to the vagaries of markets, elevating fashion and taste to new heights of interest, and with them advertising’s power.

If sentiment, values and beliefs have become more important determinants of our lives, how is government reacting to this change?

While government policies have been about traditional issues, such as equality and fairness, freedom, economic growth, and the location of government power, news management and public relations have become of increasing importance.

We continue to value free speech and the dispersal of power; and to depend upon Private Eye to lead the pack in provoking our distrust of power and influence. While propaganda remains a dirty word, government has given birth to what is called the Nudge Unit; and a new breed of mandarin, called the Regulator, has quietly gained power.

It is no surprise that Obama and Cameron pay increasingly close attention to news management, nor that there are more lobbyists in Washington than ever before. Nor is all the money that has gone into campaigns for such projects as the public understanding of science a surprising consequence.

If managing news is important, can we expect the government to continue to allow its messages to be presented by the privately owned and profit-motivated media, pedaling outrage, speculation and disaster, when it could operate its own internet-based news source – along the lines of the Huffington Post?

Intermediaries as door openers for placing new products


Finding early customers is one of the biggest head-aches for new businesses: mentors, introducers, agencies and ‘chaperones’ are among possible answers

For early-stage businesses, Buyers are often very difficult to get to, especially with evolving products and in more competitive markets. French company Wabel enables buyers and private label sources to find one another; and sets up meetings to enable SMEs with new products to meet high-level buyers from throughout Europe. UKTI plays a similar role for new exporters; and is able to high-light for new businesses overseas markets that may be easier to enter than corresponding UK markets. And Dreamstake, a free website for aspiring entrepreneurs, enables its registered members to publish their needs for help on LinkedIn and Twitter eg for contacts and mentors who might be able to help in the same way.

The recent Fintech Lab Accelerator in London offered another alternative for those with new products: it provided 13 weeks of support for seven SMEs to help them to introduce their products to a dozen big banks (notorious for their labyrinths of buyers) – each bank providing a chaperone for each of the SMEs to help them find their way around their bank.

The main function of the army of ‘mentors’ attached to Accelerators (notably Seedcamp, Springboard, Bethnal Green Ventures, and The Young Foundation) is to provide connections to experts, and in particular to potential customers – for the products and services of the new businesses in the Accelerator. They are able to open doors to which mailings and phone calls remain obstinately locked.

Disruptive products are increasingly common, but they often need this kind of help in order to effect successful introductions to markets.