UK Innovation needs leaders

Aside

Initiatives in Innovation in the UK need to be more actively analysed and followed on

Yes, we have an organisation whose role it is to chart the way forward for UK Technologies (the Technology Strategy Board), but none for doing so for UK Innovation (Nesta’s focus is research more than development). An analogy from horse racing (first item below) prompts ideas about where Innovation would be most profitable. In the meantime, innovation is led by whatever initiatives happen – see below: initiatives corporate, academic, in social enterprise, via new enterprises, and less surely, by initiatives in public funding.

Applied Creativity Briefings from John Whatmore at

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity November 2013

john.whatmore@btinternet.com

 Join the discussions at https://johnwhatmore.com/

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Profiting in times of extreme uncertainty: an analogy from the turf  We asked some expert punters how they would make money in horse-racing if:

  • race courses and races were changing from day to day (ie the business environment changing rapidly);
  • there were many more horses in training (ie more competition);
  • horses were strikingly more ‘trainable’ (ie innovations becoming more common and more radical);
  • owners and trainers were preoccupied with trying out new ways of getting the best out of their horses? (industry increasingly preoccupied with innovation).

Their answers included:

  • bet on more horses (ie increasing one’s chances by spreading one’s risk);
  • bet your money on trainers (ie backing skill/expertise);
  • invest in a horse transport business (ie services to participants);
  • buy a bookmaker! (ie services to backers).

(Originally published in Applied Creativity, May 2010, and still more relevant!)

 To Accelerate or not to Accelerate: that is the question

While it will be impossible for some time yet to prove that Accelerators are effective, the likes of Google and Microsoft are busily betting on their future. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-6O)

Small, elite university incubator launches into new space

Focusing on a small number of technologies that are ripe for commercialisation, and a small number of students or alumni with an interest in entrepreneurialism whose careers it seeks to advance, the Incubator of Cass University Business School has a new home which is unique in having alongside it a co-working space where students and alumni have the opportunity to be matched up with Tech City entrepreneurs. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-6o)

US non-profit ‘Village Capital’ has a different perspective on social enterprise: objectives first, resources next

Village Capital sees capital as a resource in the service of its mission rather than as a determinant of new businesses; and puts projects and teams together on the basis of what will best achieve the social objectives it espouses. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-6K)

Dreamstake, the free website for aspiring entrepreneurs which measures their progress, is growing, and expanding its offering; and it has done some diagnostics

Dreamstake, a fast-growing free interactive startup platform for entrepreneurs which has a rating feature that acts as a marker of their progress has added regular educational events at Google Campus in Tech City. And some recent statistical analysis reveals aspects of their businesses. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-6H)

Universities are being dragged into more commercialisation of their research

A small but elite conference brought together by new publication Global University Venturing indicated areas of progress as well as areas of obduracy, but added urgency to the task. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-6E)

Professionalising the playgrounds; and thickening up the pot of post-Accelerator funding – EU funds for London Accelerators

For participants in sixteen London Accelerators, funding has been promised – to pay for mentors and others supporters; and for co-investing in new businesses exiting these Accelerators. But this omits other possibilities. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-6R)

 

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

Copyright John Whatmore 2013

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity                            138 Iffley Road,London W6 OPE                 

Tel: 020 8748 2553                                                 E-mail:  john.whatmore@btinternet.com

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Extra funds for London Accelerators

Aside

Professionalising the playgrounds; and thickening up the pot of post-Accelerator funding

For participants in sixteen London Accelerators, funding has been promised to pay for mentors and others supporters; and for co-investing in new businesses exiting these Accelerators. But this omits other possibilities.

Accelerators use ‘mentors’ for a variety of roles – from acting as supervisors, as contributors of their specialist knowledge or expertise, as advisers – about strategy, business model, proposals and plans, and as door-openers – especially to potential partners, customers and funders. And the art, and it is very much an art, lies in enabling them to make their contribution at the right moment – when the participants recognise the need and/or when the ‘mentor’ does so. There are also those who lecture, teach or coach, or just tell their own War Stories. Seedcamp boasts a thousand mentors; Springboard a hundred and fifty; and Bethnal Green Ventures some sixty.

So far, those who manage Accelerators have called on their friends and contacts, on those who support the world of entrepreneurship, and increasingly on their alumni to act as their ‘mentors’; and the latter have all responded to these calls. In Silicon Valley the network of such people is enormous and very responsive: everyone seems to know everyone and word is passed round quickly and effectively; but here in London, they are fewer and in less close contact with one another. EU funds have now been promised (via the GLA, Enterprise Capital and London Business Angels) to sixteen London Accelerators to pay for these people.

By comparison the folk of Silicon Valley are pleased and happy to pass the word around simply because they are interested in innovative businesses – a community for whom the fascination of working with and talking to and about start-ups is sufficient.

These funds will no doubt generate a host of ‘consultants’ big and small, who will offer their services because there is money to be made out of this burgeoning scene. But they will not be the first choice of aspiring entrepreneurs because the best supporters will be those who are not in it for the money; and the entrepreneurs will recognise this. Second rate Accelerators will attract second rate ‘mentors’; and it must be doubtful if this will promote the start-up scene to its best advantage.

Less controversially, the EU is also the source of funds promised for co-investing under arrangements with those who are putting money into new businesses that are exiting Accelerators (many of them angels and quite small funds – the most successful of which will have worked with the Accelerator over a period in getting to know their targets). This is designed to increase the size of such funding packages, which will lengthen the runway for these businesses and give them a better chance to establish themselves. Yet at this point, many are left without the support that they have enjoyed and with which they would very much like to be able to continue.

It is disappointing that funds have not found there way to spreading the Accelerator concept into new fields such as for high growth SMEs, for commercialising Intellectual Property, and for supporting innovation in local industries and in public services.

To Accelerate or not to Accelerate: that is the question

Aside

While it will be impossible for some time yet to prove that Accelerators are effective, the likes of Google and Microsoft are busily betting on their future.

Nothing better illustrates the dilemma that innovators face than the fact that it will be impossible for several years yet to prove the value of Accelerators – short periods of intensive development for selected cohorts of teams, working closely together, along with a host of supporters – yet it is a model being rolled out by leading companies.

Engagement, enthusiasm, funding, alumni and followers all give a rosy feeling to the Accelerator concept; and in spite of their rapid proliferation in the UK and Nesta’s admirable financial support of early adopters, Nesta’s experts are deeply cautious about its future.

Yet September saw Google announcing that it is building a network of tech entrepreneurs in seven North American Cities. A spokesperson commented that they have been incredibly impressed with the catalyzing impact that tech hubs have had – helping startups to grow, and creating jobs in local communities in the process. The aim is to ‘create a strong network, providing each hub with financial support alongside access to Google technology, platforms and mentors, and ensuring that entrepreneurs at these hubs have access to an even larger network of startups.’

September also saw Microsoft offering technology startups in the B2B, consumer and gaming sectors the chance to apply for its Accelerator programme in London. The chosen entrepreneurs will take part in a 12-week programme to help grow their businesses through mentorship, access to resources and technical assistance. The Accelerator is looking for 10-15 startups developing technologies in financial services, electronic retail and commerce, gaming, big data or enterprise software. Microsoft will not be taking any equity in the companies, but will maintain relationships with startups through an alumni programme after they “graduate” the Accelerator. During its pilot the Accelerator will be based at Central Working in Shoreditch.

Microsoft also feels that startups are suffering due to a severe skills shortage. The companies are struggling to find talented developers to work with in the UK, which is preventing business growth. This developer shortage can be blamed on the increase in B2C companies that have ventured into the software business taking the talent with them. Microsoft actively tries to solve these problems by running roundtables and workshops to introduce developers to new Microsoft technologies.

Despite the skills shortage there does not seem to be a shortage of energy in the developer ecosystem. “There’s still plenty of buzz and excitement around it.” And that is the dilemma.

‘Village Capital’s’ different perspective on social enterprise

Aside

US non-profit ‘Village Capital’ has a different perspective on social enterprise: objectives first, resources next

Village Capital sees capital as a resource in the service of its mission rather than as a determinant of new businesses; and puts projects and  teams together on the basis of what will best achieve the social objectives it espouses.

Village Capital (‘VC’) is a US based non-profit organisation whose business is social enterprise. Founded in 2009, it has raised $1mn, now almost all invested* – in 350 ventures through 22 programmes in 7 different countries, in what is probably best described as mission-oriented projects, as opposed to product- or business-focused projects (eg enhancing private educational facilities in Indian schools).

Concerned that the relationship between investors and entrepreneurs was too strong a determinant of the kinds of things that new enterprises could achieve, VC has sought to put the achievement of objectives as the over-riding determinant of the processes of innovation in which it invests.

Entrepreneurs cannot exist without funding – from angels or venture capital organisations, so entrepreneurs’ projects have tended to focus on the particular areas that are of interest to those funders and on the returns which they require. In practice most of these have been IT based and ‘quick wins’. VC seeks to combat this destructive relationship by sourcing its own funding, and so having funds readily available – on an unconditional basis – for the projects it chooses (though still subject to due diligence).

Projects tend to start with a vision – a vision of how things might be, and then move on to issues about how realistic and how realisable such a vision might be.

VC describes itself as peer-driven and transparent. Investments are decided upon by investment committees made up of peers – committees whose composition reflects the project in question

(if it is about women in India, it needs to have some among its investment committee); and its members tend to look for real evidence of customer acceptability and demand. VC claims that the selection of projects by peers tends to make them less ready to invest, but to make for more successful investments.

Projects tend to be niche rather than general, and to be framed in terms of the problem in question rather than the obstacles or the specific approaches to the problem eg enabling home workers in India and the US to earn a living wage. And this means that broader approaches to the problem, like forming a consortium or bidding for contracts or grants are not excluded; and the duration of projects may be significantly longer that to-day’s accelerators.

VC spends an unusual amount of time in searching for its entrepreneurs. It looks for entrepreneurial talent in people who are already working in the field in question who are likely to be acquainted already with the problems and the people concerned; and it seeks to form the leanest possible core teams – that will not be disrupted or diverted.

Candidates are evaluated primarily on their ability to deliver solutions, and the criteria for deliverability will be different for different kinds of projects. But liquidity is of the essence – reputation and progress are vital for VC, so the mitigation of risk is also a very important consideration.

Each programme is 12 weeks long, and cohorts in each programme tend to be of 10-15 teams, and made up of teams with different but relateable issues – building the necessary community is important.

VC’s investments may take various forms including grants, loans and equity, and on returns that are appropriate to the project, which may take the form of royalties, revenue sharing, dividends or sale of equity.

What is traditionally termed mentoring often takes the form of enlisting deep expertise in the issue in question – as it is needed and as it is relevant. (The project mentioned above – in India – opened with a workshop on pedagogy led by people from Pearson – educational book publishers.)

In all aspects of its operation, Village Capital’s focus (see http://www.vilcap.com/) is on making a difference – on issues that can transform lives (like Kickboard – which aims to catalyse education reform with its web-based software that enables teachers to collect and analyze classroom data in realtime) rather than on creating businesses that will return profits to investors.

* VC is currently raising a further $15mn.

John Whatmore The Centre for Leadership in Creativity London, November 2013

http://johnwhatmore.com