Experts and novitiates meet to learn from one another at a Workshop.
Supportership and programmes of support (whether demonstrably effective or not) for the burgeoning field of new ventures are continuing to expand, and to become more all-embracing; and the concepts espoused by Accelerators for startups are beginning to flow into other areas – SMEs, corporates, and wider. What were independent programmes are forming into institutions, becoming more professional, and more segmented in the different ways that they address different targets; and mentoring – a quintessential element – is beginning to become a less chancy affair.
A panel of experts identifying best practice in different kinds of Accelerator was at the heart of a recent workshop for those involved with Accelerators, Incubators, Science Parks and Enterprise initiatives, held at IDEALondon, UCL’s new innovation centre in Shoreditch, east London (created in partnership with Cisco and DC Thomson). It soon led the discussions into how accelerator-type processes for intensive development have wider applications – for young entrepreneurs, for SMEs, for University generated IP, for non-IT focused science and technology, for corporates, and even for entire eco-systems.
Participants all confirmed that Accelerators are stretching – forwards: faced with so many applicants whose ideas are not yet ready for an Accelerator, their selection processes are becoming more sophisticated, and they are running subsidiary pre-accelerator programmes. They are moving up-market: they are constantly looking to work with more established ventures, with at least a prototype and some customers, where growth is the focus. And they are stretching onwards: finding that the re-financing process is so consuming, they are working with their participants beyond their normal 12 weeks, to help them conclude a round of refinancing and to launch them into their next phase of development. Sometimes, teams are passing from one Accelerator on to the next one!
In a review of the field, Nesta’s Jessica Stacey identified the rapid growth of Accelerators, and of several different kinds (moreover not just in the UK); and that some suggested that this represented a bubble. Another comment was that their ventures, most of which are IT related, are often of limited impact; and others wondered whether the contribution of Accelerators to the economy was constrained by a shortage of entrepreneurs – a breed which others thought hard to identify. Maybe they are better at it aged 30 rather than 20! In any case, UCL plans to add more ‘IDEALondon’-like hatcheries (1), (IDEALondon already houses 16 new ventures) and to provide for itself at least three times as many desk-spaces for new ventures, each location with a specific focus – an institutionalisation of the process that is paralleled by Seedcamps, Techstars Europe, Wayra Lab, BGV+Nesta, Startupbootcamp and BioCity, and supported by the EU Accelerator Assembly – for leaders of Accelerators.
Stuart Hillston, commented from a mentoring and an investor’s point of view that the four essentials were good candidates, the people who run the Accelerator, the eco-system that they put in place, and the investors.
Paul Miller’s analysis of (social enterprise) startups into five distinct types (in Nesta’s recent report, ‘Good Incubation’) had described each’s typical incubation journey and pitfalls.
Simon Jenner of Oxygen, a leading Accelerator, contrasted the regular need of independent Accelerators to find funding with the more secure position of the likes of Paul Miller’s Bethnal Green Ventures + Nesta (now into its third cohort under its 3-year Cabinet Office contract).
Mentoring was a big topic, partly because it was pointed out that it is a number of different things. More important than the availability of reactive advice eg from lawyers or accountants, is the proactive support of someone who stays very close to the team and thus knows a lot about their project, their progress, their characters and their needs; and is able to wheel up individuals with specific knowledge, skills, experience or contacts to help them with their current issue, be that technical, marketing (finding users or customers), financial, team-building or whatever. Fellow participants can be extremely valuable, as can Alumni – people who have already been through the process, and entrepreneurs who are already successful. Where this is often simply regarded as a chancy business, one Accelerator is working actively to enhance the contributions of mentors, to help them to learn more about each other, and to become a more intimate part of the process. (2)
Kate Stuart-Cox used a game to illustrate how new ventures need to ensure diversity in problem-solving styles within a team (focusing on one aspect which highlighted the differences between Exploratory and Developmental thinking) and know how to manage these differences, which if left unaddressed, as participants observed, can lead to conflict in the longer term.
Of the few corporates that have dipped their toes into this water (mostly each for their own reasons) at least some, so far as can be assessed, seem to have got value out of their attempts. However, they are seen from the point of view of startups as in some ways limiting the startups’ scope for future development.
Concern was expressed at the lack of understanding of investors in early-stage ventures, and their lack of sophistication. One Accelerator programme has felt the need to ‘educate’ its investors, whose objectives may be widely different, and whose understanding of the process may be small. But this is really a task for the Angel and the Venture Capital worlds.
As to the future, Jessica Stacey saw new themes emerging: where the first Accelerators had been investor-driven (Seedcamp, Techstars), we are now seeing some Accelerators that are more like match-makers (Collider, The Bakery, [and Fintech Lab]); and others that are tackling change in entire eco-systems (Le Camping, Bethnal Green Ventures [and HubLaunchpad]). Nektarios Liolios’s wide experience of early-stage ventures (Swift, Innotribe and Startupbootcamp) gave bite to his speculations about the future of Accelerators – he is about to launch FinTech in London, an Accelerator which has 3-year backing from four big international banks. Its aim is to support SMEs with hi-growth potential (3) in the rapidly changing world of banking and financial services. He, like others, feels that Accelerators will become more thematic (in FinTech, focused on topics such as Capital Markets, Retail banking, Security etc); but he also forecasts that they will become more local – individual Accelerators will focus on relating those same topics to local markets (as UCL envisages). Some even see Accelerators as the future of work.
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity is planning to bring together similar groups in workshops about futures in different fields in different parts of the country. (For more information, contact John Whatmore, see below.)
(1) See ‘A new Incubator with a difference in TechCity’ http://wp.me/p3beJt-71
(2) See ‘What do participants in Accelerators value most?’ http://wp.me/p3beJt-7H
(3) See also Qi3 (http://wp.me/pbeJt-3N) and the Belgian Plato programme (http://wp.me/p3beJt-H)
John Whatmore July 2014
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity