Accelerators attacking bigger issues?


If Accelerators can support hi-growth SMEs as well as startups, can they also be adapted to focus on tough problems and emerging opportunities in all sorts of fields?
While Accelerators have been ‘big news’, they have tended to focus on apps or websites. But initiatives are afoot to focus them onto bigger issues. As twelve-week curated programmes of intensive development for a dozen carefully selected startups – with a lot of support from mentors, Accelerators have spread rapidly and attracted a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs with ideas for new businesses, though many of them have been no more than new apps or websites. Now attempts are afoot to focus the interest of aspiring entrepreneurs onto bigger problems and opportunities. The first two below – Cambridge’s Open Innovation Forum and Harvard’s Healthcare Challenge – are essentially introductions to emerging opportunities for new businesses; the next three – BioCity’s new Accelerator, FinTech Accelerators and Village Capital – are about tackling bigger issues – a longer pathway. All are providing the links between talent, knowledge and experience that are the essence of clusters.
If you are interested in this and would like to be put in touch with others who have similar interests, e-mail me at

A group of corporates in the food industry in Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing’s Open Innovation Forum, is about to run its third event (…/open-innovation-practitioner-forum/‎) – a veritable market place for serious entrepreneurs with adaptable technologies – at which pitches are invited for propositions for new products – from SMEs, B2B companies, startups, entrepreneurs or university-based researchers and organisations. Among innovation needs listed on this occasion are for sustainable packaging, reclosing systems for metal cans, sugar reduction solutions and anti-counterfeit technology.
Harvard Business School together with the Harvard Medical Centre has announced the Harvard Healthcare Challenge whose aim (see is to find healthcare innovations that will disseminate faster – a recognition of the need for speed in healthcare developments – innovations that are credible, can show demonstrated evidence of their value; have a compelling dissemination plan; and are at the cusp of scaling. Finalists will gain access to 150 senior health care leaders at an invitation-only conference where they will discuss their scale-up plans and have an opportunity for one-on-one discussions with health care leaders at networking events.
With support from Nottingham City Council, BioCity ( is breaking new ground in creating an Accelerator whose projects are generated by identifying and bringing together a technology, an articulated unmet need, a key user/expert insight and/or an entrepreneur – of each of which ‘there are many, but mostly found in isolation’. It starts with a series of themed events, of which two such have been ‘wearable technologies’ and ‘the gamification of healthcare’. It then offers a series of one-to-many events and ad hoc coaching to test the viability of early-stage ideas through a process of customer discovery and evidence based business model design. This is followed by a rolling 3-month Accelerator programme with intensive coaching to help opportunities build their business and, if necessary develop an investment proposition.
In a tough but dramatic call, consortia of banks have recently sponsored three Accelerators for SMEs in the financial services sector. Accenture’s two FinTech London Labs ( at Canary Wharf’s Level39 and Startupbootcamp’s FinTech ( at the Rainmaking Loft have brought SMEs together from all over the world with the aim of creating new products which will be of interest to the banks, who are seeing their market attacked by the arrival of mobile payments systems that leave them out of account.
Village Capital (, a US-based charity brings aid and innovation together: it has sought to put the achievement of social objectives as the over-riding determinant of the various processes of innovation in which it invests its aid funds. 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. It then looks for entrepreneurial talent in people who are already working in the field in question who are likely to be acquainted with the problems and the people concerned. Village Capital has sought to have funds readily available – on an unconditional basis – for its 12-week programmes, each of 10-15 teams with different but relateable issues.
Innovationeering of this kind may be riskier, take longer, and be more expensive, as is suggested by the Royal College of Art’s 2-year Accelerator programme ( which is confined to projects which involve engineering or design: its teams do not always endure, and it is financially difficult to maintain.
But clusters are not necessarily closely located, though they do all have points of intensive interaction: of experience – as in the fortnightly races of Formula 1; of knowledge – as at universities and related industries; and of talent – as in commutable regions. But they are not simply about connectivity, but collaboration – bringing people with different backgrounds to work together to create something new – what conductors, impresarios and directors do in the arts (as at the National Theatre’s Studio, where we hope to hold a small workshop in the near future – see below (1)).
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in partnership with the Shell Foundation has been exploring methods to transform the markets surrounding an innovation – a significantly more all-embracing task –
which I will follow with interest.

(1)The NT Studio brings together writers, designers, performers and directors for short periods in the hope that they will spark off one another (see
(We are planning to hold a small workshop there in the near future – for incubator leaders and leading mentors to see this ‘sparking off one another’ in action. If you are interested, e-mail me.)

John Whatmore
October 2014


Innovation Officers with a range of tools to help managers at the coal-face in delivering innovations


Corporate have tended to look for their innovations more to acquisitions of early-stage businesses than to internal developments, perhaps because of the difficulty of the latter; but Innovation Officers are evidently developing their tool boxes and shifting their targets to achieve greater success.
Evidence has for some time been indicating that Innovation is the top objective for organisations and their CEOs, but what they are doing about it is less evident. Appointing an Innovation Officer is one such response, so it was interesting for me to be a fly on the wall at a recent conference of Chief Innovation Officers (run, rather surprisingly, in a deeply old-fashioned style!)
Such people often faced the impossible option of either attempting to change the entire culture of the organisation – a vital but entirely impossible job without the total commitment of the CEO, or of diverting funds towards developing new products, a task likely to be killed by the existing divisional Barons. So it was a dead-end job.
Many of the conference presentations demonstrated a range of other roles – including the support of those Barons in terms of their own objectives – helping them to achieve outcomes that would deliver their bonuses. One of them: delivering a process that would elicit new ideas; another the use of an online facility to aggregate questions and knowledge on current issues; another the bringing together of groups of people (from both inside and outside the organisation) to identify and wrestle with issues and deliver solutions; and another to help the Barons to enhance their existing services, especially with new perceptions, new ideas, new skills and new kinds of support.
Yet another was that of Tesco Lab’s dozen or so members, with their 6-week projects. It has a number of strings to its bow, including new products, product design and development, open innovation, hackathons and supplier workshops, and even culture change. It relies on delivering new products that would clearly benefit the entire business, like a mobile app that enabled all staff to interrogate stock levels, locations, delivery expectations etc; and another (fascinating) gadget – a pair of google specs with which the wearer could read the barcodes of items running short, and re-order them for subsequent delivery.
One outstanding address was that of Lee Burton, Director of Innovation at Stanford’s School of Engineering, who presented a comparison of the culture of Silicon Valley with that of European businesses, highlighting the latter’s key ‘missing catalysts’. While Europe’s economies are supported on science-based cultures, Silicon Valley’s is an innovation-based culture – and in its economy ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast!’ Comments from the floor countered that Europe has to develop its own particular approach to innovation culture. Speakers suggested that innovation units were busily growing, and Lee Burton reflected on the time it takes (maybe three years) for units like Tesco Lab to move from ‘push to pull’ – from pushing their ideas into the organisation to the organisation seeking to pull out ideas from the unit.
A small number of corporates have tasted the concept of the Accelerator (short, intensive programmes designed to help a small number of teams with fulsome support to develop their ideas for a new business into marketable propositions), but only Telefonica has done so wholeheartedly, establishing its own Accelerators in around a dozen countries – apparently with success in terms of new products for itself.
However, there has been a feeling that such Accelerators (as those of Johnson & Johnson, Banco Sabadell, Barclays, John Lewis et al) will be less attractive to startups because if their venture does not receive further funding from the corporate, the sponsor’s subsequent support will be indifferent, whereas the likes of Techstars Europe and Startupbootcamp rely on their reputations for launching as many new businesses as possible from each cohort of startups.
Accelerators supported by clusters such as Fintech Lab London for the banking industry have been more attractive – to SMEs from all over the world, but while the Fintech world is beset with rapid change (not least from Apple), in this field before they are adopted new products require a great deal of testing – not least for reliability and security, and across the entire organisation.

John Whatmore
October 2014

Getting advice – in early-stage ventures


The chancy nature of support for those involved in early-stage ventures calls for mentor managers with extensive experience; and a new app may help the process.
Several of the participants in a recent Bethnal Green Ventures Accelerator told me that their best sources of support had been other participants together with the mentors they had encountered – other participants who had already been through experiences which they were now on the point of encountering; and mentors who had been able to put them in touch with intermediaries or with potential users or customers. At Wayra Lab, one participant mentioned to me that a visitor of another participant had proved to be just the person who was in a sector that would be the way forward for his own startup.
Conversations with fellow travelers are regarded as the best source of information of this sort – a justification for what Google calls ‘the hothouse atmosphere created by jamming workers together in overcrowded cubicles’; or in Bethnal Green Venture’s case in tight proximity in a single small room – where they will meet and talk (or overhear one another), especially in the space designated for making coffee (IBM’s Hursley Lab and Level39 at Canary Wharf both have unique coffee making machines), breakfast, lunch or supper (or in the toilet!). Design company Pentagram has a single long lunch table, where you sit next to the most recent comer, whether you know them or not. When the 3 O’clock bell rings in the Innovation Centre at Canary Wharf, you come out of your office and say hello to someone you’ve never met before.
Weekly gatherings of all the teams when they are required to present their progress, their plans and their problems provide another opportunity to tap into others’ experience (Y Çombinator, Watershed Bristol et al) – details often then circulated internally to all the teams. Carlson, CEO of Stanford Research Institute required his researchers to pitch their work regularly and repeatedly and then invite feed-back.
Managing effective mentoring entails close acquaintance with the progress and current issues of startups, and the ability to call in relevant knowledge, expertise or contacts just in time. The difficulty is that their needs evolve rapidly over time: from evaluation of the business concept, through technical support in product development, often including the complete rethinking of the product, the approach or the market (‘pivoting’), through contact with intermediaries, and potential users and buyers, and on to financing. And so they need different mentors along their path.
Founders (of Accelerators), with extensive commercial expertise and big address books, have usually been the focal point for marshaling mentors who have key contributions, but as management teams have expanded, both of those attributes have been attenuated. Wayra Lab, BioCity and Innovation Birmingham are among those organisations that have abandoned mentors because of the difficulties involved in managing their contributions (uncertain availability/conflicting advice/incompatibility etc), in favour of contracted support staff. But this approach doesn’t accommodate their changing needs, and is less likely to deliver high quality commercial advice. Above all, it is unlikely to be able to offer the contact with markets that mentors can. Seedcamp, Techstars and others continue to make use of extensive mentor networks – with as many as ten per startup, a small number of whom are in regular contact with a startup, the others on-call for their special knowledge, expertise or contacts. But delivering the right mentor at the right moment is a demanding task.
Nektarios Liolios’s wide experience (Managing Director of Startupbootcamp FinTech Accelerator) enabled him to see an opportunity that had not occurred one of this entrepreneur teams. He commissioned a search by his mentor manager using LinkedIn, which put the team in touch with a leading person in that field.
A new startup called eRipple is developing an app whose objective is to match the needs of startups with the contributions of mentors – in terms of their available time, their special expertise etc. To be used, it will need to be expeditious, and unfailingly trustworthy; but it could help mentor managers and startups to get ready access to an extensive network of expert mentors to meet fast-changing needs.

See also: ‘I am a fly on the wall at a Mentor Day’
and ‘Specialists will head up coaching revolution says Mike Atherton’

John Whatmore
October 2014

Artists as disrupters: an incubator where artists and technology meet


A new New York Incubator takes a realistic look at the future of work in cities through the perspective of innovation in the arts
Forty full-time fee-paying members have been selected from over 400 applicants to have two years of full-time access to the 8,000 square foot co-working space in New York at the New Museum’s four-week-old art and technology co-working incubator. The space includes amenities typical of both business incubators and maker spaces, such as meeting spaces and technical equipment including 3D printers. Aside from access to the space, membership also includes business classes and mentorships.
The values people bring to the incubator are different than values at a conventional business incubator because “they are not necessarily devoted to profit, scale or attracting investors.”
Its goal is to support and diversify creative industries in New York City. A study by the New York Center for an Urban Future indicates that although New York turns out many art and design graduates who would like to stay in the city, unfortunately most don’t have resources to do so. Another study conducted by software company Intuit indicates that by 2020, more than 40 percent of the American workforce, or 60 million people, will be freelancers, contractors and temp workers. The hope is that it will become part of a vibrant New York City cultural and economic ecosystem as co-creators of a community that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Rafaël Rozendaal is an artist who creates unique URLs and websites in order to sell them to people who agree to be stewards, artist Lisa Park uses technology to detect her brain activity and then displays it in real-time as waves on pools of water and Carlo Van de Roer has created novel techniques for manipulating light in images and is working on patenting his inventions. NEW INC tries to help its members leverage the intellectual property they are creating without taking a financial interest.
‘When people describe themselves as an artist, they get less money for a job than when they describe themselves as technologists or engineers’, so there is a desire to confront semantic issues and traditional boundaries in art, technology, business and society.
The focus is on artists who are starting their own tech-oriented businesses or adding a “missing ingredient” to entrepreneur teams; and there is a desire to leverage this interdisciplinary community for social impact.
One commentator added that ‘…the creation of a business and the best businesses are motivated by the pursuit of an idea – the pursuit of a disruption, not by the money; usually the sustainability is due to the founder finding a way to turn a small failure into another disruption.’

See also other incubators in the arts:
The National Theatre’s Studio, a nursery for promising performances and
Watershed Bristol: innovation in media and the arts

John Whatmore
October, 2014

The UK espouses the MassChallenge Accelerator programme


Launched four years ago in Boston, the programme provides the now well-recognised range of support for startups – with one difference: it takes no equity.
The MassChallenge UK program was recently introduced at a House of Lords reception attended by the great and the good. MassChallenge UK is based on the successful MassChallenge model, which launched in Boston in 2010. It is said to be the world’s largest business accelerator, with the UK programme – backed by Downing Street and a number of global blue-chips – ‘set to attract hundreds of talented entrepreneurs and innovators to help them convert their high-potential ideas into high-impact businesses’.
The four-month MassChallenge programme annually supports over a hundred high-impact, early stage start-ups with no strings attached, and is beginning to replicate in different countries.
Its £10m support package for the best entrepreneurs includes expert mentoring and business training, free office space, access to funding and the opportunity to win ‘hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash awards’. Unlike almost every other Accelerator, MassChallenge does not take any equity in exchange for funding or support.
MassChallenge UK managing director Chris Howard said: “If the UK is to continue its economic recovery, then it is vital we nurture a new generation of startups and ambitious entrepreneurs” adding a rider about the importance of sustainable long-term businesses.
MassChallenge UK joins an estimated forty Accelerators already in operation in London, whose operations are becoming more tailored, extending over longer periods of the lives of startups, and spreading into new fields; but also stretching the quality of the entrepreneurs, and of their curators.

See also: Accelerators: onward, upward and outward, Sept 2014

Upcoming: ‘Accelerators attacking bigger issues’ (than apps and websites).

John Whatmore, October, 2014

A ‘pop-up’ Accelerator alongside the latest co-working space


With the growth in the number of Accelerators it is becoming easier to put together short-term teams to curate ‘pop–up’ Accelerators, especially when they are co-located with existing startups.
Incubators and Science Parks with their colonies of early-stage ventures are ideal locations for Accelerators, which can also generate candidates for their hosts. Accelerators entail the bringing together of groups of ventures with similar issues, and the bringing together of teams of facilitators and supporters to deliver the process – a bit like putting together the cast for your new film: you can never be sure that people will indeed be available when you come to want them! Startupbootcamp’s FinTech Accelerator at the Rainmaking Loft in the City, now half way through its 12-week programme, has done just that.
What started as a one-man role (in John Bradford’s case at Ignite, it was him and a superb assistant), has now morphed (for example at Startupbootcamp’s FinTech) into a whole ‘pop-up’ team. Their roles include supervisory facilitation, communication/marketing, mentor management, event management, learning management, legals and documentation, and of course leaders with reputations and with connections in the fields concerned. While there is indeed a close-knit startup community at least in London, putting together such teams is a different matter in more remote locations, such as Nottingham, Newcastle or Swansea.
Jon Bradford’s success was built on his many connections, whose passion about or interest in startups enabled him to draw willingly on their help. Other Accelerators have relied on a small number of faithful people who have made their particular contributions. And mentors who have ‘done it before’ have been significant supporters. While the best of these are often irregular contributors because they are busily occupied on their own enterprises, alumni are often outstanding contributors. At all events, the role of mentor management is becoming critical issue.
Startupbootcamp has relied on networking and its many local connections, both in recruiting startups and in putting together its management team – recruiting students and graduates where there is a strong interest in startups and early-stage ventures, and using what is now a good market for temporary placements and interns (with a number of job board websites like Moreover it has the benefit of many connections with experienced mentors; it aspires to Angels-in-residence; and it has access to a host of entrepreneurs-in-residence, located as it is in a small part of the Rainmaking Loft in London, a new co-working space for some 45 new ventures.

See also: Startupbootcamp – a leader in nurturing young businesses

John Whatmore
September 2014

Berlin’s Rocket Accelerator takes off


Startup accelerator leads the pack with expected handsome flotation price
As the Accelerator, until recently essentially a ‘pop-up’ phenomenon, begins to morph into Accelerator organisations, an initial public offering in a leading example in Berlin suggests that they are becoming valuable investments, and marks out a path that others will certainly follow.
Berlin-based startup Accelerator Rocket Internet has just sold a slice of its business, ahead of a flotation will which value it at c.€6.2bn – substantially more than early estimates. What marks it out is its clear and specific focus – on three areas: ecommerce, online market places and money services – businesses that ‘serve universal basic needs leading to universal basic industries’ – in Germany and beyond; among the buyers of the IPO was Philippines Long Distance Telephone.
Accelerators, which started as 12-week intensive development programmes for around a dozen hopeful startups, continue to proliferate, but are also beginning to become institutionalised (Techstars/Wayra Lab/Startupbootcamp) – as viable independent businesses whose mission is the support of early-stage ventures.
Rocket was started in 2007 by two brothers; it has had funding from a Swedish VC and a Russian billionaire; and it often draws in outside co-investors where the path to profitability is a long one – it plans to put some of the proceeds of its IPO into its existing investments. It has accumulated interests in some 70 businesses, and done several significant timely deals. It claims, as do other accelerator organisations, to have created a platform that has industrialised the process of building startups; and it has aspirations to become the biggest internet group outside the US and China. But its success is seen as uncertain; its flotation is not based on what are regarded as conventional criteria in Germany; and it is not popular there. (See also

See also:
Accelerators: onward, upward and outward
Getting advice – sources of support in incubators; and
A ‘Pop-up’ Accelerator alongside the latest co-working space.

John Whatmore
October 2014