National Virtual Incubator has untapped potential

The National Virtual Incubator has vast untapped potential
It can provide intimate learning opportunities with specialist experts – without the need for travel: bringing together startups and experts that have interests in common with the flick of switch (and a bit of organising).

Cisco’s National Virtual Incubator is effectively a number of inter-connected local mini-studios, each strategically located in innovation centres such as science parks, incubators, innovation spaces and universities (currently 13 nodes). Their focus is on startups and early-stage ventures; and their aim is to provide opportunities to showcase and make use of each host’s activities and expertise. (Many solutions are inspired by similar problems from other domains.)

It was described as a bit like engaging with a TV – or as Skype-like conversations writ large, able to project several individual participants at the same time, or groups of participants, and to organise and moderate discussions among the participating nodes: participants can be as little two in each location and as many as a hundred or more. It has the potential to provide intimate learning opportunities with specialist experts – without having to travel more than a few yards!

Currently each month one node runs an event; recent ones include:
• Angels and VCs joining in an Investor Panel to discuss what they were looking for and what is on offer for investors in early-stage ventures – such as the EIS and SEIS schemes; to talk about pitfalls in raising funds and to offer their help.
• The Digital Catapult Centre has run in information session on MassChallenge with the University of Strathclyde and The Landing hub in Salford.
• The Swansea node ran an event on Big Data.
• Ten startups across a number of nodes came together to discuss the creation of mobile apps.
• The Sunderland node joined with InnovateUK to talk about the latter’s activities and offers, and about the launch of the local Digital Catapult Centre.
• And on two occasions, IdeaLondon has run events where customers were brought in and SMEs pitched their problems to them – looking for solutions.

It is ideal for bringing together those in the same field who are in different places (1); and for bringing together experts in some field with potential beneficiaries who are in another part of the country or even in another country (2) – a sort of magic conference.

Started less than two years ago, it is on a steep leaning curve. The hardware is provided by Cisco and the dedicated space and the management are provided by the local host. There is an NVI website, which is evolving and becoming better known; and each node has ‘lead’ participants who meet twice a year to co-ordinate the activities of the network and identify good examples to showcase [where leaders of Accelerator programmes, VCs, InnovateUK and the Digital Catapult could also have a useful contribution.]

(1) BT Labs use electronic conferencing facilities
BT Labs has equipped many of its development teams with large plasma screens, interactive white boards and video conference facilities (round one half of a circular conference table with the project team round the other half), enabling their members to conference or ‘hothouse’ (a sort of BT Hackathon) alone or with fellow teams eg in Ireland or Bangalore.

(2) ‘Mentor Managers’ can work miracles for startups
Above all else, early-stage ventures need their hands holding in their new adventures, but they have no idea about whose hands to hold. Mentor Managers find experienced and expert mentors by searching on the internet and linking up with them by Skype. Jan 2015

John Whatmore
March 2015


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