A long-established university incubator

A long-established university-based incubator that is just now spawning off-spring

With a small residential staff, and access as needed to specialist experts locally, it offers flexible office space and provides services on the premises to small businesses with clearly viable ideas, with readily available support especially on marketing and fundability. Can it deliver support in the future to its new locations?


  • A brilliant commercialiser of research: a concept developer like no other.
  • A programe for groups of executives in SMEs who meet regularly to help one another with their major issues.

Then the spotlight is on Oxford Innovations.

Sussex Innovation Centre aims to be a centre of support for the growth of its businesses (eg. getting turn-over up from £200k to £2.5mn pa) by means of learning about their needs for support and then being able to provide what is required – or find within the area one or two people with appropriate experience.

Some businesses fail to last more than a year; others will remain for two or three years or more depending on growth potential and the scope of support required (about 20% of them go on to achieve hi-growth, with the largest of the current tenants worth some £150mn). The turn-over of occupants is about 30% pa – and there are around 15-20 new applicants for places every month. (An idea and ambition are sought, and the business needs to be something to which the Centre can add value and help it grow.)

Owned by the University of Sussex, it supports about 120 young businesses of which it is also home to around fifty, for which (together with one or two corporates) it provides: office space – of varying sizes, a small hot-desking room, a boardroom, seminar room and a café, plus advisory support and accounting services, and offices (for the almost 30 staff).

                             Its philosophy: a ‘training ground for management’

Mike Herd, its Executive Director since it was founded nineteen years ago, came from a career at Schlumberger where he was a globe-trotting leader of field development programmes; and was recruited, as he quips, on the then topical basis of  ‘getting some money out of science’. He sees the Centre’s role as that of training up management, and his philosophy was from the outset about discovering what support the businesses need and then finding it for them, which he describes as a more gentle and broad form of support than providing or attaching mentors to teams, who might then meet with them regularly. A model he quotes as having been successful is when an investor with experience in that field plays an active role in the company in which he has invested, especially so in its commercial dealings. (Many are those who offer to act as mentors, but he derides the use of ‘coaches’ because their contributions can be insufficiently closely related to the needs of the  business; and even if the entrepreneurs get good advice, he feels that they often do not have the practical [business] skills to make good use of it.)

                          A trusted adviser – with a support team and a network of experts

He sits in the café for an hour each morning for anyone who wants to come and see him – the morning I met him, he had met people from four of his businesses. “He is always interested in my challenges and opportunities”, “a trusted adviser”. “He opened and shared his network of well-connected experts”; and “he runs a cracking team with whom you can always talk” “…very good when you need help; but there are times when I don’t know what questions I ought to be asking – maybe I would like to be able to talk to someone who had faced the same dilemma as I currently do.”

He has a network of some 30 senior experts – from companies in the area, with which he has developed relationships over the years, whose most common contributions are about selling; but also filling gaps in teams’ expertise; and about turning points, such as hirings, new markets, mergers etc, and whose contributions are more casual, various and occasional.

He is supported by a small Business Support Team – of seven senior members of staff, all with practical experience in business, with expertise including investment readiness, market research, marketing and sales. They maintain close relationships with the businesses and are readily available (and highly valued) for acting as sounding boards as well as providing help; and organise events (including a number of days of intensive analysis – like reporting to the board). And there is of course ready access to the entire university research community.

‘Customer Dens’ attract a lot of interest. In these, several young businesses pitch their products or services to a panel of three or four people from their field, (eg in education: a teacher, a lecturer, someone from the education department of a local authority or from such as the Institute of Education) looking for feed-back about applications, potential users, and purchasers; and the Centre houses several businesses with expertise in applied psychology, whose work is often relevant in this context.

One member of staff, a former bank manager, leads a small Business Angels group a which includes some people who have ‘done it before’, and runs quarterly investment meetings, which help the businesses to focus on cash and to learn about funding, investor expectations and requirements, and about the various ways in which they might be funded. (The businesses in the incubator raise around £4mn of capital a year.)

And there is a finance department, which serves the accounting needs of the Centre, but also provides not only accountancy services to those of the businesses that choose to make use of them, but also helps businesses use financial information, and provides financial consultancy.

From time to time, workshops are run, about such topics as

  • aspirations and what makes a good idea
  • how to raise funds
  • employment law – with a specialist lawyer.

There is a much valued team of about ten students and recent graduates (the one to whom I spoke had a Masters in Management and Entrepreneurship) who help both resident and non-resident businesses – on a similar basis ie ascertaining what their needs are for help and then providing it, or marshalling it from elsewhere, and who are trained and mentored to deliver projects by the senior Support team. The intention is to provide businesses with a more flexible and cost-effective resource than traditional internships, while giving these ‘Catalyst’ team members the opportunity to develop a range of practical and entrepreneurial skills that will help make them more employable. Several have moved on to full-time roles at the businesses they have worked with, or are even launching their own ventures.

                                                    Expansion into new locations

Significantly in the UK’s current entrepreneurial climate, as with comparable organisations there are plans for setting up similar incubators in three different locations, one of which just opened in Croydon – where the University has established links with the nearby Croydon College. Sussex Innovation – Croydon will provide premises for around 30 local businesses, with its own dedicated Director and a team of support rotated from the Centre, together with some services provided locally. Another centre in Brighton itself is due to open in spring 2016, with three floors of accommodation, but many more of the businesses served are expected to have their own local premises; and a third – in Biotech – when rebuilding takes place on the Falmer Campus in 2017.

These plans will make for new contact points, and will mean that the Centre’s team will have to concentrate its work into a short period in each location; it will have to establish contact with local entrepreneurs to provide support – a major task; and it will bring in businesses that have no understanding of support nor of the Centre’s credibility, and will take time to establish.

John Whatmore, October 2015

Other programmes include:

Birmingham’s Science Park without walls

The essence of the burgeoning Innovation Birmingham Campus consists in the physical and virtual proximity which it offers – co-working in new dimensions, providing opportunities for co-learning and collaboration. Nov 2014 http://wp.me/p3beJt-9q

Managing support for early-stage ventures – a fast emerging role

In Silicon Valley support is everywhere, and it is increasingly immanent in London’s entrepreneurial world, with some high profile examples – promoted by a new breed of support managers. But there are other areas where it is still a distant prospect. March 2015 http://wp.me/p3beJt-ax

 A major programme for new hi-flyers that includes an Accelerator

Public support for a major programme of development for a relatively large number of early-stage ventures, designed to identify and accelerate some world-class companies for to-morrow – from the Middle East. Why doesn’t InnovateUK do this sort of thing? July 2015. http://wp.me/p3beJt-bh


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