Helping aspiring entrepreneurs


Helping aspiring entrepreneurs to see their way forward – by engaging with their community

One Million Cups is a nation-wide programme in the US that could provide a bottom-up infrastructure for supporting startups in the UK, where provision is currently totally inadequate.

As inventions and innovations become more pervasively disruptive, never were there more opportunities for entrepreneurs. While there are many who aspire to that role, the infrastructure for supporting them remains embryonic.

The speed with which the latest co-working space in London has filled up (WeWork at Moorgate) testifies to an unsatisfied need for flexible incubator space; and the minimal amount of incubator spaces in universities falls well short of potential demand.

Despite strong evidence as to its value, the Government has just shut down the Business Growth Service which offered mentoring for hi-growth businesses. Mentorsme, the focal website for mentoring services, has expanded their availability only somewhat; and mentors are currently not only hard to find, but also of uncertain quality. Few incubators provide proactive support for their young businesses, yet that is demonstrably what is needed.

One Million Cups is a movement inspired by the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City. It has the merit of providing a seed-bed by connecting startups with local communities: as a filter, for feed-back, for support and for expansion.

In 66 cities throughout the US, once a week one or two aspiring entrepreneurs make a brief presentation about their startup to a diverse audience of peers, mentors, educators and advisers. They have six minutes to tell the audience about their journey so far, and where they have got to, followed by 20 minutes for questions. They then get feed-back from the organizers and via an audience survey. They are expected to prepare for this by following lessons from the Kauffman Foundation Founders School website and video.

This experimental learning opportunity is based on the notion that entrepreneurs discover solutions and network over a million cups of coffee; and that connecting with communities helps that process.

Entrepreneurs gain insight into possible ways they can improve their businesses, gather real-time feedback, connect with a community that cares about their progress, and walk away feeling like they have advanced their business.

The audience in these dynamic and diverse settings also learns a great deal from the presentations and by engaging with the entrepreneurs.

The program takes place every Wednesday morning from 9:00-10:00 a.m. in locations all around the country. Each city runs the program semi-autonomously (events are led by some 300 volunteers), and gathers in coffee shops, co-working spaces, and even TV stations.

The Kauffman Foundation is the largest American foundation dedicated to entrepreneurship – with its programmes of research and development activities. The One Million Cups programme started in Kansas City in 2012 and has spread rapidly. Innovate UK should work with Kauffman and offer to support it in all the Local Enterprise Partnerships.

John Whatmore

February 2016



What mentees get from mentors


What mentees get (and can only get) from mentors

Presentation to UCL Symposium, 24 February, 2016

 I have for some time been collecting stories from my encounters with mentors and mentees. So I have picked some to tell to-day. UCL would probably call me an ethnographer!

I have developed and sold a small company; I have been Chairman of a group of venture capital companies and a Nesta Associate; and I have always been fascinated with how you ‘manage’ innovation. My simple aim is to pass on to the innovation community advances that I come across.

Aggressive mentoring characterises to-day’s Accelerators. Seedcamp claims to have a thousand or more; Telefonica’s Wayra Lab 150; and Jon Bradford over a hundred. But in Incubators, they are much rarer – some of Oxford Innovations centres for example have none at all.

The rationale is simple enough: if you are creating a completely new business, it is great to have by your side someone who has done it before.

I have been asking mentors and their mentees in both startups and SMEs what mentors contributed, and what their mentees got out of them. Their answers depend on where they have got to with their new business.


The Conceptor

helps in identifying something new and useful The Strategist and Manager

helping to find ways of delivering it

The Technician

helping to make it function, and produce a prototype

The Marketer

helping to adapt it to users, buyers and customers

The Investment adviser

helping to find ways of funding its scaling up

And not forgetting the Mentor Manager


Feed-back comes top – about their new product or service – for their mentors’ ability to introduce startups and their ilk to users, buyers or customers. They can never get enough of it.

Two participants I met at the recent MassChallenge Demo Day each said that they had made use of five mentors.

David Parker, a mentor at Startupbootcamp, helped his startup to identify possible routes to market; and then introduced the team to 10 people who were possible customers – who would chat with them only because David had introduced them.

One mentee told me: ‘Our mentors gave us advice, contacts and evaluation. One told us how to approach a potential user, who to talk to, what to say and how to say it.’ (Intriguingly Wayra Lab teaches the one minute pitch, the three minute and the five minute pitch!)

Andrew Grant who mentors at IdeaLondon used to be a senior manager at BT, and for that reason was able to effect an invaluable introduction for the company he came to chair; and BT became their first customer.

Nobel Prize Winner, Physicist Richard Feynman used also to be a painter of Life models – and when he wanted to sell some of his nudes, he asked the waitresses in the local topless restaurant which of the bosses of the local massage parlours would be most likely to buy them!


The voice of experience comes next in importance. Jim Milby retired recently as a Director of Barclays Bank – in his locanic mid-Atlantic brogue – says he has known a few companies. He now mentors several SMEs – one of them with Startupbootcamp’s Fintech Lab. It is his extensive experience and importantly his independent voice make him highly valued – in relation to strategy AND to management.

While the team, he says, are preoccupied with driving towards their current objectives, he might be asking questions about whether it is time to change something – in the product, or the target market segment, the key customer benefits, or the strategy for getting there.

He has always insisted on having a regular review of progress – once a week ‘because it is no good getting to Demo Day to pitch to investors if you still don’t have any customers’.

Wayra Lab, one of Telefonica’s startup schools, attaches three mentors to each of its young companies, and they meet once a month along with programme staff – to assess progress in Board Meeting style.

Paul Miller at Bethnal Green Ventures does it once a week – asking about what you achieved last week, what are your pain points and what you expect to achieve next week.

YCombinator does it over dinner every week; and Watershed Bristol does it over lunch on Fridays. As one mentee there observed: ‘there is always someone around who has done just what you are trying to do.’

Advice about the team comes with the same depth of experience.

When Jim Milby began to have doubts about the length of one of his team’s runway, he insisted that they change their finance guy.

Jacoby Thwaites CEO of Sparkl here at IdeaLondon was asked by his mentor, Alastair Moore, two questions: how long is your pipeline of prospective customers; and who generates it. To Jacoby’s answer, Alistair simply said: Hire him – an exchange Jacoby has never forgotten.

And when Bill Clee here at IdeaLondon, had won two big projects, his mentor Andy Mulholland, an ex-CTO at Cap Gemini, helped him to sort out his back office and appoint an Operations Director and a Sales Director in quick time.


Making it work. Joe Rabin is Technologist-in-residence at Wayra Lab – highly appreciated for his help to participants in building their products and services.

Trained as an engineer, he is something of a technical polymath. Many of the participants, he says, need help with their IT.

On one occasion, he spent the entire week-end with a team whose developers had just jumped ship, helping them to reshape their strategy and get back on track.

Azita Esmaili helps young businesses to adapt their structure and their organization to their IT strategy – both at IdeaLondon and at MassChallenge.


Advice about investment is harder to come by. Many finance mentors are with the banks, but the banks are no longer lenders of this kind. And new sources of finance abound, but comprehensive advice about them is hard to find.

For example, Crowdfunding can be a nightmare. My father was a city expert in Prospectuses and would be turning in his grave; and my son rejected this route for his SME because of what is needed to service 40 or 50 shareholders.

A guy who once participated in one of my Learning Groups had designed and prototyped a 3D copier. He used Kickstarter to get almost two hundred pre-orders for his 3D copier; and their payments funded manufacture.

Sussex Innovation Centre has on its staff a guy (actually an ex-bank manager) who runs a local Angel network.

What is certain is that funders inevitably take time to get to know your company, and they take time to complete any deal.

Perhaps the best single mentor to have is a potential investor with experience in the field in which you are operating.


Lastly, I come to the role of Conceptor. It is this guy in whose hands it is to raise the entire status of the entrepreneurial revolution. IT-based new businesses are quick and cheap relatively speaking. But Healthcare, public services and education for example have hardly been touched yet.

Here are three inspiring leaders who work at the very front end of innovation.

Jackie Ying started at MIT. She has always encouraged her students to tackle projects that have commercial prospects as much as academic benefits.

In one such project, in order to create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes they used the same technology her MIT lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines. They sold it for an undisclosed sum to Merck.

Later she founded her own Bioengineering and Nano-technology laboratory in Singapore, and over the last 12 years she has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences and 8 startups. A Conceptor par excellence.

Ian Downey is another Conceptor. At the European Space Agency, he puts consortia together for innovative projects enabled by Satellite technology.

To combat the recent sharp rise in Lyme’s Disease he had brought together researchers into malaria in Africa and in the UK, GPs and hospitals in Scotland, and pharmaceutical companies – in a project funded by the ESA at Harwell.

Steve Blank in the States runs nine-week Boot Camps designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – a bit like Accelerators. Since 2011, some 500 teams have taken the course.

His ‘Innovation Corps’ programme has been adopted by the National Institutes of Health and has now been backed by the National Sciences Foundation.

It has inspired new approaches in a variety of other similar bodies in the US and has recently been adopted in Imperial for startups based on synthetic biology.

And Wayra Lab has been asked by Oxford’s Isis whether they would set up a similar programme in Oxford.


Not forgetting the role of mentor manager.

Thibaut Rouqette, the Mentor Manager at Startupbootcamp’s Fintech programme made himself continually aware of the mentoring needs of each and every team all the time; and equally aware of the expertise of all the hundred or so mentors; so that he might take a good stab at who to introduce to whom and when.

He could even find you an expert on payments in sub-Saharan Africa! But there are very few who play this role.


Mentors remain undervalued and undersupplied. Under appreciated largely because it is only after the event that their value becomes so evident. And undervalued because they are only just beginning to be recompensed.

In the early days, the mantra used to be: never adopt a mentor who wants to do it for money (does that necessarily taint everyone?); but these days, as I discovered recently while I was recruiting a mentor for an e-commerce business, the norm seems to be around 1% of equity – no doubt over a period, or in options.

And choice of mentor is often the outcome of a momentary interaction – startups won’t give time for anything longer. While programmes used to depend on someone’s large address book – Reshma Sohani, Jon Bradford or Nektarios Liolios, to-day organisations like Startupbootcamp run more extensive processes. The recruitment and development of a mentor bank is up to the mentor manager. I am just offering my services to a charity – the Rainmaking Foundation, and I shall be very interested to see how they do it.

Above all else it is their different perspectives that makes mentors so valuable, and so essential especially in incubators and research organisations like Harwell; and in Universities.


John Whatmore

February 2016






A lab head and product developer


A lab head and product developer

She encouraged her students to tackle issues that could have commercial appeal as much as scientific value, and helped them to realise their commercial capabilities as well as produce great science. (Science 12 June 2015)

Jackie Ying was eager to push her already productive lab at MIT into the life sciences. Todd Zion was first attracted to her lab because of her fanatical work ethic, and her business-minded approach appealed to his nascent interest in becoming an entrepreneur – she says that every graduate student should tackle a project not only of tremendous scientific interest, but also of great commercial potential.

He was asked by Ying to see if the same technology her lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines could create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes. He spent two years trying to find a material that prevented the insulin from leaking out before he realised that the secret lay in chemically modifying the insulin itself. The discovery led to SmartCells, a company he and Ying co-founded in 2003, which was later sold to Merck for an undisclosed sum.

His business savvy drew the attention of Lita Nelsen, the longtime director of MIT’s technology licensing office because of the way he had run the company as a tight operation, and he was soon back starting another company with his former colleagues.

Ying says that roughly a quarter of her MIT students have founded companies or gone to work for a startup, but she has chosen not to take that path. ‘What interests me’, she says ‘is bringing the technology to a certain level where you can spin it off and then playing an advisory role to make sure that things are running smoothly.’

Andrey Zarur, one of Ying’s first graduate students who developed the technology that Zion later modified to create SmartCells says Ying ‘would take me with her on visits to companies to get funding for the lab. And I would make the presentation. People thought she was taking advantage of me because she made me do three PhD projects, but this was preparing me for the life I want’.

Ying went on to become the founding director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore (‘IBN’) – to spread the twin gospels of top-flight research and entrepreneurship that she had learned at MIT. Her record over the past 12 years suggests that she has done exactly that. IBN has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences, and eight startup companies.

Sometimes, she suggests, faculty members need help in finding a project with commercial promise, and sometimes she needs to find partners in industry to help with a project. Overall she hopes to find a way for IBN to help nurture new companies without losing all the scientists who did the technology’s foundational work. ‘We will continue to help the firms with research’, Ying says, ‘and maybe they will give us not just royalties but some shares to the people involved.’

John Whatmore, February 2016

Related news:

* It is rumoured that Telefonica’s Wayra Lab is in discussions with Isis, Oxford University’s technology transfer organisation, to set up a unit in Oxford like that of the former’s Accelerator in London.

* Imperial College now has at least four accelerators, each in a different field, each designed to encourage an entrepreneurial environment alongside high quality academic research and teaching. (A full description of these will appear shortly in my blog series.)

Ten trends in the doing of innovation


Ten trends in the doing of innovation

In the world of innovation, I see increasing maturity, and shifts – in targets, (item 1), in leading players (item 2), and in supporters (items 3 and 4); but a continuing belief in Unicorns.

*         Attacking bigger issues: various approaches to challenge-led innovations

*         Accelerators migrate to new sponsors – charitable foundations, corporates and                                        even universities

*         Mentoring becoming more commercial you pay; but how do you find?

*         A programme of support for v hi-growth companies A new support          programme for 50 hi-growth companies; while the Government folds the Business Growth Service


Attacking bigger issues

Challenge-led innovation is a difficult topic because the range of possible challenges is so wide. In several sectors there have been Open innovation events where leading companies have pitched their challenges to potential innovators. Nesta has focused on Prize-led challenges. Vinnova, the Swedish Innovation Agency, has focused on critical needs in society and industry, promoting new cross-sector collaborations and fostering systemic approaches. Innovate UK has focused on challenges and grants for strategic product development; and Silicon Valley’s Singularity University focuses simply on what might work for you.

Accelerators migrate to new sponsors

Accelerators have continued to flourish despite the entry of several charitable foundations that have reduced the cost to participants (in equity sought, and by paying more expenses). Corporates have adopted them with a vengeance despite the moderate chances of returns, and the smaller attraction to participants – in terms of finding ongoing funding (see Nesta’s report: And interest is stirring in universities (notably in Imperial and Oxford).

Mentoring becoming more commercial

The mentoring weather has changed. It used to be: ‘No mentor who expects to be paid is worth his salt’, but nowadays there is virtually no such person to be found (except in Accelerators (in Incubators and their ilk they remain – for some reason – rare.)) The standard fee appears to be around 1% of equity, but finding the right mentors is still an issue. I resorted recently to encouraging two CEOs with complementary needs and skills to mentor each other! (The 24 Feb meeting of UCL’s INTER-CEP Symposium Series in London is on Mentoring – it still has places.)

A programme of support for v hi-growth companies

Growth Builder is a new, independent 12-month programme of support for 50 hi-growth companies – that provides tutor groups, workshops with hi-growth founders, networking events, introductions and other events to inspire and inform. The Government’s abandonment of the Business Growth Service (which provided access to mentors for businesses with hi-growth potential) seems more than perverse just at the moment when Innovate UK had begun to roll it out to its grant winners.

John Whatmore, February 2016

See for recent commentaries on:

  • innovation centres – in Sussex and Oxford
  • mutual support groups for senior executives in SMEs
  • The latest and largest co-working space in Europe is in London
  • Five different kinds of mentors – all of whom you may need


WeWork is sharing at work


WeWork is sharing at work.

WeWork has launched a huge new co-working space in London: based on the fact that startups in communities learn mostly from each other, WeWork provides flexible work space that encourages the sharing of experience.

In WeWork’s concept, designs and operations, sharing experience is fundamental:

  •      it creates physical communities – of work spaces
  •      it creates social communities – of business developers
  •      it creates internet communities for them
  •      and it aspires to creating international communities.

Its latest work space in London – the largest co-working space in Europe – is designed to maximize encounters (‘70% of members make use of other businesses in the building’): it is in the shape of a cube, with an atrium in its centre; and almost all of its internal walls are glass.

With 3,100 work spaces across 7 floors, each floor has a wide variety of different size offices and well-equipped meeting rooms, with every office need catered for (copying, document handling, private phones etc). In any incubator, a large kitchen/diner is a great place for unexpected encounters; and small meeting groups a great place for problem-solving.

Here, each floor has a large communal meeting area where there is a café providing food and drink and a bar for beer. Opened in July 2015, it is already 80% full and expected to be completely full by March or April 2016.

With a buzz of intensity and enthusiasm, it feels like a market place of entrepreneurs, in which every encounter may have possibilities. There events for members every day – about such things as Yoga, marketing, Pilates or legals. And an Entrepreneur-in-residence has just been appointed, with whom you can book sessions. On the first floor, there is a games area, where there is darts and a Table Tennis table. And there are personal services on the premises, such as hairdressing; and a reception service for deliveries eg of online orders.

Membership – on a monthly basis – provides you with a key, a T-shirt and a password.

The latter gives you access to the WeWork App, on which you put up information about you and your business, and where there is a Wants Wall where you can post recommendations, news etc; and you can pin up your current needs, and expect someone to come back to you who will tell you about how they solved that problem – either from your own work space or another location.

Started by two entrepreneurs in New York in 2011, WeWork now has 42,000 desk spaces in 63 locations, many of them in the US but fast expanding elsewhere, though none yet in the UK outside London (where there are already 6,000 WeWork desk spaces). Membership also gives you access to WeWork facilities in other locations and even in other countries.

At around £425 a desk per month, it is well priced for its City location. While its pricing favours small companies, WeWork also has its larger ones: Skyscanner and Bla Bla Car among them (unsurprisingly both internet based.)

What distinguishes WeWork is its size and its focus on mutual connections. It is unlike Google Campus, the Hub and most other co-working spaces in that it is more of a co-development space. It is unlike the Tramperies in that it is not sector specific; and unlike Accelerators and mutual support groups in that mentoring is not part of the deal.

 We Work is unique – as about sharing at work.

John Whatmore, February 2016

See also: Co-working spaces are designed to promote change and action in Silicon Valley’s megaliths

Silicon Valley’s megaliths are passionate about change and about providing working environments that will echo their mission – to challenge the present and to develop the future. Nothing is exempt: projects, teams, spaces, furnishings, messages, are all designed to provide relentless pressure to try something new.





Oxford Innovations: offices for SMEs


Oxford Innovations – a major source of incubator space in the South East, but one that provides meagre support for occupants

It can boast a good record in the development and management of Innovation Centres and in sustaining the companies in these Centres, firstly because of the value of the address, and secondly because of the networking opportunities they provide.

Next: WeWork is sharing at work. WeWork has launched a huge new co-working space in London.

The Oxford Centre for Innovation provides incubators for young businesses aspiring to hi-growth, and that are based on exploiting knowledge – with

  • flexible working spaces, in some cases with a small amount of co-working space
  • access to finance, both through running Angel Networks and links with VCs
  • support, in the form of Incubator Directors, who coach and organise workshops and events along with a their network of associates.

Originally set up by a charitable trust, and now a for-profit private company, it has Centres in nineteen locations, mainly in the South of England.

All of its Innovation Centres provide serviced office accommodation of various sizes, on short lets and at relatively low cost, together with a kitchen/cafe, and the services of an Incubation Director. These Innovation Centres tend to be full where they are located in prime locations – in Oxford there is a desperate shortage of space for aspiring young businesses. (A HackSpace is about to be opened in the basement of the Oxford Centre.)

The Incubation Director’s role (of which there are six – in some cases shared between locations) is to offer business coaching both in their Centres and in their areas, based on business analysis tools that help them identify their issues and develop their plans; and they also organise workshops and events with their network of associates; but support does not include active mentoring, and evidently varies from Centre to Centre depending on circumstances and funding. The Directors’ role encompasses several different tasks; and good candidates are evidently difficult to identify and to recruit.

Consideration is being given to working with a large corporate with the aim of setting up local incubator space to whose young businesses it would contribute, and from which it might hope to benefit. It is also seeking to develop closer relationships with universities and their technical and businesses courses – for use by its young businesses. It is interested in replicating the model it has established at Culham and Harwell, where a quantum of technical support and advice and access to scientists and their facilities is available free of charge to the Centre’s young businesses. And, like other Innovation Centres, feasibility studies and opportunities are being explored for further Centres in new locations.

(Oxford Innovations was one of four organisations that delivered the Government’s Business Growth Service – which through the advice of its Growth Managers provided mentors, consultants and advisers for businesses with high growth potential; but the Government is now closing this service.)

John Whatmore, February, 2016

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.