Imperial’s multi-themed Incubator

Imperial College’s Incubator and its sector-themed components

Imperial’s Incubator houses some 20 SMEs and has four other components, all of which aim to help bring specific expertise, contacts, space and finance to incubate and accelerate ideas – de-risking them and pressure testing them against the ‘real world’ of customers.

Two of the four are focused on the commercialisation of emerging technologies (Synthetic Biology and Cleantech); and two are university-related idea-development facilities (a ‘deep science’ pre-seed Accelerator and an Advanced Hackathon).

The Incubator is home to some 80 young businesses, where the success ratios quoted and the financial returns indicated are very high; but the number of new businesses generated is not.


 The Incubator’s main aim is to encourage an entrepreneurial environment alongside high quality academic research and teaching. Students are encouraged to try, experiment and sometimes fail in a stigma free environment. All the four examples below utilise Lean Canvas/I-Corp-like (1) approaches and stress early customer engagement as a key attribute.

Imperial’s Incubator, active now for ten years, is multi-faceted: it is a large area on two floors, with offices in a figure of eight around an atrium, with some technical facilities, a strategically placed coffee machine (with free coffee) and a small open plan kitchen – and thus full of ‘bumper car opportunities’. (A similar space is currently under construction at the White City campus.)

Its 80 young businesses are at all sorts of stages of development. Some 20 SMEs form the core occupants, in many of which Imperial Innovations has invested and taken an active part in their development – they stay for 2 to 5 years, (average three) and two or three new ones are able to enter each year. There are some 30 virtual businesses (that hot desk); 10 ‘cleantech’ businesses, and 10 very early stage businesses in synthetic biology; and finally, it is now host to the winners in an annual competition for startups.

Support (ie advice, introductions etc) is available, mostly in the university, through the Incubator Manager, who meets CEOs and teams at intervals and by happenstance, and asks them how he can help them (ie in reactive mode); but it is down to them to figure out what they don’t know that they need to know (eg about business) – business experience from outside the university plays little active part in the Incubator.

Advancing the development of synthetic biology. SynbiCITE is one of seven ‘Innovation and Knowledge Centres’ established in the last few years in different places round the UK, and supported mainly by the Research Councils, whose aim is to develop emerging technologies that have the potential to become major industries. Synthetic Biology – creating manufacturable agents by digitally engineering their biology – is in its very early stages: the Centre is still in the process of identifying challenges for which there may be commercialisable solutions (such as in chemicals, advanced materials, energy, health and environmental protection); and seeks to generate a wide variety of collaborations (it embraces 27 UK universities and 67 large companies) that will advance its development (see also 2); and to provide computer-based design, construction and validation of the constructs in the science. It already has ten early stage businesses located in the Incubator.

Developing innovations in cleantech and climate change Imperial’s Climate accelerator programme – also housed in the Incubator – focused on cleantech commercialisation (and the only such programme in the EU) is an 18-month ‘real life’ business school for cleantech entrepreneurs which teaches tools and techniques with the help of intensive coaching. In addition, it offers participating entrepreneurs Master Classes, a Venture competition, and connects them with customers and investors (see also 3). The ClimateLaunchpad is Europe’s largest cleantech business idea competition designed to unlock Europe’s cleantech potential and support innovations in climate change. Its incubators provide opportunities to work with experts and partners, both on the supply and the demand side, and offers startup tours, travel and support etc. 

 Student focused ‘deep science’ pre-accelerator. The Incubator is running the fourth of its competitions for startups, whose fifteen winners will have space free of charge for one year in the Incubator, where they will progress towards becoming investable businesses. Out of 170 applicants, 22 were selected to enter the 12- week programme (a classic Accelerator programme (4)); and 7 will pitch to the judges, one of whom will win a £10,000 prize. It is designed to enable scientists to turn their inventions into new products and ventures, especially in slower paced and higher cost sectors such as hardware, cleantech and biotech; and only 15% of the present cohort are digital businesses. For contacts and supporters, the programme relies intensively on Imperial Innovations and Imperial College’s networks.

Advanced Hackspaces provide a community of innovators with a network of prototyping workshops and labs eg in electronics, digital manufacturing, metal working, computing and chemistry, offering use of equipment and opening up opportunities for collaboration with “like-minded makers” for prototyping concepts, either for basic research, product development, personal projects or entrepreneurial ideas. By bringing together top academics, professionals, technical and practical experts, Hackathons tackle large scale problems and grand challenges that would benefit from networked science solutions – which can be followed by more focused Hackathons.

Imperial Innovations technology transfer team sit at the front end helping to identify and protect IP where needed, and at the other end, taking opportunities to commercialise IP.

John Whatmore, March 2016


     (1)Steve Blank’s I-Corps Biotech Boot Camp

Hallowed publication ‘Nature’ reports on a nine-week ‘Biotech Boot Camp’ in the US, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which aims to get entrepreneurial scientists to get out there and ask potential customers what they want.

     (2)A promoter of collaborations to tackle serious issues

Ian Downey at the European Space Agency 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 Agency at Harwell.

     (3)A lab head and product developer

At MIT 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)

     (4)Accelerators as short, managed development programmes for a small number of young businesses, working in a communal space, and with a plethora of supporters, to reach a stage where they have a business proposition that can attract further funding.



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