London South Bank University’s Enterprise Initiatives LSBU has been a leader in a small field of universities – with its incubators for young businesses; and won itself the top Enterprise Award in 2016 for Universities and Higher Education establishments.
LSBU houses three incubators of around 130 startups in all, managed and supported by four key members of staff, who run programmes of workshops, etc., a part-time ‘accelerator’ (bought in), and encourage mutual interaction among participants.
A 2017 report about the role of universities in supporting high-growth graduate startups (‘Putting the Uni in Unicorn’, Centre for Entrepreneurs) lamented that only a third of universities offered incubation programmes aimed at graduates. It added that support, where available, tends to be more formal eg talks, workshops, sessions etc (often with undergraduates).
About half of the 134 young businesses in LSBU’s incubators are early-stage startups (students with a developable idea), and a small number are established SMEs (graduates). The rest are local businesses that have been selected for their potential benefit from or contribution to the university (they are required to be trading and profitable.) (Of the 134, about 30% are technology-based and about 30% are social or charitable enterprises.)
Its support programmes are based round two key staff members for its student programmes; and two key staff members for its space for local businesses. The former appear to involve themselves almost daily with their more established incubatees (their programme also offered workshops and events such as lectures and presentations.) The staff members for the local businesses call themselves unofficial mentors and/or glorified estate agents (one the Chief Morale Officer!).
This same report stresses the value of being with and learning from fellow incubatees who are at similar stages, and building strong relationships with managers and mentors ‘who care for your progress and want to see you grow’, based on constant interaction. A number of the businesses have found mentoring help for themselves within their incubator (and some have provided such help to others). Thirty members of the student programmes link themselves together through ‘Slack’, a programme that enables them to look for help or experience from other participants that they need from time to time.
The Incubator runs an Accelerator Network programme twice a year (conceived in 2014, supported by White Horse Capital and now offered widely) – one day a week of development support for 6 weeks (plus some aftercare).
This report also emphasised the value of connecting width mentors, investors, service providers and university expertise with real world experience, and on a basis that is continuous and responsive to evolving needs. (I have not come across many university incubators that have successfully engaged alumni as intimately or on the scale that top Accelerators make use of mentors.)
The theme – of mutual exchange – also permeates its contacts with the world outside the university, as it does with local landlords, with other universities, and other countries. Its contacts are not just with local businesses, but with SetSquared, the enterprise arm of five universities in the West of England and Ryerson University in Toronto – the two joint winners of the Worldwide Enterprise Award in 2018; and it has arranged trade visits to Ryerson and to Long Island University. It is a member of the UK Science Parks Association and with the Sweden-based International University Business Incubator organization.
Its selection criteria and its support programme are validated by the record it has of only a single failure among the businesses it has supported in the last four years; and by its waiting list for a place in its incubator – of 12-18 months.
John Whatmore, January, 2019