A new design-led Incubator cum Accelerator

A new design-led Incubator cum Accelerator in a partnership with a specialist property company In a local partnership, with significant external funding, and a great deal of support, the participants in CRL’s programmes are all developing physical products – with great success.

CRL is an incubator community whose 75 young businesses, all developing physical products, have now built more than 4,000 prototypes (‘you have to make it before you can tell whether it might meet realistic customer needs.’). Twenty-six of those businesses have passed through its accelerator. The community is now working with over 50 manufacturers and 30 delivery partners and counts more than 20 investors.

CRL runs a fully funded mentoring programme (called ‘Boost’) offering support in manufacturing, marketing and investment for companies that are taking products to market and looking to scale.

The programme consists of group workshops and one-to-one mentoring sessions. Facilitators include entrepreneurs and founders of hardware companies that have traded on a global scale and secured significant investment, consultants experienced in navigating manufacturing ecosystems in Asia and beyond, investors and investment experts, and sessions led by marketing consultants.

CRL’s 6-month Accelerator programme claims to be the first purpose-built hardware accelerator in the UK – its aim being to maximise the scaleability of startups developing physical products. It has a tightly proscribed and intensive programme, with two days a week of one-to-ones or group meetings with specialists, and the focus on business models, finding the right solution, and the route to market, investor resonance, pitching practice and a trip to meet manufacturers in China. Participants grant to CRL an option on 3% of their equity. It claims an outstanding 80% survival rate.

Misleadingly named Central Research Laboratory (‘CRL’), it sits in a refurbished old factory on an industrial estate being redeveloped in Hayes and Harlington; but it is in fact an Incubator cum Accelerator that opened its doors in 2015.

U+I is a property developer whose strategy is to regenerate areas through careful design of mixed-use developments and wholehearted community engagement. They are also starting to include an Incubator cum accelerator (not unlike Canary Wharf’s Level39) in key developments to attract high growth businesses.

CRL occupies a small part of one of the big industrial buildings planned for the estate, of which only a small number have been built so far. It is to be one of five Incubator/Accelerators being built on similar estates across the UK – the next one at Brighton, already building, all to be focused on creativity and innovation, for which a man with an unrivalled pedigree in design has been recruited to be their mastermind.

From Central St.Martins and the Royal College of Art, Mat Hunter started in San Francisco with IDEO before heading its London office, and then Chief Design Officer at the Design Council, where he led government innovation projects before creating the Spark accelerator programme. Mat, uniquely, brings to CRL an enormous number of connections from his past with which to build his crucial network of supporters (and investors).

As a design-led incubator it tends to draw its participants from diverse design-based universities like Goldsmiths, the Royal College of Art, Imperial, Kingston and Central St. Martins, and at this moment it is about 60% full.

It boasts two small labs (one includes two milling machines and the other focused on 3D printing, electrics and electronics, managed by a technician.) There are seven studio offices – for the more advanced businesses; there is the usual assortment of hot desks and team desks, and a small kitchen (and the inevitable ping pong table); and a big desk area for the Accelerator, which is now pitching for its sixth cohort. (The entire fifth cohort was away in China when I visited – looking for sources of supply; though one member was at Y Combinator looking for future funding.)

This (and each of the four other incubators to be built) must have a theme in relation to its locality – here in Hayes related to the heritage of EMI Record’s now-forgotten research and development labs.

It is handsomely staffed: in addition to a technician, two people run the Accelerator and the Boost programme, three support product development, one supports marketing, one manages the co-working spaces and services, and there are two administrators – in total, ten. In addition, there is a changing cohort of 20-30 mentors, and there is a mentor-in-residence and an investor-in-residence.

Initial funding came as to one third from property developer U+I, and two thirds from HEFCE and ERDF – all eager to generate high quality jobs in this area of London.

CRL’s progress puts it well on the road to validating its business model, and establishing its sources of funding in order to consolidate its future.

John Whatmore, February, 2019




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