Kings’s College London’s (KCL) late start with Startups has enabled it to define its role and shape its offering, yet also to experiment with initiatives, and look into the future.
Its 12-month annual Accelerator is unusual in several respects: firstly in its duration (3 -6 months is normal); and in the fact that it draws its members equally from students, staff and alumni. In relation to the number of potential candidates, it is of course a small initiative. But it is significant in that running an accelerator at all alongside university courses is difficult and uncommon.
To enhance the uncertain impact of mentors, Julie Devonshire, the Director of King’s Entrepreneurship Institute, who brings experience from working with ‘impact’ and social startups, has put together a group of mentors – outsiders who commit to so many hours a week, some paid and some pro bono – as Experts-in-residence. Each is expert in a particular topic that dominates discussions, and relates to barriers to scaling eg technology, creativity, investment, leadership etc.
The Head of Ventures is the guiding hand – in assisting startups to identify the issues for which they want help; and members of the startups have to book time with the appropriate mentor. The focus is on the subject of the moment, not on the outcomes of a relationship.
She has also taken an innovative approach to the relationship with potential investors. You cannot keep a large number continuously interested, she opines, so she has built a network of investors who are into Seed and Seed Plus companies, and who are active in the startup community.
A series of investor breakfasts has been established, to each of which a small number of potential investors are invited – to hear each time from about five ventures to which there is a common theme eg AI.
Demo Days (abandoned by some Accelerators as contributing little to investment decisions, and often, it must be admitted, a bit of a charade) are still part of this programme because they remain an efficient way for investors to view a number of ventures at once and a valuable way for ventures to get themselves onto the radar of investors. Last September saw another initiative: the first collaborative Demo Day – with UCL and Imperial – to which over a hundred investors had been attracted, of whom 51 had never before engaged with startups from any of the three universities involved. Ten were from the US, Korea and Hong Kong.
It is too early to talk about metrics, she says (as everyone says – despite this being a desperately recognised need) but declared that the 70 ventures supported to date had collectively raised more than £14mn and employed 288 people. Yet she is obsessed with output and is aiming to work on this issue with UCL, Imperial and others.
The overall aim of the Institute is wide: it is to support the growth of the Entrepreneurial mindset. A programme of sessions about ‘the seven skills of an entrepreneurial mindset’ (eg innovation, agile methodology, working in diverse teams et al) are offered in a variety of formats on an annual cycle to everyone at Kings, on the basis that in these days every career would benefit from an injection of entrepreneurship.
The department has also initiated a research project, a 5-year study with Kings expert Department of Neuroscience, whose aim is to understand ‘What is entrepreneurial thinking in a neurological context and what makes it happen’.
Along with Santander, she has been asking questions about why there is not gender equality in this field; and exploring ways in which gender participation might be rebalanced.
What does Julie expect of the future in this field? She expects consolidation among accelerators; she expects accelerators to continue to become increasingly specialised, and that support will become optimised around specialised fields. And Accelerators will draw participants internationally; and UK talent will be attracted to expert accelerators in other countries.
John Whatmore, November 2019