Inventors Clubs have a role

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Inventors Clubs offer help to inventors – who are often ‘floundering about on their own.’ Inventors Clubs offer to people who have an idea for a new product opportunities to meet up and present them to each other, and to ‘staff’ with experience of supporting such ideas. They depend mainly on their own tenacity and on the experience, the contacts, the support skills and the support offered by the ‘staff’.

The British Library’s Inventors’ Club series is designed ‘to help people refine, protect and commercialise their idea for a new product’. Meeting on Monday evenings once a month, its aim is to give budding inventors the opportunity to network with others in the same boat, hear from speakers who have successfully commercialised their inventions, stay motivated and share insider hints, tips, expertise and experience.

It is primarily about introductions, networking and expertise sharing, but it is constrained by the fact that it is not confidential or IP protected. (But the Business & IP Centre does provide a range of support services for the protection of Intellectual Property.) Meetings are carried out under an NDA agreed to when you sign in for the meeting.

One participant started his journey by booking a one to one meeting at the British Library with Bob Lindsey which led him to consider manufacturing options, securing IP protection and the introduction to the Kingston Invents inventors’ group.

Bob Lindsey – ‘a technical wizard’, is a chartered Engineer who has spent over twenty years advising entrepreneurs on getting their new products to market; Mark Sheahan has been the British Library’s Inventor in Residence for over 13 years, and Barry Slayford – ‘advises on all parts of the journey from initial idea to market launch’.

Kingston’s Round Table of Inventors, which meets in the evening once a month, offers ‘a chance to air your concept/ invention privately to approximately 20-30 or more friendly fellow innovators’; and they are there because they too have an idea for a new product.

All attendees sign a Confidentiality and Non-Disclosure Agreement allowing you to speak openly about your concept without compromising your ability to apply for intellectual property enabling you to get feedback on your idea before investing in patents/ trademarks/design registrations.

At each meeting there are two presentations each of 20 minutes – 20 minutes presenting your concept and 20 minutes for a mixture of open questioning/suggestions/ brainstorming. If you’re not ready to give a full presentation and just want to air an early stage idea or concept, you can have a very short 10-minute slot; eg for Go/No Go decision-making! Kingston also has a guide to presenting and a survey template that enables you to take away the room’s written ideas and gauge the level of potential market interest.

One member, Dean, who helps run the club is a designer/ problem solver who along with an in-house engineer in the group ‘could see the potential and helped to improve the product’ of the participant (above) from the British library Inventors Club; and now helped him to prepare a 10 point progress plan all the way to market, along which he had got half way, he said. During that time, he had reduced his design from seven models to a single model, had contact with a patent attorney and taken out a patent (pending); and approached several possible manufacturers seeking to reduce tooling costs.  He is now considering crowd funding to finance some or all of the costs of making an initial run – enough to sell to the four categories of ‘fanatics’ of this type of product.

‘You might walk away with different points of view, ideas for improvements, industry contacts, a potential partner or maybe even an investor’ says Kingston’s website.

John Whatmore, December 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The UK’s only hardware focused Accelerator (and Incubator) is growing

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The Central Research Laboratory (CRL), the first and leading hardware product focused accelerator in the UK, revealed plans at its Demo Day on 26 November to create five Innovation Hubs over the next five years, under a new brand ‘Plus X’ and with an enhanced offer, with the first opening in Brighton in January. 

Claiming to be ‘an amazing group of entrepreneurs, makers, inventors and technologists who love to share what they know and with the best open-access prototyping workshops in London’, CRL’s Accelerator programme works with early stage startups (50 to date) to take them from early prototype towards manufacture and commercial success, and has had some notable successes (AceleronMimica Lab and Cosi Care.)

CRL’s goal is to ensure that high-productivity and high-growth-potential businesses are attracted to locations where such things are too rare, increasing economic activity and productivity – often as a result of reducing the brain drain of graduates that move to a location to study and then leave (eg for London).

Research has estimated that such a hub – with the intensive support that it provides, gives a return on investment of over 5 to 1; will generate ten times more value than a standard co-working space, and many times more social value than a conventional office block.

The CRL Accelerator is a fully funded programme, part funded by European Regional Development Fund, with support from HEFCE, Brunel University and property developer U+I, offering support in manufacturing, marketing and investment for companies that are taking hardware products to market and looking to scale.

At its well-equipped labs at Hayes, its programme includes group workshops and one-to-one mentoring sessions. Among its facilitators are entrepreneurs and founders of hardware companies that have traded on a global scale and secured significant investment, consultants experienced in navigating manufacturing eco-systems in Asia and beyond, as well as investors and investment experts.

The programme offers customer discovery, product development, engineering support, investment readiness, a £5,000 grant (and looks to take 3% in equity), mentorship, 24/7 prototyping facilities, and a trip to China. (CRL is now accepting applications for its six month, hands-on, hardware accelerator programme starting in January 2020.)

Over the 4 years that the CRL Accelerator has been active it has expanded to offer follow-on incubator space and this has allowed a specialist community of product-based businesses to become established. It now aims to exploit this success, by working with U+I to build and operate innovation hubs in regional cities across the UK – under the name of Plus X (http://www.plusx.space). Each hub will support startups, scale-ups and corporate innovation teams and will make the most of local strengths in software, hardware and other technologies.

Plus X Brighton, a 40,000 sq ft purpose-designed building, will open in January 2020 and be home to more than 500 entrepreneurs and innovators, with close links to both University of Brighton and University of Sussex. The Central Research Laboratory itself will move in late 2020 into a newly refurbished Victorian powerhouse, tripling capacity in Hayes. Future locations may include Greenwich, Manchester, Birmingham and Oxfordshire.

John Whatmore, 2019

 

 

 

KCL’s Accelerator breaks new ground

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Horses for Courses for success with Incubators and Accelerators

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Its horses for courses is the message in Nesta’s recent report about Incubators and Accelerators and their success.

Nesta’s just published report on Incubators and Accelerators was primarily about their economic value and therefore the merits of government support. The answer is very positive as regards the startups themselves, but also in their effects on the local eco-systems of which they are part.

They have various objectives, says the report, including the strategic support of their parent, in helping local authorities in their developments, in supporting innovation within industries, and in generating initial returns to owners and investors.

The research reports that they perceive that their impact was vital or significant in over 60% of cases to the enterprise’s chances of success. Accelerator participation was strongly associated with startup survival, with employee growth and with funds raised.

A striking finding was that the launch of an Accelerator increases the amount of investment going to that region (especially with hi-tech ventures), though Local Authority Partnerships are more interested in [incubators] of public bodies (such as universities) and feel without influence on private incubators and accelerators.

After all the sophisticated analysis in the report, the ultimate conclusion is about adaptation to different situations: if your Accelerator provides support appropriate to the evolving needs of individual startups (and there are lots of different support regimes), you have the greatest chance of having a positive impact on their outcomes.

To take the findings in order of ‘perceived usefulness to startups’:

‘Direct funding’

Many if not most Accelerators provide joiners with some funding [from £5k to $50k]. Where the members of a startup dedicate themselves full time for their throw of the dice, clearly financial support is vital. As is funding where the concept requires R&D for the further development of a marketable product.

‘Office or Lab space’ and ‘Access or connections to peers’

Almost all Accelerators and all Incubators offer space – Accelerators to around a dozen teams (Incubators for more); but the importance of access to peers is often undervalued. Fellow startups are an important source of support, enabled best by hugga mugga spaces, café and recreational spaces, eating/drinking together, discussion meetings – places where new encounters provide opportunities for conversations. Access to peers outside the Incubator or Accelerator is as important but is of course mediated by the mentors.

‘Coaching and personal development’ and ‘Testing and refining the business model’

Mentoring is one of the most distinctive elements of Accelerator regimes, but also one of the least specific, and perhaps one with the least predictable outcomes.

The report identifies the testing and refining of the business model as one of the more influential factors in terms of successful outcomes.

Two notable attempts to make mentoring more rigorous are those of Steve Blank of I-Corps, who identifies five different aspects of development where mentors with specific backgrounds and experience are needed, often in succession to one another, namely: conceptualisation, strategy, product development, marketing and funding.

Imperial’s new initiative is based on MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service. It has entailed a wide-ranging knowledge of experienced business people from whom to attract good candidates. It is based on pairs of mentors attached to each startup (making for more balanced and more moderated contributions) and regular reporting to a Head of Mentoring (enabling regular reviews of the contribution to the startup). ‘Entrepreneurs need training in mentoring’ added Tim Barnes in the discussion at the Report’s presentation.

‘Business skills development’

Some startups will come with no previous experience of business, and those more mature team members (who are often regarded as making more valuable contributions to innovation) may already have well honed business skills.

‘Access and connections to potential partners and customers’

Given that a high proportion of startup failures are due to there being ‘no real need for the product’ (CBInsights), this might be seen as one of the most essential of contributions to the outcome of the startup (and one of the most valuable contributions of mentors), though there are of course innovations that are so novel that customers/markets for them do not yet exist.

‘Access and connections to potential investors/ funders’

This is of course the very essence of the Accelerator; and funding the future of their startups the test of their success.

‘Team formation’ though more significant in Incubators than Accelerators (where teams often arrive ready-made) may be a field that deserves more attention in Accelerators (EntrepreneurFirst’s successes are significant).

The biggest barrier to running Accelerators in particular is the cost of financing them. Shortage of quality ventures and of suitable premises are also mentioned.

John Whatmore, October 2019

 

 

 

Making Innovation flourish

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3. I visit a uniquely successful Open Innovation incubator – in the Arts If innovation is of the essence to the performing arts, the ’Studio’ of the National Theatre – which has a unique reputation as a powerhouse of creativity and innovation – seems to be a playground of collaborative experimentation – like no other. Seemingly best described as a semi-curated space for creative collaboration, by artfully managing to bring together those who might in some way contribute to one another, it readily attracts people who can benefit from the simple safe spaces that it offers in which to experiment, ‘to dream, to work, to sweat over ideas that aren’t ready and to hone stuff that is nearly there’ – a vibrant, active, welcoming place for unexpected and interesting things to happen for a wide range of artists in the nation’s performing arts.

The National Theatre’s Studio is a building beside the Old Vic that used to be the latter’s paintframe, but is now a unique powerhouse for original work in the performing arts in the UK. It was described to me as a ‘development house’, like a semi-curated playground for people whose ideas look to the curators as if they might burgeon there, whose essential ingredients are ideas, potential and space.

Nicholas Hytner describes it thus: ‘The Studio is the National Theatre’s engine room. It’s also an irreplaceable resource for the whole of British theatre. Actors, directors, theatre-makers of all sorts – and above all writers – use it to dream, to work, to sweat over ideas that aren’t ready and to hone stuff that is nearly there’; and it does so ‘under the radar’, where there is no explicit objective or goal, thus allowing them ‘to fail’ – from which further development, the next idea, or the next project might emerge.

About a third of its work is for the NT, a third for the wider theatre sector across the UK, and the remaining third on ideas that seem to have a future but have not yet found it. And its work encompasses people who play most if not all of the roles in theatre, from actors to writers, composers, designers, directors and producers and even including researchers and historians.

Primarily it is about creativity via collaboration and collaborative experience. Some of what happens in the Studio takes the form of semi-curated collaborations (eg writer with composer, chef with actor, established writer with abstract performance artists).

The core staff – of under ten people, each with dramatically different backgrounds and experience are above all else interacters and matchmakers, ‘playfully curious’, and lateral thinkers with associative minds. They are very active in going out and seeing work, to learn about everything that is new in the arts world, that seems to have potential and that might succumb to collaborative development.

And from the knowledge that they acquire and from their considerable experience, they invite people to get in touch and pitch their needs – individuals, groups, even organisations that have open minds and collaborative cultures, with a view to their spending time in the studio – often in unlikely and unpredictable pairings – just to see what happens from their workings together, or to develop some work-in-progress.

These opportunities for experimentation are much sought after and the pressure for space is considerable, putting heavy responsibility on the expertise and experience of the staff for making decisions about the allocation of spaces. Directors, designers and actors are readily attracted the 500 yards from the NT itself often just to draw inspiration from or to contribute to the playful atmosphere that the Studio exudes (everyone gets the same daily fee.)

The Studio contains two separate performance studios, the smaller of which is furnished with digital technology and comprehensive rig, and for movement, but without the prospect of much scenery; and is more suited to working on ideas and concepts. The second is larger and more like a theatre space where ideas for theatre are experimented with in terms of how they might be portrayed and how they come over. The third space is generally used for reading scripts aloud (although the room was used as the ‘War Horse’ production office, a ground-breaking production that was substantially developed at the Studio.) These spaces are used primarily by writers, directors and producers trying out their ideas about something, simply to see what happens if you do it this way or that – without any particular goal; and thus, the failure to make it work is neither here nor there, except as perhaps representing a milestone in progress, from which a new problem or opportunity emerges.

There are other spaces – of various sizes: a smaller room, currently being used for two weeks by a small young group with a new idea but no home base in which to work it out together; and yet smaller ones (with no ornamentation – Peter Brooke’s The Empty Space being a universally pervasive theme) – one currently occupied for several weeks by a writer, and another by an historian writing a treatise on Gender in the Theatre. And then a further section of the building houses the Archive of the National Theatre. There is a small and carefully tended roof garden, described as a ‘thinking space’. And there are office-type rooms, meeting rooms, break-out rooms, dressing rooms and music rooms.

On the ground floor, there is a kitchen and a Green Room, and an area where every Thursday sees a significant but totally informal joining together – to eat lunch and to talk, when some group will show a performance-in–progress, which will be followed by lively discussion and comment, (and which will often spark new projects).

The Studio also has an educational role. It runs a programme for Staff Directors (one of whom is attached to one of the three NT theatres) to provide them with the opportunity to learn craft from an NT director, as well as occasionally to develop a project of their own. And there is an annual two-week course for some twenty emerging directors, chosen on the basis of recent work that the staff members have seen, in which specific experts contribute to their development, and which helps them to benefit from meeting their peers. And the Studio works in this context with the individual departments at the NT (Literary/Casting/Music etc)

The closure for six months of the Cottesloe Theatre, the smallest of the NTs three spaces, has led to an opportunity to use the Square – the space formed by the L-shape of the National Theatre – for performances of a different kind. In temporary buildings, they were smaller, shorter runs, and less dependent on scenery and technology, and hence simpler and more experimental, and it was hoped that this might carry over into the Cottesloe itself. As such, they take a place in the current fashion for performance art that pervades many genres, inspired in part perhaps by the overbearing developments in personal communication.

With many champions, the Studio has a unique position among a small number of discreet organisations that play a similar role, but none so comprehensively or so egregiously.

John Whatmore, October 2019

Making Innovation flourish

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2. Artists as disrupters: an incubator where artists and technology meet A New York Incubator takes a realistic look at the future of work in cities through the perspective of innovation in the arts

Forty full-time fee-paying members have been selected from over 400 applicants to have two years of full-time access to the 8,000 square foot co-working space in New York at the New Museum’s then four-week-old art and technology co-working incubator. The space includes amenities typical of both business incubators and maker spaces, such as meeting spaces and technical equipment including 3D printers. Aside from access to the space, membership also includes business classes and mentorships.

The values people bring to the incubator are different to the values at a conventional business incubator because “they are not necessarily devoted to profit, scale or attracting investors.”

Its goal is to support and diversify creative industries in New York City. A study by the New York Center for an Urban Future indicates that although New York turns out many art and design graduates who would like to stay in the city, unfortunately most don’t have resources to do so. Another study conducted by software company Intuit indicated that by 2020, more than 40 percent of the American workforce, or 60 million people, will be freelancers, contractors and temp workers. The hope is that it will become part of a vibrant New York City cultural and economic ecosystem as co-creators of a community that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Rafaël Rozendaal is an artist who creates unique URLs and websites in order to sell them to people who agree to be stewards; artist Lisa Park uses technology to detect her brain activity and then displays it in real-time as waves on pools of water; and Carlo Van de Roer has created novel techniques for manipulating light in images and is working on patenting his inventions. NEW INC tries to help its members leverage the intellectual property they are creating without taking a financial interest.

‘When people describe themselves as an artist, they get less money for a job than when they describe themselves as technologists or engineers’, so there is a desire to confront semantic issues and traditional boundaries in art, technology, business and society.

The focus is on artists who are starting their own tech-oriented businesses or adding a “missing ingredient” to entrepreneur teams; and there is a desire to leverage this interdisciplinary community for social impact.

One commentator added that ‘…the creation of a business and the best businesses are motivated by the pursuit of an idea – the pursuit of a disruption, not by the money; usually the sustainability is due to the founder finding a way to turn a small failure into another disruption.’

John Whatmore, October, 2019

 

 

 

Making Innovation flourish

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Are Incubators and accelerators becoming ossified in their formats? If so, the arts suggest a more varied landscape, and a less prescriptive approach – from which business could draw.

Paul Miller of Bethnal Green Ventures once said, ‘we won’t know how successful our Accelerator has been for five years!’ But Accelerators and Incubators continue to proliferate – Accelerators with the same basic model and well-established phases.

The arts continue to be one of the UK’s most vibrant sectors, with creativity and innovation their foundation. So what do the engine rooms of the arts suggest that could transfer to business?

Stageplays go through processes very similar to any business startup; from conception, through development, staging and rehearsal to commercialisation; and they are highly collaborative. The parallels are too close to ignore. What do their incubators have to tell us?

Over the next three days, I offer three contributions: a review of some incubators in the arts; a glimpse of an art and technology co-working incubator in New York; and an intimate picture of the National Theatre’s outstanding Studio workshop in London.

1. ‘Incubators’ in the arts: some examples

Studios are designed as incubators for people who have ideas for innovations – with the aim of helping to turn those ideas into commercial artworks. Often they are no more than premises, available on highly flexible terms, with common services, usually with the support of mentoring and visiting experts – like Cockpit Arts, home to some 170 small businesses in arts and crafts in London.

Watershed Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio is a variant of this in that it is a ‘convivium’, in which some thirty people work in close proximity in a single hall, hotdesking in a pressure cooker regime which encourages interaction. In another variant of Watershed’s approach (an applications search) bursaries were awarded to a small number of people for a common fixed period, for them to investigate a particular technological development in a given field (pervasive media – in the performing arts).

Another variant is the ‘ideas nursery’: Metal Art in north London is a studio space where writers in the performing arts can take time out to develop an idea they have for a play. The National Theatre’s Studio Workshop acts as a concept development lab for helping playwrites to develop existing material – by providing facilities to ‘see how it works’(see below.)

The Battersea Arts Centre (mission: developing the future of theatre) acts as a drop-in incubator by being willing to host for one night or more plays which are in various stages of development, to enable the authors to get immediate feed-back from their audiences. (It has also built accommodation to enable playwrites to live together for short periods.)

Desh Deshpande, guru of the Rolex Awards for Innovation and Enterprise, talked simply about putting students into groups of four and asking them to solve a practical problem – a nice way to help the hordes of students who currently aspire to become entrepreneurs and test their capabilities.

To-morrow: 2. Artists as disrupters: an incubator where artists and technology meet A New York Incubator takes a realistic look at the future of work in cities through the perspective of innovation in the arts