Accelerator Policy: the future after Brexit


Accelerator Policy: the future after Brexit The UK will need to establish its own policies and its own grant regime to replace the grants currently available from the EU, and crucially and urgently needs a locus to carry this out. EU support for Accelerators and Incubators has been more extensive than elsewhere and more comprehensive and more collaborative than that of the UK, suggests recent research. (My 5-point plan is below.)

 With Y Combinator and Techstars as leading lights in the world of Accelerators, the US’s Small Business Administration has run several support programmes:

* 2014, on Accelerator and Incubator models:$2.5 mn;

* 2015, to involve all regions of the US: $4.0 mn;

* 2016, in support of jobs growth, manufacturing, and areas with weak access to VC: $3.4 mn. (1)

By contrast, EU funding (of which of course the UK has been a beneficiary), designed to tackle the ‘EU’s gravest economic crisis in 50 years’ by revolutionising its business culture, has focused on networking – among providers, on the development of specific fields of interest; and has been of various intensities and with different breadths of application.

Policies have been targeted at:

  • Cross-border services
  • Impact that is industry-led and pan-European
  • Startups, especially in ICT
  • Eco-system building, and
  • Internet public-private programmes

And more specifically on projects about:

* Commercial space applications

  • Transport
  • Low carbon energy systems
  • Internet content and media
  • The Internet of Things
  • Healthcare
  • ‘Smart city’
  • Social, and
  • Learning

The EU’s recent Horizon 2020 project commits nearly €9 bn for grants – in phase 1, for innovation feasibility studies, in phase 2, for advice and support services for investment mature concepts, and in phase 3, no doubt for aspects of implementation.

The UK’s interest in Accelerators was founded on a research mission to the US by a public innovation R&D organisation (Nesta) in 2011. Its report, ‘The Startup Factories’, (together with lead Accelerator, Seedcamp) launched interest in Accelerators, and was followed up with funding by Nesta for several very early stage examples. Shortly afterwards, the Cabinet Office offered £11mn in development grants to ten organisations that were focused on stimulating social enterprise. Since then however, policy has relied on the market – mainly through tax incentives to investors (the EIS and SEIS schemes). And grants, mostly for proof of concept, have been available from Innovate UK.

The UK’s approach is strongly marked by the mutual independence of those who deliver Accelerator (and Incubator) programmes; whereas the EU’s approach appears to have been more comprehensive and certainly more collaborative. Meanwhile, London (with its ready access to trade and financial services) has become the leading place in Europe for startups.

It has to be said that evidence of outcomes is no more than the siren calls of the deep: we know little about startup rates or success rates, or about failure rates – either nationally or regionally. And what there is tells us little about ways forward.

However, for Brexit the UK will need to take urgent action to establish policies for the future, together with a grant regime, that will maintain the UK at the forefront of this field. Here is my 5-point plan:

*   establish a trade body for this now substantial and important sector, whose                 primary objective should be collaboration, and include in particular:

*   establishing a major UK provider of programmes to rival Techstars and Startupbootcamp; and adapting them for universities, and business and science parks;

*    increasing the number and enhancing the practice of mentoring; and of staff of Accelerator and Incubator organisations;

*     developing the sector’s venture capital industry;

*     and focusing grants on sectors of major interest to the UK; on pe-accelarators; on scaleups; and on local eco-system.


(1) This and the following two paragraphs are based on material in ‘Accelerators’ by Wright and Drori, 2018, most of whose research quoted is dated 2016.

John Whatmore, November 2018


Incubators getting more pushy


Incubators are getting more pushy Once simply providers of cheap accommodation for a number of young companies, Incubators are slowly taking the bull by the horns and adopting active ways of helping their tenants to develop their businesses.

Proactive staff: Incubator staff increasingly act as monitors (eg at ‘office hours’ with regular reviews of progress, problems and plans) (Bethnal Green Ventures, South Bank University, Cockpit Arts).

Workshops and events: meetings with specialised advisers are now common.

Mentoring: cohorts of mentors are increasingly common, though rarely systematically managed.

Grow or go: Incubators are adopting policies to encourage churn: they expect incubatees to move on after a given period (Cockpit Arts).

Early-stage development programmes: Incubators are running pre-accelerator programmes (Imperial, South Bank University with Accelerator Academy)

Startups moving on: Incubatees are moving on – from incubators to Accelerators (eg to Wayra et al.)

Incubators as fully-fledged business developers: running their own Accelerator programmes (Imperial, Crick Centre, BioHub).

Incubators forming alliances: Corporates and VCs are increasingly involved in Incubators – as funders, partners, and investors (Barclays, John Lewis; Cisco and D.C.Thompson with IdeaLondon; ‘SOSV’ (a US VC) running its own Accelerator – ‘RebelBio’).


Will Incubators go even further, and develop Online programmes (like Y Combinator and Dreamstake), and Scaleup programmes (like ‘Growth Builder’)

Are Science Parks next in line to turn from letting agents into developers of businesses?


John Whatmore, November 2018

Confronting the challenges of the day


Innovation Labs that confront major changes in the economy Initiatives in a number of sectors have created nurseries for innovations created by shifts in the economy – from presentation/discussion forums, to hackathons, to match-ups, to accelerators, to scaleup support programmes.

Airports are creating innovation hubs to protect their retail revenues (40-60% of total revenues). Their shops face online retailing; Uber and improved public transport attack car parking revenues; and the lower cost appeal of flying diminishes passengers’ spend.

Munich, Singapore’s Changi, and Aeroports de Paris are testing solutions including turning retail spaces more into showrooms, changing car parks into destination centres; and making the passenger experience more satisfying – to attract a higher spend.

The aim of their innovation hubs is to come up with a more entrepreneurial culture in which businesses will address not just revenue generation but also airport operations and passenger processes.


Generic change programmes have become increasingly common. Among the first were FinTech programmes like Startupbootcamp, which remain a hot field to-day.

Level39 in Canary Wharf was started soon afterwards, which was essentially about retail, but a host to Fintech programmes.

The Tramperies established a number of specialist nurseries each one focused on a different field, and all either alongside or in collaboration with expertise in that field.

Social enterprise (Bethnal Green Ventures its pioneer) was a recipient of an early government grant for that field).

Science’s incentives make it a reluctant host to business, but BioCity in Nottingham and BioHub at Alderley Edge have been leaders.

Less common but of great interest for their inherent focus on innovation have been nurseries in the arts: in theatre The National Theatre’s Studio , in music A venture capital company that knows its onions , in crafts An Incubator with a strong development focus and at the Royal College of Art DesignLondon, .

CivTech and GovTech nurseries have attracted interest more recently.

Accelerators in Healthcare are just now of increasing interest – a difficult field for business because of its fractious structure.

Opportunities for innovation labs that focus on particular fields are numerous; they include the railways, adjacent local authorities, area transport services, water, gas and electricity, retail and entertainment centres.

John Whatmore, November 2018

Mentoring: a timely Academic review


Mentoring: a timely Academic review of its role in Accelerators Among the articles in the recently published book entitled ‘Accelerators’, the section on Mentors (much of it drawn from the extensive network of Accelerators in Israel) explores mentorship as ‘one of the building blocks of accelerators’ education programmes’. But coaching and mentoring remain underexplored and undervalued in the business world.

Perhaps its most helpful contribution is about typical problems with which mentors can help:

  • over-optimism and naivety about market barriers and the business model;
  • commercialisation of the product, and the targeting of its market;
  • marketing and dealing with global markets;
  • lack of managerial experience; and
  • difficulties in scaling up.

It is lack of experience more than lack of knowledge that is at the heart of many of these problems; and failures are an important part of experience – that mentors need to support and turn to good effect. (Very recent research by MIT suggests that successful entrepreneurs tend to be in the forties.)

Four regular topics identified were:

Setting up strategy and establishing priorities What is the market/the market fit for this kind of product/the best market to go for.

Revealing marketing opportunities Identifying unique benefits; how they would be used; and where they can be marketed to best effect, and against the competition.

Structuring organisational processes Advising on team membership and team building, including inter-cultural conflicts.

Expanding ventures’ social capital Occasionally connecting to other relevant startups/networks.

(Surprisingly there is no mention of product design or development, nor of manufacture.)

Mentoring is addressed in this book mostly through anecdotes, and largely in terms of mentors’ invariably extensive background experience, their perceived objectives, and their motivations. However it draws on too small a range of accelerators to include some facets of mentoring (like establishing a fit and developing relationships, and some important developments, like the way in which the need for specific kinds of help changes as businesses evolve).

Mentoring is described as ‘altruistic, educational, updating, stimulating and possibly offering investment opportunities’ and as sometimes a bridge to other contributors in the eco-system.

‘They [mentors] ask questions that force entrepreneurs to think strategically and more objectively, to intensify processes and shake entrepreneurs out of their comfort zone.’

‘The challenge is to match mentors to mentees according to the stage of development, their needs and personal fit.’ There is, however, nothing here about the various approaches to establishing good fits – many of them based on variants of speed-dating. (Startupbootcamp has used a talented mentor manager, both for finding specialist mentors and for changing mentors according to teams’ changing needs.)

Mentors, a contributor suggests, meet weekly or bi-weekly, but they develop their understanding and relationship progressively and in parallel with the development of the business.

One contributor asserts that having more than one mentor leads to confusion; but Steve Blank of I-Corps, the accelerator widely adopted in the world of science in the US, 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.

There is an unspoken presumption that mentors somehow know best how to play their role, though Startupbootcamp has from time to time brought mentors together and provided an opportunity for them to learn from one another’s experience in the role.

‘Accelerators’, edited by Mike Wright and Israel Dori, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018.

John Whatmore, November, 2018

Whither Accelerators


Whither Accelerators? The COO of Startupbootcamp IoT, one of their three London-based Accelerator programmes contemplates the future 

Programmes are now commonly run with several different corporate backers, often providing substantial inputs to the programme

Programmes have become longer: once 12 weeks, now often 16 weeks

There is an increasing pre-occupation with after-care

Programmes are increasingly focused on specific fields eg Fintech, Insuretech, IoT etc

‘Office hours’ as weekly meetings with each participant – about their progress, their problems and their plans – remain at the heart of Accelerator programmes

Mentoring (by experts, unpaid and voluntary) remains a major element in Startupbootcamp programmes [as it does in Seedcamp and Techstars programmes; but is often vague or minimal on some programmes]

Programmes are tending to take less equity in their deal with participants.

Programmes are increasingly focusing on later stage businesses

Leaving space for pre-accelerator programmes, such as I-Corps, The Oxford Foundry, The Accelerator Network, (and online programmes) as contributors to early-stage startups, sometimes now offered in Incubators.

Development Labs are appearing – that facilitate the development of technology (Startupbootcamp and Imperial among recent examples)

Programmes are increasingly available in many parts of the UK

Startupbootcamp [and Techstars] run programmes all over the world – SBC now runs 22 programmes in 14 countries

The field remains a collection of independent programmes, with little interaction between them.

John Whatmore, October 2018

The National Theatre’s Studio – a powerhouse of creativity and innovation


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. See

Related posts Incubators in the Arts (2011) see Holes – the BBC’s creativity labs (2010) see

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 is currently being 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)

As to the future, 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 will be smaller, shorter runs, and less dependent on scenery and technology, and hence simpler and more experimental, and that 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 (eg Arts Admin and Metal), but none so comprehensively or so egregiously.

Related posts Incubators in the Arts (2011) see Holes – the BBC’s creativity labs (2010) see

Copyright 2012 John Whatmore

Y Combinator is open to all online


Y Combinator’s online Startup School was available this year to anyone and everyone Startup School is a free, 10-week, online course designed for any startup founder who would like to get help through the earliest, most difficult challenge of starting a company.

This year it was open not just to selected applicants but to any and every single applicant (some 15,000). And for the first time ever, $10,000 in equity-free funding was being offered to 100 of the most promising companies that join and complete the course. Those companies would also receive a video interview with a YC partner later in the year for advice or aid in applying to a future YC batch.

‘The most important thing is that you will have a group of fellow founders to connect with so you can support one another. Unfortunately, we’re still constrained by number of advisors who volunteered to lead each group, which means some groups won’t have an advisor. But having peers in a batch is what founders tell us is truly special about YC. We’re going to give you instructions on how to organize the group yourself and get nearly the same experience.’

Founders could choose to join the Startup School community and meet with an advisor on a weekly basis, or to simply follow along with the course by watching the lectures and materials. In both cases, the class was completely free.

Startup School lectures are delivered live in Mountain View, California at Y Combinator’s headquarters and then made available for viewing online. The speakers include YC co-founder Paul Graham, YC Partners like President Sam Altman and CEO Michael Seibel, as well as notable founders from the startup community.

Last year, over 13,000 companies applied to participate in Startup School, and 95 YC alumni volunteered their time to advise over 2,800 of those companies participating across 141 countries.

Throughout the 10 weeks, founders built their products, talked to users, created local communities, and launched their companies. 1,587 (56%) of the companies completed the course, and, since then, 38 of them have been accepted to the core Y Combinator program and received YC funding.

Stripe (‘online payment processing for internet businesses’) was giving startups discounted payment processing and an invitation to Stripe Atlas to incorporate and open a company bank account.

In addition, startups would have full access to deals and credits to a variety of other services, including Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Clerky.

Y Combinator’s goal is to help everyone, regardless of who or where they are, to start their startup. The materials from this year’s Startup School, like those from previous years, will remain online after the course finishes as a permanent resource for all startup founders.

John Whatmore, October 2018