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



A Pathfinder’s pathway


A Pathfinder’s pathway Jack is a creater of Accelerators. With a seemingly endless appetite for more, how many can he handle? With about 130 new business support programmes started in the last three years, where do leaders like him come from?

His very first startup was a social enterprise selling slow cooked pork for a charity in Camden Market!

He was instrumental in founding Citrus Saturday with Tim Barnes, an experiential learning programme developed by UCL, aimed at teaching entrepreneurship and enterprise skills to young people around the world, now in use in 16 countries across Europe and Africa. Participants create a lemonade product, brand it and sell it to the public, then keep the profits from their work.

When he realised that some of the joiners to his current incubator had come from Accelerator Entrepreneur First, Jack experimented in 2017 with an 8-week Accelerator (called Bloom Accelerate) for 8 startups, whose focus was on finding customers. Based on 1-1s for 3-5 days a week, he describes it as ‘pragmatic’. And this has formed the basis of his incubator’s offering ever since.

At the same time, he ran a food business incubator in shared kitchens, which he describes as an almost impossible situation. Over 6 months it helped 4 food businesses (2 Street Food, 1 catering, 1 coffee shop offering) to get off the ground and test their ideas in a very low-risk setting. The catering for the Bloom Accelerate events (above) came from the catering company; the events were held in the coffee shop and the chefs from the street food stalls came to the workshops, and learned more about running their businesses.

Jack is now setting up another such incubator – in Malvern, where he has acquired a lease on a building which he is refurbishing at low cost – to house 6 businesses (12 people), with an eventual maximum of 20 businesses – enabling them to feed off one another, and opening them to local links as well as to London links. It will focus on Proof of Concept, and is for people with ERDF grants. And he has his eye on another site in Ledbury, and then yet another in Plymouth.

Jack has connections with some seven incubators in EU countries, which enable him to draw on their experience as well as offering to members of his own incubator the opportunity to spend time there free of charge.

He also works with a Japanese group which connects large industry sponsors and investors in Asia with startups. It has an annual prize called Tech Planter – for identifying engineering and tech issues and pre-seeding them in startups.

Who will join me in nominating Jack ‘Startup Supporter of the Year’?

John Whatmore, February, 2019


A Pathfinder in Incubation


A Pathfinder in Incubation Academic turned entrepreneur starts another boutique incubator that is more like a permanent accelerator; and plans another, and another.      To-morrow: The Pathfinder’s pathway: with about 130 new business support programmes started in the last three years, where do leaders like him come from?

Currently founding his fourth latter-day incubator (and planning his fifth), Jack Wratten is an outcome of the inspirational academic enterprise run by Tim Barnes that was UCL Advances, where he set up and launched its Incubator in 2015.

Jack took his small redundancy pot, augmented it with funds from ERDF via Capital Enterprise to take a lease on a small basement area close beside UCL. There he has created an attractive, intimate mini-incubator – of 30 hot desks (some 14 small businesses), where he and Lillian Shapiro keep in intimate touch with the businesses and provide them with the training, mentoring, links to experts and close support that enables them to develop – probably as fast as any Accelerator.

They make a perfect pair: Jack’s experience and connections combine with his restless spirit of innovation, friendly smiles, nosey character and ‘connectivitis’. Lillian’s experience of her own business, her understanding of startups progress and needs in terms of training and mentoring is offered with endless patience and understanding.

What have they created? Connections to former colleagues at UCL, and to lawyers, accountants and specialists, (he has about a dozen mentors on hand) enable them to wheel up help of every imaginable kind: knowledge, expertise, advice, and even recruiting new team members. And their closeness to everyone in the incubator and the mutual support for one another in the incubator enables them to wheel up help just when it is needed.

The basis of all Jack’s incubators is that they take no equity and are run for young businesses that have the funds (whether from revenue, grants or investors) to pay for their places and for the close and expert support that he can offer them.

Word of mouth has spoken for the benefits of the support they provide; for it has been continually full since opening, though with inevitable spikes in occupancy.


John Whatmore, February, 2019

London South Bank University’s Enterprise Initiatives


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





What is Incubator leadership?


What does a team leader in the most famous Incubator in the world actually do?Visionary? Inspiration? Team leadership? Entrepreneur? Not even close!

Alphabet’s Google X ‘helps innovators to ready their technologies for the real world’; it is used to incubate the Silicon Valley giant’s most daring projects – known as ‘Moonshots’.

As head of Moonshots, Obi Felten calls herself ‘a translator’; ‘I am really good at translating between engineers, technical people and non-technical people, who sometimes don’t understand one another’, she says. ‘There is this misconception that technology is built in this bubble and then it gets thrown into the world; and there have been bad examples of exactly that happening.’ ‘Yes, technology will shape society’, but we have to ‘make sure that it is deployed to solve humanity’s problems and not just create new ones.’

Among other projects, Google X has been responsible for a self-driving bubble car, now part of Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car unit; and for the Loon Balloon, with the translucency of a jelly-fish, launched in July 2018 to extend internet access around the world, especially in remote areas.

‘I was talking to Astro Teller, X’s Captain of Moonshots and I asked all these questions, like is it legal to fly balloons over countries? Have you talked to any governments about it? Are you going to partner phone companies or compete with them? Do you have a business plan? And he asked me to come and help them’.

Google X’s philosophy is that it is easier to invent a solution that is 10X because it frees you of preconceived notions. Wing, a drone delivery unit that graduated from Google X, is starting with the delivery of food precisely because it is so difficult: hot meals have to be delivered quickly and demand is uneven.

Teams are pushed to test products as soon as possible. When X tested semi-autonomous cars, they found that people tend not to watch the road when the car is driving itself, so it is safer to design a fully autonomous car.

She feels that tech companies should bring in users to test products and even involve them in product design; Silicon Valley should be open to outside voices and people with a variety of backgrounds.

‘Google Glass, its smart eyewear, arrived to a huge fanfare at a Google conference; and while the engineers thought of it as a prototype, the world saw it as a product because of the way we positioned. It soon became clear that it was not useful enough for consumers to put up with wearing a weird mini-computer on their face. But it was convenient in businesses, where an enterprise edition is now used by engineers and doctors.’

It can be hard to abandon an idea, but she sets ‘kill’ criteria with her teams: they agree that if certain things happen, they will dump the project. ‘We accept that we are going to fail often, because the more audacious your endeavour, the more likely you are going to fail along the way’.

With around 80% of places in Silicon Valley filled by men, she argues that women offer a pool of exceptional talent that is more readily available, and should be drawn upon.

Her list of problems to solve is endless. She is excited about using algorithms to understand biological data, and applying machine learning to improve food production. But the biggest challenge is climate change. Some problems in this field have failed; others, such as Dandelion, which brings thermal energy into people’s homes, are now companies.

John Whatmore, January 2019

Precis of an article by Hannah Kuchler, FT correspondent in San Francisco, published in the FT magazine Dec 8/9 2018.

A Startup to put Deepmind in the shade


A Startup to put Deepmind in the shade – a Christmas dream!

 Two professors at the University’s School for Magic Solutions sought to develop a product that would be superior to all other startups.

Experts in artificial intelligence, they decided that the time had come to tackle the ultimate task: they aimed to document and analyse all great discoveries of the world, like the wheel, steam, electricity, flight, penicillin, the atom and the internet. If it was possible to write a program, they reasoned, that could romp home against Champions at Chess or Go, then it must be possible to write one that would produce an innovative solution to any problem whatsoever.

Early versions tended to produce solutions that already existed; some looked promising but were beaten to it by existing entrepreneurs; and some required too much manual input. Less predictably, some looked to be socially or politically unviable.

Some of their output sold to writers as valuable plots; some to science fiction boffins; and Private Eye bought some to fill its Funny Old World column.

Seed money came from Elon Musk, Tim Cook and the Prince of Wales private office. Even Nesta, the UK’s innovation engine, bought some shares. The ‘A’ round proved more elusive. The VC pundits felt that it was not really up their street, and that selling on might be difficult. The Angel community could not find a lead investor with relevant experience. However popular interest suggested that Crowdfunding might be its best route, and so it transpired.

At that moment, an expert in Blockchain technology offered a modest price for 20% of the business, interested to capture their marketing expertise, and this renewed popular interest. Subscribers became so keen to use it that it eventually crashed. ‘Golden balls too popular’ read the Sun. The moment came when the Magic Circle decided that it was damaging their image for illusion, and sued on trademark grounds.

Then there was a barrage of complaints when a series of customers found that their applications for patents were refused on grounds of prior submissions. Gradually people lost faith in the value of the program; and its proponents failed to update it in the light of a plethora of recent inventions.

It continues to be used in technical colleges; it is a valued case study in MBA programmes; but its authors have moved on to other speculative fields; one is working on space travel and the other on animal intelligence.

With best wishes for Christmas and the New Year, John Whatmore

Four incubator initiatives


Four Incubator initiatives Incubators have taken to developing specific aspects of support (Edinburgh University); to buying in wholesale support (from the likes of Accelerator Academy), to adapting a well–recognised accelerator format (the Crick Centre) and even selling their support programmes to others (Ryerson University). One has decided that it is a permanent Accelerator (coming soon).

Edinburgh University’s Executive Director Designate Programme provides an experienced entrepreneur/mentor/advisor who can help pull together a plan for the business, and thus provide better balance to the academic team that improves the chances of raising funding for these spin-out companies. It also allows universities to pay consultancy fees of experts from outside the University, or buy out time of tenured academics to allow them to focus on a spin-out. The University also has a scheme called Pitching for Mentors – similar to Dragons Den in format but at a much earlier stage – looking at how help can support the commercial opportunity around these projects.

Several incubators including South Bank University’s have made use of Accelerator Academy’s mini-Accelerator (conceived in 2014, supported by White Horse Capital). It is based on one day a week of intensive, structured development support for 6-12 weeks – around team, market and investor readiness. It comprises 150 hours of training, mentoring and support, with weekly classroom sessions, workshops, and mentoring, and fortnightly clinics (and ongoing support, events and investor introductions.)

The Crick Centre in London is running an I-Corps type programme for around a dozen teams to help commercialise their work. ‘The course includes’, says the description, ‘pre-accelerator, accelerator and post-accelerator activities designed to take founder teams from idea to Series A and beyond commercial launch’ – a spectrum unheard of in any other such programme. ‘Teams will have access to a network of global experts in all aspects of entrepreneurship, health sector knowledge, data science and investment strategies.  This network will provide workshops and mentoring to support the cohort – helping them to maximise opportunities and address challenges.’

 The Digital Marketing Zone at Ryerson University, has developed all sorts of accelerator programmes. Known for supporting Canadian tech startups and recently ranked the top university-managed tech incubator in the world, (tying with Bristol’s SetSquared), among Ryerson’s programmes is a sales accelerator programme; and it has forged partnerships with banks and companies like Facebook to develop accelerator programmes in digital news, financial technology and early market validation for women-led founders.

Coming shortly: an Incubator that experimented with an Accelerator programme, but decided instead to turn itself into a permanent Accelerator.

John Whatmore, December 2018

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