Scaling up: a challenge for Innovate UK

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Scaling up: a challenge for Innovate UK

A new report identifies the challenges that the UK must meet if our SMEs are to underpin economic growth to the substantial extent that they can.

Seldom has a piece of business research been designed to be so authoritative. Inspired by arch Angel Sherry Coutu, sponsored by Barclays and executed by the Business Schools of Oxford and Cambridge, its findings hit hard.

The research addresses a problem that has been relatively hidden – by the vibrancy of Tech City and the startup scene. While hi-growth SMEs generate 20% of all jobs growth in the UK, recent evidence from OECD shows that the UK has the highest number of start-ups compared to the OECD average, but we also have the lowest proportion of hi-growth SMEs. The biggest problem for the UK is not in starting companies, but in growing them.

 The report focuses on two closely linked obstacles to their successful growth. It seeks to identify the things that characterise successful hi-growth SMEs – with a view to stimulating them. And it seeks to make recommendations that would improve their financability.

It portrays their problems in terms of a series of challenges that they need to recognise and handle at the right moment, in particular:

  • aiming high – ambition
  • building a strong team
  • establishing partnerships
  • putting effective management systems into place
  • identifying core competences, and
  • articulating competitive strengths and new market opportunities.

While there may seem little new in these challenges, several of the recommendations emphasise the role of stakeholders in supporting scale-ups; and the research illustrates the importance of two factors: the timeliness and firmness with which the relevant issues are tackled; and the value of support in doing so.

In the financial capital of Europe, it is surprising to read of as many recommendations to tackle the financial support of these SMEs as there are about the management of the business – which seem to have caught the City unawares. These recommendations are about:

  • increasing the number and quality of VC funds
  • growing the number of experienced investors with sector and market experience
  • developing a UK venture debt market
  • establishing the UK Stock Exchange as the European leader in this field
  • enhancing the liquidity of private company equity
  • collecting better data on VC financing.

The report says little about how these objectives might be achieved, but the researchers participated in a new programme for such hi-growth companies at the Cambridge Judge Institute, which brought together the CEOs of all the participating companies at a series of six bi-monthly workshops, each of which addresses one of the classic challenges that early-stages ventures progressively face (eg shaping the value strategy/marketing and competition/developing the team/future finance).

These were structured so as to help each participant work with all the others: to assess progress, gain insights into and articulate their problems and opportunities, problem-solve collaboratively, set objectives and develop plans and ways to implement them. And a dedicated member of staff makes regular visits and contacts with each participant.

I have come across several programmes in the UK structured in this way (which I will discuss shortly in my blog). Innovate UK is ideally suited to enabling well-established and located incubators to set up targeted programmes of this kind, and this report should help ensure that it does so. For the full report, see home.barclays/scaleup

John Whatmore, May 2016

 

 

 

SMEs need someone to act as ‘chair’

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SMEs need someone to play the chairman role even more than do bigger businesses Lead mentors have the ability to ask the right questions and to turn up with someone who has just the expertise you are about to need.

Wayra Lab, Startupbootcamp and Techstars all attach mentors to their young businesses so as to provide feed-back and advice at the moment it is needed – on a proactive basis, not just when it is sought. This is in sharp contrast to Incubators such as those at Sussex Innovation Centre, Imperial College and UCL’s IdeaLondon and others, where advice or help is provided when it is sought – on a reactive basis.

There are topics that early-stage businesses know little about (eg development grants, intellectual property); there are things they don’t know how to do (eg 3D printing, ‘chatbot’ publicity); there are tasks of which they have little experience (eg strategy and management), where someone who has ‘done it before’ is invaluable. And in a world of disruptive advantage, time is not their ally.

Jim Milby who mentors several small businesses, recently retired as a Director of Barclays Bank, where he has ‘seen a few businesses’ and ‘knows a lot of people’. It is his extensive experience, his connections and importantly his independent voice that make him highly valued by the SMEs he works with. He has always insisted on having a regular review of progress – once a week ‘because you don’t want to go pitching for funding before you’ve got some customers.’ While the team, he says, are preoccupied with driving towards their current objectives, he might be asking questions about whether it is time to change something – in the product, or the target market segment, the key customer benefits, the strategy for getting there, or even the team itself.

John Whatmore, April 2016

ISSUES AS THE CARROT FOR INNOVATION

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Five approaches in which identifying big issues is the carrot that leads the innovation process

Focusing on major issues rather than relying on people with good ideas is likely to be a good source for the 6% of businesses with hi-growth potential (- and Unicorns)

 Most of the commercial supporters of hi-growth businesses depend on who turns up with a good idea: just a few focus on issues of strategic, technical or sociological importance – like basic needs, lifestyles or communities.

Several industry sectors have identified aspects of the development of their businesses and then invited interest from relevant parties, including the food and drinks industry through a meeting at the Institute for Manufacturing in Cambridge, and the aerospace industry’s more extensive National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme, which aims to support the development of some 30 innovative technologies in the short to medium-term.

In 2014 Nesta launched the Inclusive Technology Prize to inspire people to improve or develop assistive living aids, adaptations, products and systems that will make a real difference to the lives of disabled people. The challenge prize received over 200 applications, which have now been whittled down to 10 finalists, ranging from affordable 3D printed bionic hands to an open source communication aid.

The Mayor of London’s Smart London plan has identified five priority areas: Environment, Buildings and Homes, Transport, Health, Resilience and infrastructure; and has invited applications from interested parties to pitch. Short listed companies will be selected and given the opportunity to present their innovations to leading technology investors, key decision makers and thought leaders within the public and private sector. However they must already have a demonstrable product/service, which is past proof of concept stage, and a clear business case for investment of between £100,000 to £5m.

 Vinnova Sweden’s innovation agency is moving towards a challenge-driven strategy, addressing essential or critical needs in society and industry, promoting new cross-sector collaborations and fostering systemic approaches – which address different social subsystems, framework conditions, political, commercial, technological subsystems, etc.

Nesta has been a protagonist for challenge-led innovations for some time, and has set out the best ways in which Prize competitions are being made effective, including a develop-ment period, which allows for:

*          Hack days,

*         wider public or peer commentary,

*         opportunities for peer collaboration and support, and

*         for users/purchasers to have an input into development. Moreover Nesta’s earlier work – with P&G – underlined the importance of having a buffer (100%Open an exemplar) between the ideamongers and their potential exploiters. Nesta’s work needs to be more widely exploited.

John Whatmore

March 2016

Accelerators attacking bigger issues?

If Accelerators can support hi-growth SMEs as well as startups, can they also be adapted to focus on tough problems and emerging opportunities in all sorts of fields? Oct 2014 

(http://wp.me/p3beJt-9e)

Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world

Focusing on major issues rather than relying on people with good ideas is likely to be a good source for the 6% of businesses with hi-growth potential (- and Unicorns) Oct 201 

(http://wp.me/p3beJt-bx)

 

 

 

 

 

What mentees get from mentors

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What mentees get (and can only get) from mentors

Presentation to UCL Symposium, 24 February, 2016

 I have for some time been collecting stories from my encounters with mentors and mentees. So I have picked some to tell to-day. UCL would probably call me an ethnographer!

I have developed and sold a small company; I have been Chairman of a group of venture capital companies and a Nesta Associate; and I have always been fascinated with how you ‘manage’ innovation. My simple aim is to pass on to the innovation community advances that I come across.

Aggressive mentoring characterises to-day’s Accelerators. Seedcamp claims to have a thousand or more; Telefonica’s Wayra Lab 150; and Jon Bradford over a hundred. But in Incubators, they are much rarer – some of Oxford Innovations centres for example have none at all.

The rationale is simple enough: if you are creating a completely new business, it is great to have by your side someone who has done it before.

I have been asking mentors and their mentees in both startups and SMEs what mentors contributed, and what their mentees got out of them. Their answers depend on where they have got to with their new business.

 

The Conceptor

helps in identifying something new and useful The Strategist and Manager

helping to find ways of delivering it

The Technician

helping to make it function, and produce a prototype

The Marketer

helping to adapt it to users, buyers and customers

The Investment adviser

helping to find ways of funding its scaling up

And not forgetting the Mentor Manager

 

Feed-back comes top – about their new product or service – for their mentors’ ability to introduce startups and their ilk to users, buyers or customers. They can never get enough of it.

Two participants I met at the recent MassChallenge Demo Day each said that they had made use of five mentors.

David Parker, a mentor at Startupbootcamp, helped his startup to identify possible routes to market; and then introduced the team to 10 people who were possible customers – who would chat with them only because David had introduced them.

One mentee told me: ‘Our mentors gave us advice, contacts and evaluation. One told us how to approach a potential user, who to talk to, what to say and how to say it.’ (Intriguingly Wayra Lab teaches the one minute pitch, the three minute and the five minute pitch!)

Andrew Grant who mentors at IdeaLondon used to be a senior manager at BT, and for that reason was able to effect an invaluable introduction for the company he came to chair; and BT became their first customer.

Nobel Prize Winner, Physicist Richard Feynman used also to be a painter of Life models – and when he wanted to sell some of his nudes, he asked the waitresses in the local topless restaurant which of the bosses of the local massage parlours would be most likely to buy them!

 

The voice of experience comes next in importance. Jim Milby retired recently as a Director of Barclays Bank – in his locanic mid-Atlantic brogue – says he has known a few companies. He now mentors several SMEs – one of them with Startupbootcamp’s Fintech Lab. It is his extensive experience and importantly his independent voice make him highly valued – in relation to strategy AND to management.

While the team, he says, are preoccupied with driving towards their current objectives, he might be asking questions about whether it is time to change something – in the product, or the target market segment, the key customer benefits, or the strategy for getting there.

He has always insisted on having a regular review of progress – once a week ‘because it is no good getting to Demo Day to pitch to investors if you still don’t have any customers’.

Wayra Lab, one of Telefonica’s startup schools, attaches three mentors to each of its young companies, and they meet once a month along with programme staff – to assess progress in Board Meeting style.

Paul Miller at Bethnal Green Ventures does it once a week – asking about what you achieved last week, what are your pain points and what you expect to achieve next week.

YCombinator does it over dinner every week; and Watershed Bristol does it over lunch on Fridays. As one mentee there observed: ‘there is always someone around who has done just what you are trying to do.’

Advice about the team comes with the same depth of experience.

When Jim Milby began to have doubts about the length of one of his team’s runway, he insisted that they change their finance guy.

Jacoby Thwaites CEO of Sparkl here at IdeaLondon was asked by his mentor, Alastair Moore, two questions: how long is your pipeline of prospective customers; and who generates it. To Jacoby’s answer, Alistair simply said: Hire him – an exchange Jacoby has never forgotten.

And when Bill Clee here at IdeaLondon, had won two big projects, his mentor Andy Mulholland, an ex-CTO at Cap Gemini, helped him to sort out his back office and appoint an Operations Director and a Sales Director in quick time.

 

Making it work. Joe Rabin is Technologist-in-residence at Wayra Lab – highly appreciated for his help to participants in building their products and services.

Trained as an engineer, he is something of a technical polymath. Many of the participants, he says, need help with their IT.

On one occasion, he spent the entire week-end with a team whose developers had just jumped ship, helping them to reshape their strategy and get back on track.

Azita Esmaili helps young businesses to adapt their structure and their organization to their IT strategy – both at IdeaLondon and at MassChallenge.

 

Advice about investment is harder to come by. Many finance mentors are with the banks, but the banks are no longer lenders of this kind. And new sources of finance abound, but comprehensive advice about them is hard to find.

For example, Crowdfunding can be a nightmare. My father was a city expert in Prospectuses and would be turning in his grave; and my son rejected this route for his SME because of what is needed to service 40 or 50 shareholders.

A guy who once participated in one of my Learning Groups had designed and prototyped a 3D copier. He used Kickstarter to get almost two hundred pre-orders for his 3D copier; and their payments funded manufacture.

Sussex Innovation Centre has on its staff a guy (actually an ex-bank manager) who runs a local Angel network.

What is certain is that funders inevitably take time to get to know your company, and they take time to complete any deal.

Perhaps the best single mentor to have is a potential investor with experience in the field in which you are operating.

 

Lastly, I come to the role of Conceptor. It is this guy in whose hands it is to raise the entire status of the entrepreneurial revolution. IT-based new businesses are quick and cheap relatively speaking. But Healthcare, public services and education for example have hardly been touched yet.

Here are three inspiring leaders who work at the very front end of innovation.

Jackie Ying started at MIT. She has always encouraged her students to tackle projects that have commercial prospects as much as academic benefits.

In one such project, in order to create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes they used the same technology her MIT lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines. They sold it for an undisclosed sum to Merck.

Later she founded her own Bioengineering and Nano-technology laboratory in Singapore, and over the last 12 years she has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences and 8 startups. A Conceptor par excellence.

Ian Downey is another Conceptor. At the European Space Agency, he puts consortia together for innovative projects enabled by Satellite technology.

To combat the recent sharp rise in Lyme’s Disease he had brought together researchers into malaria in Africa and in the UK, GPs and hospitals in Scotland, and pharmaceutical companies – in a project funded by the ESA at Harwell.

Steve Blank in the States runs nine-week Boot Camps designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – a bit like Accelerators. Since 2011, some 500 teams have taken the course.

His ‘Innovation Corps’ programme has been adopted by the National Institutes of Health and has now been backed by the National Sciences Foundation.

It has inspired new approaches in a variety of other similar bodies in the US and has recently been adopted in Imperial for startups based on synthetic biology.

And Wayra Lab has been asked by Oxford’s Isis whether they would set up a similar programme in Oxford.

 

Not forgetting the role of mentor manager.

Thibaut Rouqette, the Mentor Manager at Startupbootcamp’s Fintech programme made himself continually aware of the mentoring needs of each and every team all the time; and equally aware of the expertise of all the hundred or so mentors; so that he might take a good stab at who to introduce to whom and when.

He could even find you an expert on payments in sub-Saharan Africa! But there are very few who play this role.

 

Mentors remain undervalued and undersupplied. Under appreciated largely because it is only after the event that their value becomes so evident. And undervalued because they are only just beginning to be recompensed.

In the early days, the mantra used to be: never adopt a mentor who wants to do it for money (does that necessarily taint everyone?); but these days, as I discovered recently while I was recruiting a mentor for an e-commerce business, the norm seems to be around 1% of equity – no doubt over a period, or in options.

And choice of mentor is often the outcome of a momentary interaction – startups won’t give time for anything longer. While programmes used to depend on someone’s large address book – Reshma Sohani, Jon Bradford or Nektarios Liolios, to-day organisations like Startupbootcamp run more extensive processes. The recruitment and development of a mentor bank is up to the mentor manager. I am just offering my services to a charity – the Rainmaking Foundation, and I shall be very interested to see how they do it.

Above all else it is their different perspectives that makes mentors so valuable, and so essential especially in incubators and research organisations like Harwell; and in Universities.

 

John Whatmore

February 2016

 

 

 

 

 

A lab head and product developer

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A lab head and product developer

She encouraged her students to tackle issues that could have commercial appeal as much as scientific value, and helped them to realise their commercial capabilities as well as produce great science. (Science 12 June 2015)

Jackie Ying was eager to push her already productive lab at MIT into the life sciences. Todd Zion was first attracted to her lab because of her fanatical work ethic, and her business-minded approach appealed to his nascent interest in becoming an entrepreneur – she says that every graduate student should tackle a project not only of tremendous scientific interest, but also of great commercial potential.

He was asked by Ying to see if the same technology her lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines could create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes. He spent two years trying to find a material that prevented the insulin from leaking out before he realised that the secret lay in chemically modifying the insulin itself. The discovery led to SmartCells, a company he and Ying co-founded in 2003, which was later sold to Merck for an undisclosed sum.

His business savvy drew the attention of Lita Nelsen, the longtime director of MIT’s technology licensing office because of the way he had run the company as a tight operation, and he was soon back starting another company with his former colleagues.

Ying says that roughly a quarter of her MIT students have founded companies or gone to work for a startup, but she has chosen not to take that path. ‘What interests me’, she says ‘is bringing the technology to a certain level where you can spin it off and then playing an advisory role to make sure that things are running smoothly.’

Andrey Zarur, one of Ying’s first graduate students who developed the technology that Zion later modified to create SmartCells says Ying ‘would take me with her on visits to companies to get funding for the lab. And I would make the presentation. People thought she was taking advantage of me because she made me do three PhD projects, but this was preparing me for the life I want’.

Ying went on to become the founding director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore (‘IBN’) – to spread the twin gospels of top-flight research and entrepreneurship that she had learned at MIT. Her record over the past 12 years suggests that she has done exactly that. IBN has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences, and eight startup companies.

Sometimes, she suggests, faculty members need help in finding a project with commercial promise, and sometimes she needs to find partners in industry to help with a project. Overall she hopes to find a way for IBN to help nurture new companies without losing all the scientists who did the technology’s foundational work. ‘We will continue to help the firms with research’, Ying says, ‘and maybe they will give us not just royalties but some shares to the people involved.’

John Whatmore, February 2016

Related news:

* It is rumoured that Telefonica’s Wayra Lab is in discussions with Isis, Oxford University’s technology transfer organisation, to set up a unit in Oxford like that of the former’s Accelerator in London.

* Imperial College now has at least four accelerators, each in a different field, each designed to encourage an entrepreneurial environment alongside high quality academic research and teaching. (A full description of these will appear shortly in my blog series.)

Ten trends in the doing of innovation

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Ten trends in the doing of innovation

In the world of innovation, I see increasing maturity, and shifts – in targets, (item 1), in leading players (item 2), and in supporters (items 3 and 4); but a continuing belief in Unicorns.

*         Attacking bigger issues: various approaches to challenge-led innovations

*         Accelerators migrate to new sponsors – charitable foundations, corporates and                                        even universities

*         Mentoring becoming more commercial you pay; but how do you find?

*         A programme of support for v hi-growth companies A new support          programme for 50 hi-growth companies; while the Government folds the Business Growth Service

*

Attacking bigger issues

Challenge-led innovation is a difficult topic because the range of possible challenges is so wide. In several sectors there have been Open innovation events where leading companies have pitched their challenges to potential innovators. Nesta has focused on Prize-led challenges. Vinnova, the Swedish Innovation Agency, has focused on critical needs in society and industry, promoting new cross-sector collaborations and fostering systemic approaches. Innovate UK has focused on challenges and grants for strategic product development; and Silicon Valley’s Singularity University focuses simply on what might work for you.

Accelerators migrate to new sponsors

Accelerators have continued to flourish despite the entry of several charitable foundations that have reduced the cost to participants (in equity sought, and by paying more expenses). Corporates have adopted them with a vengeance despite the moderate chances of returns, and the smaller attraction to participants – in terms of finding ongoing funding (see Nesta’s report: nesta.org.uk/winning-together.) And interest is stirring in universities (notably in Imperial and Oxford).

Mentoring becoming more commercial

The mentoring weather has changed. It used to be: ‘No mentor who expects to be paid is worth his salt’, but nowadays there is virtually no such person to be found (except in Accelerators (in Incubators and their ilk they remain – for some reason – rare.)) The standard fee appears to be around 1% of equity, but finding the right mentors is still an issue. I resorted recently to encouraging two CEOs with complementary needs and skills to mentor each other! (The 24 Feb meeting of UCL’s INTER-CEP Symposium Series in London is on Mentoring – it still has places.)

A programme of support for v hi-growth companies

Growth Builder is a new, independent 12-month programme of support for 50 hi-growth companies – that provides tutor groups, workshops with hi-growth founders, networking events, introductions and other events to inspire and inform. The Government’s abandonment of the Business Growth Service (which provided access to mentors for businesses with hi-growth potential) seems more than perverse just at the moment when Innovate UK had begun to roll it out to its grant winners.

John Whatmore, February 2016

See http://johnwhatmore.com for recent commentaries on:

  • innovation centres – in Sussex and Oxford
  • mutual support groups for senior executives in SMEs
  • The latest and largest co-working space in Europe is in London
  • Five different kinds of mentors – all of whom you may need

 

WeWork is sharing at work

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WeWork is sharing at work.

WeWork has launched a huge new co-working space in London: based on the fact that startups in communities learn mostly from each other, WeWork provides flexible work space that encourages the sharing of experience.

In WeWork’s concept, designs and operations, sharing experience is fundamental:

  •      it creates physical communities – of work spaces
  •      it creates social communities – of business developers
  •      it creates internet communities for them
  •      and it aspires to creating international communities.

Its latest work space in London – the largest co-working space in Europe – is designed to maximize encounters (‘70% of members make use of other businesses in the building’): it is in the shape of a cube, with an atrium in its centre; and almost all of its internal walls are glass.

With 3,100 work spaces across 7 floors, each floor has a wide variety of different size offices and well-equipped meeting rooms, with every office need catered for (copying, document handling, private phones etc). In any incubator, a large kitchen/diner is a great place for unexpected encounters; and small meeting groups a great place for problem-solving.

Here, each floor has a large communal meeting area where there is a café providing food and drink and a bar for beer. Opened in July 2015, it is already 80% full and expected to be completely full by March or April 2016.

With a buzz of intensity and enthusiasm, it feels like a market place of entrepreneurs, in which every encounter may have possibilities. There events for members every day – about such things as Yoga, marketing, Pilates or legals. And an Entrepreneur-in-residence has just been appointed, with whom you can book sessions. On the first floor, there is a games area, where there is darts and a Table Tennis table. And there are personal services on the premises, such as hairdressing; and a reception service for deliveries eg of online orders.

Membership – on a monthly basis – provides you with a key, a T-shirt and a password.

The latter gives you access to the WeWork App, on which you put up information about you and your business, and where there is a Wants Wall where you can post recommendations, news etc; and you can pin up your current needs, and expect someone to come back to you who will tell you about how they solved that problem – either from your own work space or another location.

Started by two entrepreneurs in New York in 2011, WeWork now has 42,000 desk spaces in 63 locations, many of them in the US but fast expanding elsewhere, though none yet in the UK outside London (where there are already 6,000 WeWork desk spaces). Membership also gives you access to WeWork facilities in other locations and even in other countries.

At around £425 a desk per month, it is well priced for its City location. While its pricing favours small companies, WeWork also has its larger ones: Skyscanner and Bla Bla Car among them (unsurprisingly both internet based.)

What distinguishes WeWork is its size and its focus on mutual connections. It is unlike Google Campus, the Hub and most other co-working spaces in that it is more of a co-development space. It is unlike the Tramperies in that it is not sector specific; and unlike Accelerators and mutual support groups in that mentoring is not part of the deal.

 We Work is unique – as about sharing at work.

John Whatmore, February 2016

See also: Co-working spaces are designed to promote change and action in Silicon Valley’s megaliths

Silicon Valley’s megaliths are passionate about change and about providing working environments that will echo their mission – to challenge the present and to develop the future. Nothing is exempt: projects, teams, spaces, furnishings, messages, are all designed to provide relentless pressure to try something new. http://wp.me/p3beJt-7P

 

 

 

 

A UNIQUE FORM OF SUPPORT FOR EXECUTIVES IN SMEs

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A UNIQUE FORM OF SUPPORT FOR EXECUTIVES IN SMEs

These mutual problem-solving and support groups for senior executives in well-established SMEs would be beneficial in every incubator, science park, innovation centre and tech hub. All they need is a good facilitator.

Next up: Oxford Innovations – a major source of incubator space in the South East, but one that provides meagre support for occupants.

‘Vistage’ forms groups of senior executives from SMEs, each group of about a dozen people, who meet regularly to help each other to:articulate their issues (‘what is your biggest pain point?’)

  • clarify their thinking (‘what is its root cause?’)
  • identify possible solutions (re-motivate/hire/fire?)
  • and to hold them accountable (‘What are you doing about it?’)

(- comparable to the Belgian Plato programme (see below.)

It now has some 1000 members in 70+ such groups in the UK. Big in the US where it started several years ago, it now operates in 16 countries with over 20,000 members.

Each group is of about a dozen senior executives, all with similar levels of responsibility. (Groups in the Plato programme are matched both for function (eg marketing/finance etc) and by industry.) Vistage runs some for large SMEs (£4mn+ turnover); some – on a smaller scale – for smaller SMEs; and some for ‘key directors’.

They meet on each other’s premises, normally monthly, for a full day, in which they draw from each other’s experience. The centrepiece of the day is for two (or sometimes three) members of the group to bring a key issue to the table, by:

  • stating succinctly what it is
  • saying why it is important
  • and indicating their ideal outcome.

Other members of the group then ask questions to get to the heart of the problem (diverse thinking being encouraged) until in a final round, each person proposes their solution. Only then does the problem-owner comment, and say what he or she will now do.

Most meetings will start with a presentation by a well-recognised speaker – on a relevant topic; and may finish with a general discussion on a common or topical issue. These groups have a life of their own, including an annual retreat; and this life is itself managed by the group.

Between meetings of the group, each of its members has a coaching session with the Chair of the group, focusing on their current major challenge; and helping them to make decisions about what they will now do. Those who were in the spotlight at the previous meeting will be asked what have they done since; and they will be asked again at the next meeting of the full group.

The nature of these groups consists in:

  • willingness to accept vulnerability
  • the sharing of issues, experience and ideas
  • and the acceptance of challenge.

Openness to these qualities is the overriding requirement for joining any group. Group Chairs have a crucial responsibility for putting groups together, for which they depend on their interviews, though some candidates may attend the Speaker workshop part of the meeting as a guest, and sometimes they join for a trial period.

Candidates come from several sources and have to be invited by the Chair – to ensure that they’re right for this kind of meeting and for the specific group. (To ensure openness and confidentiality, no group can include competitors, suppliers or customers). The fact that most group members sustain membership for long periods of time makes it clear that these groups have a role that is different to any other relationship in almost any organisation – whether with directors, colleagues or subordinates – essentially because of their intimacy (they could be said to be addictive and comforting – a bit like the confessional!)

The group Chair is of course responsible for sustaining the life of the group, for organising and facilitating the meetings of the group, and for the one-to-one coaching sessions between each of its meetings. Vistage carefully selects Chairs, and runs training and development courses and events for them. The expert speakers are equally carefully selected and only retain their Vistage accreditation if the members score them highly.

In addition to the group meetings and 1-to-1 coaching, Vistage also runs a series of exclusive keynote speaker events throughout the UK – to further support the development of group the members, but also to help them develop their teams.

It is evident that Vistage supports growth in the businesses concerned (apparently three times that of the average SME), just as it also helps to allay the stresses in those involved.

The main advantages of this well-established model (which is not unlike that of Action Learning) is that it:

  • focuses on major issues
  • brings to bear on them a wide range of thinking and experience
  • encourages decisions and action
  • enables close relationships with a number of fellow travellers
  • and provides comfort and re-assurance.

However, it does not necessarily provide advice related to the specific context of those issues (eg the sector), nor from people with closely related businesses.

January, 2016

A comparable programme:

AN OPEN INNOVATION LEARNING NETWORK – FOR SMEs AND OTHERS

I have just returned from a two-day workshop in Belgium about mentoring small groups of senior managers in SMEs, who meet together regularly to draw on each other’s experience, and with the support of mentors – a striking example of collaborative enterprise. Set up by a passionate individual in East Flanders Chamber of Commerce, it has been running for twenty years and has now been seeded in at least fifteen different countries. April, 2012. http://wp.me/p3beJt-H

 

A long-established university incubator

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A long-established university-based incubator that is just now spawning off-spring

With a small residential staff, and access as needed to specialist experts locally, it offers flexible office space and provides services on the premises to small businesses with clearly viable ideas, with readily available support especially on marketing and fundability. Can it deliver support in the future to its new locations?

Upcoming:

  • A brilliant commercialiser of research: a concept developer like no other.
  • A programe for groups of executives in SMEs who meet regularly to help one another with their major issues.

Then the spotlight is on Oxford Innovations.

Sussex Innovation Centre aims to be a centre of support for the growth of its businesses (eg. getting turn-over up from £200k to £2.5mn pa) by means of learning about their needs for support and then being able to provide what is required – or find within the area one or two people with appropriate experience.

Some businesses fail to last more than a year; others will remain for two or three years or more depending on growth potential and the scope of support required (about 20% of them go on to achieve hi-growth, with the largest of the current tenants worth some £150mn). The turn-over of occupants is about 30% pa – and there are around 15-20 new applicants for places every month. (An idea and ambition are sought, and the business needs to be something to which the Centre can add value and help it grow.)

Owned by the University of Sussex, it supports about 120 young businesses of which it is also home to around fifty, for which (together with one or two corporates) it provides: office space – of varying sizes, a small hot-desking room, a boardroom, seminar room and a café, plus advisory support and accounting services, and offices (for the almost 30 staff).

                             Its philosophy: a ‘training ground for management’

Mike Herd, its Executive Director since it was founded nineteen years ago, came from a career at Schlumberger where he was a globe-trotting leader of field development programmes; and was recruited, as he quips, on the then topical basis of  ‘getting some money out of science’. He sees the Centre’s role as that of training up management, and his philosophy was from the outset about discovering what support the businesses need and then finding it for them, which he describes as a more gentle and broad form of support than providing or attaching mentors to teams, who might then meet with them regularly. A model he quotes as having been successful is when an investor with experience in that field plays an active role in the company in which he has invested, especially so in its commercial dealings. (Many are those who offer to act as mentors, but he derides the use of ‘coaches’ because their contributions can be insufficiently closely related to the needs of the  business; and even if the entrepreneurs get good advice, he feels that they often do not have the practical [business] skills to make good use of it.)

                          A trusted adviser – with a support team and a network of experts

He sits in the café for an hour each morning for anyone who wants to come and see him – the morning I met him, he had met people from four of his businesses. “He is always interested in my challenges and opportunities”, “a trusted adviser”. “He opened and shared his network of well-connected experts”; and “he runs a cracking team with whom you can always talk” “…very good when you need help; but there are times when I don’t know what questions I ought to be asking – maybe I would like to be able to talk to someone who had faced the same dilemma as I currently do.”

He has a network of some 30 senior experts – from companies in the area, with which he has developed relationships over the years, whose most common contributions are about selling; but also filling gaps in teams’ expertise; and about turning points, such as hirings, new markets, mergers etc, and whose contributions are more casual, various and occasional.

He is supported by a small Business Support Team – of seven senior members of staff, all with practical experience in business, with expertise including investment readiness, market research, marketing and sales. They maintain close relationships with the businesses and are readily available (and highly valued) for acting as sounding boards as well as providing help; and organise events (including a number of days of intensive analysis – like reporting to the board). And there is of course ready access to the entire university research community.

‘Customer Dens’ attract a lot of interest. In these, several young businesses pitch their products or services to a panel of three or four people from their field, (eg in education: a teacher, a lecturer, someone from the education department of a local authority or from such as the Institute of Education) looking for feed-back about applications, potential users, and purchasers; and the Centre houses several businesses with expertise in applied psychology, whose work is often relevant in this context.

One member of staff, a former bank manager, leads a small Business Angels group a which includes some people who have ‘done it before’, and runs quarterly investment meetings, which help the businesses to focus on cash and to learn about funding, investor expectations and requirements, and about the various ways in which they might be funded. (The businesses in the incubator raise around £4mn of capital a year.)

And there is a finance department, which serves the accounting needs of the Centre, but also provides not only accountancy services to those of the businesses that choose to make use of them, but also helps businesses use financial information, and provides financial consultancy.

From time to time, workshops are run, about such topics as

  • aspirations and what makes a good idea
  • how to raise funds
  • employment law – with a specialist lawyer.

There is a much valued team of about ten students and recent graduates (the one to whom I spoke had a Masters in Management and Entrepreneurship) who help both resident and non-resident businesses – on a similar basis ie ascertaining what their needs are for help and then providing it, or marshalling it from elsewhere, and who are trained and mentored to deliver projects by the senior Support team. The intention is to provide businesses with a more flexible and cost-effective resource than traditional internships, while giving these ‘Catalyst’ team members the opportunity to develop a range of practical and entrepreneurial skills that will help make them more employable. Several have moved on to full-time roles at the businesses they have worked with, or are even launching their own ventures.

                                                    Expansion into new locations

Significantly in the UK’s current entrepreneurial climate, as with comparable organisations there are plans for setting up similar incubators in three different locations, one of which just opened in Croydon – where the University has established links with the nearby Croydon College. Sussex Innovation – Croydon will provide premises for around 30 local businesses, with its own dedicated Director and a team of support rotated from the Centre, together with some services provided locally. Another centre in Brighton itself is due to open in spring 2016, with three floors of accommodation, but many more of the businesses served are expected to have their own local premises; and a third – in Biotech – when rebuilding takes place on the Falmer Campus in 2017.

These plans will make for new contact points, and will mean that the Centre’s team will have to concentrate its work into a short period in each location; it will have to establish contact with local entrepreneurs to provide support – a major task; and it will bring in businesses that have no understanding of support nor of the Centre’s credibility, and will take time to establish.

John Whatmore, October 2015

Other programmes include:

Birmingham’s Science Park without walls

The essence of the burgeoning Innovation Birmingham Campus consists in the physical and virtual proximity which it offers – co-working in new dimensions, providing opportunities for co-learning and collaboration. Nov 2014 http://wp.me/p3beJt-9q

Managing support for early-stage ventures – a fast emerging role

In Silicon Valley support is everywhere, and it is increasingly immanent in London’s entrepreneurial world, with some high profile examples – promoted by a new breed of support managers. But there are other areas where it is still a distant prospect. March 2015 http://wp.me/p3beJt-ax

 A major programme for new hi-flyers that includes an Accelerator

Public support for a major programme of development for a relatively large number of early-stage ventures, designed to identify and accelerate some world-class companies for to-morrow – from the Middle East. Why doesn’t InnovateUK do this sort of thing? July 2015. http://wp.me/p3beJt-bh

How can we speed up the adoption of innovations?

Aside

How can we speed up the adoption of innovations?
Big changes are difficult to bring about. So far the spur behind them has been semi-public but independent bodies with their ability to take radical approaches – like these nine examples. Is it time for institutions and associations to take the baton?

Rolling out innovations for new technologies and sociologies is often seen as the job for entrepreneurs, their champions and their supporters – in the expectation that their focus on early-adopters will then lead on to more wide-spread useage. But it is hard to locate where that should be taking place and how to foster it, not least in those areas that involve behaviour change such as education and healthcare.
The UK’s Cabinet Office has held three competitions inviting organisations to bid for funds to run Accelerators in social enterprise and in healthcare (short periods of intensive development for a dozen or so carefully selected small teams); and the winning organisations will now have helped with over a hundred such startups.

Nesta’s Innovation Lab works with individuals and organisations to generate, develop and test radical new ideas to address social problems; and links innovative projects to advocacy and policy change – to transform whole systems; exemplified by its work on shifting healthcare towards more peer-support, social prescribing and prevention. The Lab’s objectives are about:
*   creating solutions to solve specific challenges;
*   engaging citizens, non-profits and businesses to find new ideas;
*   transforming processes, skills and culture of government; and
*   achieving wider policy and systems change.
The UK Cabinet’s Behavioural insights Team (the so-called Nudge Unit) was launched in 2010 to see how behavioral science might contribute to the achievement of policy objectives. It’s successes have been very specific eg in changing the unwelcoming nature of Job Centres; with redesigning communications to non-payers of income tax and fines and non-renewers of their driving licences; with reshaping the offer of loft insulation to include loft clearance. Its approach has been to identify the factors that lay behind the behaviour and then to set up an experiment using a faster, more attractive, social and timely approach.

Mike Bloomberg as Mayor of New York used special teams to develop and deliver new approaches on issues ranging from climate change to poverty and education, and his work spread new models that local leaders can use to generate and implement bold ideas.

New York’s iZone is one example: it is a community of schools committed to personalising learning around the needs, motivations and strengths of each child – an incubation lab for the city’s education department. MONUM, the Mayor’s Office for New Urban Mechanics in Boston is another. It aims to enable busy City Hall staff to run innovation projects – often done in collaboration with external entrepreneurs and internal government policy experts.

Copenhagen’s MindLab was launched in 2002 by the Danish Ministry for Business Affairs as an internal incubator for invention and innovation, inspired by Skandia, the Swedish insurance company’s Future Center (of which there are now a number, mainly in continental Europe). It embraces human-centred design; and aims to stimulate dialogue on transforming the public sector and creating a different interplay between state and local level, and create more systematic change. It is now owned by three ministries and works across employment, education, business and growth, and government modernisation.

MIT’s Media Lab is running numerous experiments of all sorts, among them research to measure the social and spatial settings of innovation in districts across the US to identify the factors that promote and sustain innovation in cities. In collaboration with the Austrian Institute of Technology it is running a study of the key persuasive strategies that enable, motivate, and trigger users to shift from high-energy to low-energy modes of transport. And its project aimed at enhancing entrepreneurialism in specific regions of the world is now in its third year.

InnovateUK has taken a different approach: it has spun off several ‘Catapults’ whose objectives are to transform the UK’s capability for innovation. Among these, one has focused on understanding what will stimulate change (Cognicity – new cities); another on tackling public issues that obstruct change (the Digital Catapult); and a third on launching initiatives that will directly stimulate the creation of new products and services (the Space Catapult).

Work in units like these does not fit easily into existing organisations, but is it time for institutions and associations to follow in the lead of the Young Foundation, which has been active in promoting social enterprise for many years, and spur their fields into accelerating innovation?

See also:

iLabs. The teams and funds making innovation happen in governments around the world. Nesta, 2014. mailto:research@nesta.org.uk

Workshops for helping to develop innovations. Commercialising IP, developing startups and SMEs, and new products and new businesses for corporates. Oct 2013. http://wp.me/p3beJt-18

Government launches £10mn social incubator fund. A remarkable bet on the future of an unproven horse. http://wp.me/p3beJt-b5 Sept 2012

Accelerators for young businesses and the Young Foundation. Seeking to turn social SMEs into burgeoning businesses that change people’s live for the better. Jan 2013 http://wp.me/p3bejt-4
John Whatmore
January 2016