Support that needs to be proactive

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Support that needs to be proactive Founders sometimes know little about the fields which they are aiming to enter – or about business. Those who manage any kind of co-working arena need to be able to link their young businesses with people whose experience and expertise meet their often fast-changing needs.

Brent Hoberman once described life in a startup as like throwing yourself off a cliff and learning how to build an airplane on the way down. ‘Every week a new issue about which you had never thought before’, said one founder. So how can young businesses be supported to help them identify and find solutions to problems they have never encountered before?

The Director of incubator Sussex Innovation Centre – an experienced expert in young businesses, makes himself available in the café every morning for an hour or so – for anyone to come and discuss a problem.

YCombinator, Watershed Bristol and Entrepreneur First all require their young businesses to meet weekly where a member of each team has to talk to other members of their cohort about their problems, their progress and their plans (notes are circulated afterwards at Watershed to the entire cohort).

The mentor manager of one recent cohort at Startupbootcamp’s Fintech accelerator made it his business to meet each team in the cohort once a week, and ask about progress and problems – each week with a different member of the team.

Wayra Lab, an accelerator (for scaleups) requires its young businesses to have regular monthly meetings with their shadow board, that includes two outside ‘directors’ – a schedule that is being adopted by most growth programmes – for their peer-to-peer meeting groups with advisers.

At BioHub, (last year’s Biotech Incubator of the Year) – home to 200 young businesses, the Incubator Manager aims to meet every team once a month; at the Tramperies, proximity to existing trade businesses makes access easy to experts on many topics. At Cockpit Arts’ incubator – home to 140 young businesses, many of them avail themselves of peer-to-peer ‘action learning’ meetings, regular discussions with the team of business coaches, and referral to specialist advisers. But I know of some incubators that do not have mentors with whom you might be put in touch.

The essence of informal meetings like these is that they are different to Board Meetings in that they are not so much about policies, organisation and management as about current obstacles and how to get over them (why is progress slow; what makes the product fail occasionally; who are the best customers for this product) issues that frequently occur in young businesses, and where appropriate experience and expertise can make a timely and vital contribution.

The problems for the accelarator or the incubator are how to stay abreast of each business’s current problems and how to bring the best help to bear onto each problem.

Paul Miller at Bethnal Green Ventures simply asks weekly of each startup in his accelerator programmes:

  • What have you achieved last week
  • What will you achieve next week
  • What is stopping you, and
  • What have you learned.

Thibaut Rouquette, Mentor Manager at Startupbootcamp could find someone with the necessary experience from among the large cohort of its mentors to whom he had close access; and if he could not find an appropriate expert, he would use Google to search recently held conferences in order to find the name of an expert, and then e-mail to ask him or her to have a conference call with the startup – from which other help might follow.

Priscila Bala of Octopus Ventures commends finding and nurturing relationships with individual advisory board members; but for startups and their ilk, it is someone in the accelerator or the incubator who has to provide the necessary nexus.

John Whatmore, July 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

France’s new Incubator

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France opens a giant new Incubator Aiming to attract in the next month a thousand young ventures to its halls, France’s vast new incubator (a refurbished train depot in Paris called Station F), has just been opened by President Macron (‘preaching to the choir’ as one correspondent called his speech’). It provides all sorts of spaces for young businesses that ‘have a business prototype and a path to growth’, together with other related organisations.

Station F is the brainchild of a French billionaire from the tech startup world and his project manager, a lady with a serious background in a variety of startups – who has focused on health, finance, education, and even fashion. It is supported by France’s increasing efforts to become second only to the UK in startups in Europe; and it is backed by Facebook and Amazon.

Its young ventures still face likely problems – in attracting talent, and around French attitudes to risk. Questions hang over the incubator itself and its sheer size, and the extent of the necessary eco-system in Paris. And later in their life they face France’s tough labour laws.

In 2014 the French government started a sprawling programme to support tech, in which 13 cities were designated hi-tech hubs; and it supports the growth of French startups in dozens of foreign cities. The French government has created numerous investment vehicles and offers loans and grants to fund startups and accelerators on easy terms. France has created a special tax status for innovative new companies; and Macron has pledged to do more about exemption form wealth tax and liability to capital gains taxes. ‘While more venture capital is flowing into France, the levels still lag Britain, Germany and Israel’; but France’s angel network is only a quarter the size of the UK’s, reports the New York Times.

The rationale for housing startups in incubators is that they have great opportunities to learn from their fellow travelers, and increasingly so from those in the same field as themselves. Claimed to be the largest incubator in Europe (and more than four times the size of Imperial’s new incubator at its White City campus – just completed, which is likely to take months to fill; see link below), making Station F into an effective growth community will itself be an innovative task for those who run it (like ENTIQ – see below.)

What makes Silicon Valleys’ eco-system so effective is perhaps the intimacy of interactions between early stage ventures and those with related expertise and experience. In Accelerators (and in some UK incubators), mentor cohorts are large and their management is proactive. But they take time to set up and are difficult to manage effectively (see link below – BioHub).

Facebook set up an artificial intelligence hub in Paris several years ago to recruit talented engineers at France’s elite universities; and is now anchoring a programme in Station F called Startup Garage, which will mentor every six months 12 budding tech entrepreneurs in health, education and other fields. In exchange for coaching, Facebook will observe how the startups approach issues like privacy, and identify cutting-edge tech trends.

Despite the gross hype around the grand Station F, one French citizen is reported as commenting: ‘France can definitely become a startup nation: the potential is there’.

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See on my website: johnwhatmore.com:

 Imperial White City to house vastly more space for young businesses With four times more startups and scaleups than on its South Kensington site and on ten floors, managing collaboration among a wide spectrum of parties and across big spaces will be a new and hugely challenging task. May, 2017. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-k0)

Making science deliver: BioHub – an outstanding new Incubator BioHub has been assiduously building programmes of support and development for research based businesses.  June, 2017 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-k4)

 New support for startups and scaleups in East London ENTIQ’s new innovation centre in the old Olympic Park will be a great new signpost but the peloton needs more than that: a new network is needed to spur incubators and co-working spaces to develop support services like this one – for the growing number of young businesses. Sept, 2016. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-gu)

John Whatmore, July 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Team building for startups

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Team building for startups Entrepreneur First pushes people to partner up and encourages them to base their search for an idea with potential on their special expertise and experience – which flies in the face of the Centre for Entrepreneurship’s suggestion (which I decried last week) that universities should simply run courses in entrepreneurship for graduates.

Many of the well-known startups have begun with a couple of people happening together upon an idea. The details of these meetings differ, but the story is the same: a tech-fuelled version of romantic love. AppleGoogle and Airbnb all began that way. So in Silicon Valley – and across the startup universe – it is assumed this is the only way to do it. “There’s this assumption that the easy parts are building a team and finding an idea, so the accelerators say ‘Come back to me when you’ve got those bits’,” Alice Bentinck, COO of Entrepreneur First says. “Why do we leave this to chance? Why can’t we help people learn what is a good team?”

EF is an accelerator for individuals, which since it opened its doors in 2011 has launched 143 companies with a collective value of more than £400 million. New recruits come in, meet a co-founder, develop an idea and build a startup from scratch. If YCombinator is getting together with friends, EF is speed dating and Tinder. “People want entrepreneurship to be romantic,” Matt Clifford, CEO, says. “We’re trying to find a way for people rapidly to speed up and increase their likelihood of finding love.” Speed is critical – because, at EF, participants have to pair up in just three months; spending time getting to know people isn’t an option. Anyone who can’t find a partner and a commercially feasible idea by the halfway point of the six-month process is asked to leave immediately.

Step 1 Partner up. Only 16 per cent of VC-backed startups have one founder, so if you want venture backing you’ll need a co-founder.

Step 2 Don’t commit too soon. Co-founding isn’t like marriage. The wrong partner can sink a startup – so if it’s not going to work, leave before you get stuck.

Few people thought that Clifford and Bentinck would succeed; investors would say: “‘There’s no way you could build teams from scratch.” But so far it appears to work. The first definitive piece of evidence arrived on June 20, 2016, when Twitter announced the acquisition of EF graduate Magic Pony Technology for a reported $150 million (£120m). Magic Pony’s founders, Rob Bishop and Zehan Wang, both studied together at Imperial College. Even when they arrived, they didn’t start working together until eight weeks into the programme. Then Bishop, one of the first engineers at Raspberry Pi, suggested using Wang’s artificial intelligence PhD work to speed up image processing. Three weeks later, they had a prototype; eighteen months later, they were tech millionaires. So too were Bentinck and Clifford. EF’s eight per cent share of Magic Pony, purchased for $16,000, was now worth $6.5 million.

To its founders, EF’s success suggests a revolutionary conclusion: entrepreneurs, long presumed to be born, can in fact be made. “It’s basically saying we no longer have to wait organically for these guys to meet at Harvard or Stanford; you can actually take that process and do it at scale,” Clifford says.

The first instruction from EF is simple: get into a pair by the end of the week. “Everyone hates it,” says Bentinck. “But you can’t understand whether someone’s good to work with until you’ve worked together.” There’s another reason: by tracking teams on previous courses, EF observed that about half of successful teams form within the first two weeks.

To help participants get together, EF tells them to focus on their “edge” – their strongest point. Over ultra-competitive board games and cooking challenges at a pre-weekend, the group were given advice on how to meet people. First tip: pitch yourself, not your project. “What I learned from the talks was, if you come in with a fully fledged idea, it’s quite difficult to find a co-founder, because they feel like you own the idea,” says Johnnie Ball, a former trader who left a job at an energy startup to go to EF.

Focusing on what you know may sound obvious, but it runs counter to the dominant school of startup ideation: solve a problem you’ve experienced. EF turns that process on its head. Rather than thinking of problems, it advises, start with what you know, then go in search of ways to apply it.

EF is a business, not a research institute, so to stay in the programme the teams have to build things people actually want. To make sure they’re moving in the right direction, the teams need to locate, contact and, eventually, sell to customers. “We say to them all the time, go talk to your customers,” Clifford says. More broadly, they need to become businesspeople. This is EF’s bet: that it can teach technical founders to think about commerce. That’s one purpose of the weekly pitches. It forces the group to learn how to sell. (Every Friday at 11am, each team presents their work to the rest of the group.) This is their chance to make comparisons, impress EF and show off to potential partners.

Step 3 Find your edge. No matter how tempting it is to expand your horizons, it’s what you already know that’s going to give you a competitive advantage.

Step 4 Stay in school. EF started out taking graduates, but found that they weren’t experienced enough. If you’re still in school, you might want to stay there.

 To its critics, Entrepreneur First is little more than a glorified meetup. “They put people in a room and that’s it,” says Nathan Benaich, a partner at Playfair Capital. “There are many ways that young entrepreneurs can get the benefits of the process without giving away a relatively large chunk of long-term equity for limited short-term value.” It’s a familiar complaint: EF is being accused of not having an edge.

Their first programme began on September 1, 2012 – in spartan surroundings. More significantly, the focus was unclear: there was a mix of technical and non-technical founders, and no mention of concepts such as edge. But, to everyone’s surprise, it produced 11 companies, including four that eventually sold (although EF didn’t raise a fund until the second group, so it didn’t make any money from the deals). Delighted, Clifford and Bentinck forged ahead with a second programme. They felt they had startup-building cracked, but things soon started to go wrong. First to fall apart was the team-building process.

At the beginning, Clifford and Bentinck believed that founders would come together and stay attached. Over the summer of 2012, they organised a series of hackathons to help participants decide on their final partners. Then the course started – and, one by one, the pairs started breaking up. The situation came to a head at with a mass breakup at the end of October. They called it ‘the Halloween massacre’. “This was a crisis moment,” Bentinck says. “We weren’t sure how to fix it. And then people suddenly started saying, ‘Oh, well, why don’t we work on that idea together?’ That kept on happening. We were like, ‘Hang on a minute, maybe there’s something in it.'” As new pairs kept forming, a method was born: instead of pushing co-founders together, EF would pull them apart.

One way to do this is to help people with their breakups. If a team is struggling and won’t break up, EF will step in and do it for them. One participant found this out on the Friday of week six, when she and her partner were approached and told that they could not work on this any more and had to split.

Three months is a long time at EF. Of the 100 people who start, 30 fail to make it to the halfway point. Some never find a partner; some do but can’t make it stick; others drop out for different reasons entirely, such as the AI entrepreneur who leaves because he’s been given €50,000 (£42,000) by Google to build an automated fact-checker for fake news. But in the final weeks there is a last-minute rush to form partnerships, so 35 teams present themselves for consideration. Some succeed; some don’t.

Like its startups, EF’s process works less well if you don’t have an edge. Someone may be a skilled coder with a bachelors degree in graphic design and another in computer science, but among the PhD graduates and data scientists of EF, he or she is a jack-of-all-trades coder. That would be fine if she was content to take the lead from someone else for she has the traditional entrepreneurial qualities of drive, ambition and an appetite for risk. But at EF, these can sometimes be a hindrance.

The same difficulty occurred in 2011, when the second group formed new teams. As they came together, one type of person was excluded: with all but one exception, the businesspeople dropped out, and the startups were created by founders with technical backgrounds. Yet this failure, too, suggested a solution.

Step 5 Test your idea. If you want it to work in the real world, ask customers what they think. Then ask them again.

Step 6 Pivot – but not too much. If things go wrong, make a change, but build on your experience and contacts.

 When the second course ended, Clifford and Bentinck decided to change their approach. From now on, EF would ignore businesspeople and look exclusively for technical founders. The decision was controversial. When Clifford and Bentinck announced it in 2014 at its third Demo Day – the showcase graduation event held at the end of each course – Bentinck remembers the assembled investors gasping in shock.

But whether consciously or not, Clifford and Bentinck had timed their move to perfection. Technology is shifting away from general software and towards mathematical algorithms. In this world, business savvy is no match for a PhD in computer science. That same year, Google bought London AI startup DeepMind for £400 million, creating an instant pool of local machine-learning millionaires. Among investors and entrepreneurs alike, AI is in hot demand. And EF – the creator of Magic Pony, now taking applications from one in three Cambridge computer science graduates – is the place to find it.

EF is growing geographically and financially. In September 2016, it launched its first international branch, a 100-strong programme in Singapore. The same month, it announced that it would be funding companies for two years, thanks to a new £40 million fund run by Moonfruit co-founders Joe White and Wendy Tan White. Eventually, Clifford hopes, EF could even displace YC. “What they’ve managed to achieve is fantastic and inspiring,” he says. “But I fundamentally think that they’re still an old-world institution. They’re basically just investing, and they do so little for their companies.” The question is: can EF can do more?

Clifford and Bentinck believe EF will change the world. “People still don’t get how profoundly radical it is,” Clifford says, “to be able to take people as individuals and turn them, with some probability of success and massive creation of value, into companies. The EF process is certainly not infallible. It’s not the place entrepreneurs are made. It helps certain kinds of people – focused, technical, experienced – build certain types of companies. If it succeeds, it will be because those companies have become much more necessary.

This is an abridged version of an article first published in the May 2017 issue of WIRED magazine.

John Whatmore, July 2017

 

Getting instant help from fellow startups

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Getting instant help from fellow startups The School for Social Entrepreneurs recently brought together a couple of cohorts of startups, each for half-a-day, to reflect together on the health of their business and on its future – with the help of a simple ‘game’.

 

I have just come across an intriguing approach to opening up discussions about startups’ problems and opportunities – with a touch of magic that gets beyond defences and is revelatory.

The test version of this process looked like a board game, but it simply provided hooks that encouraged the leaders of these startups to elaborate and then discuss the current state of their startup, and their thoughts about its future needs – in a reflective and highly supportive atmosphere. It met with rave feed-back (1).

In turn each participant was first asked to consider the current state of their business. They were invited to place a number of white counters on which were inscribed different but very common aspects of businesses (such as ‘Objectives’, ‘Talent management’, ‘Team spirit’) onto a board in one of seven interlocking spaces (a Venn diagram – of Customers, Employees and Strategy), and then to attach words to their actions and talk briefly about their reasons for so doing.

Each cohort was of around half-a-dozen startups; and the others round the room, who were on the same journey but with both similar and different backgrounds and experience, were then asked to help elucidate those issues and their future plans.

Next, the first exercise was repeated but placing the counters so as to illustrate where they would like their business to be in the future, then explain their reasons and elicit comments from other members of the group, as before.

Then they were asked to place red or green counters on top of key white counters (the green to indicate existing strengths for achieving one’s goal; and red to highlight those problems or weaknesses that must be resolved to achieve that goal); and finally each person identified the actions they would take to deal with the key issue confronting them; and was encouraged to state when they would do so.

In this particular event, most of the white counters tended to be placed in the ‘Customers’ section of the board, and most of the discussion was about finding customers and about customer wants and needs, but different circumstances elicit very different variations to these discussions.

Touching a counter seems somehow to turn its story magically into subjective reality; and the whole process enabled participants to get valuable input from fellow travelers in quick time.

Many are the recent support programmes that have been based on peer-to-peer group meetings: RBS’s Growth Builder, the Judge Institute Scaleup programme, the US-originated Vistage programme, the Belgian Plato programme and the very concept of the Accelerator.

They herald a great opportunity for sessions like this in co-working spaces and incubators, where they can provide not only valuable help from fellow travelers, but also links that will encourage them to meet again and continue to exchange valuable experience.

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(1) SSB the authors of this programme can be contacted through me. SSB would be interested to run a trial in an incubator – if you are interested please contact me at john.whatmore@btinternet.com

See also: Support programmes for young ventures in incubators New support programmes for scaleups are of a design that could easily be replicated in incubators and their ilk, and could help generate big steps in growth. Oct 2016 http://wp.me/p3beJts-gB

 John Whatmore, June 2017

Making science deliver: BioHub

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Making science deliver: BioHub – an outstanding new Incubator

BioHub has been assiduously building programmes of support and development for research based businesses. Other centres of science in the UK must follow this lead.            To follow: Who and what makes a successful incubator

 

BioHub, a new Life Sciences Incubator at Alderley Park, won the accolade of Biotech Incubator of the Year last year.

BioHub’s new Director, Ned Wakeman, has taken BioCity’s emphasis on the growing of its businesses to new levels. What makes it so special?

He has focused on creating and evolving a culture of development:

  • Getting collaborative support from related experts and serial entrepreneurs.
  • Focussing the businesses in the incubator on factors that make for business success – by introducing them to the well-recognised Business Model Canvas (Incubator Manager).
  • Introducing them to a programme of business development specialised to science-based SMEs that has become popular in the US – the I-Corps programme (Accelerator Manager) see http://wp.me/p3beJt-av.
  • Building a large cohort of experts to help and advise on each business’s evolving needs (Mentor Manager).
  • Developing BioHub as an outstanding centre of excellence.

He has initiated a North of England Life Science Accelerator (NELSA) in partnership with the N8 universities, the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA), two venture funds (Alderley Park Ventures and Catapult Ventures), MSP, and BioCity.

He is currently working on a new shared risk model of engagement between incubators, large corporates, and Innovate UK, that would address specific unmet needs, co-funded projects, corporate expertise, and structured incubation programmes, housed in the BioHub ecosystem to support their development.  And he is helping to building education and routes to finance.

The BioHub is currently home to about 200 bioscience businesses (though it will grow as Astra Zeneca moves out more of its staff to Cambridge). Of these almost a quarter are well-established life science enterprises with their own offices; and the rest are young businesses, for which there are excellent hot-desk areas.

Alderley Park is a research centre in transition: owned by the Manchester Science Partnership, until two years ago it was home to Astra Zeneca’s R&D. Its premises have since then been steadily transferred to Manchester Science Park and a lesser portion to BioCity’s new BioHub. (BioCity runs similar incubators in Nottingham and Scotland, at each of which there are also incubators in health, beauty and wellness.)

Ned’s Wakeman’s early career in the US was in bio-science. More recently he has worked in investment banking in London, focusing on bio-science. He is an energetic creater of the community that he envisions, and a formidable presenter; and has a weakness for wanting to deliver the benefits of science as much as to do science itself.

Concerns are regularly expressed that in the UK we fail to exploit the high quality of our research – science for science’s sake, rather than for its impact. The BioHub is a leading example of ways in which research can be turned into products with widespread benefits – by providing all sorts of support for doing so. Harwell, Daresbury and other leaders of science-based research in the UK should be taking similar steps. What stops them?

See also:

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? Jan 2016. http://wp.me/p3beJt-c1

 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) http://wp.me/p3beJt-dw

 John Whatmore, June 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re-shaping support for SMEs

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Making the most out of young businesses Lessons are arriving from all sides about early-stage businesses (Village Capital, Nesta, Scaleup Institute, Growth Builder, IDEO). What do they tell us? Shouldn’t Innovate UK be taking a bigger role in the support of innovation practice?

 Most striking is the extent to which Accelerators – a fast growing phenomenon – have become the province of corporates. They force new businesses to focus not just on good ideas but on important (commercial) issues; they know their own field – its problems and opportunities; they provide invaluable support; and they are willing and capable investors (Wayra Lab, Cisco, John Lewis, and many others.)

However, this does leave great swathes of the population and of the economy untouched by support for innovation eg the public sector, several industries, large parts of the country and the everyday lives of most people. The Nesta report identifies some; and Geoff Mulgan, its Chief Executive, has focused on others, not least in the public sector.

The main sources of funding for Accelerators are now Corporates, the Public sector and Philanthropics. Venture Capital is a source for only 8% of Accelerators (and 2% of Incubators). The Nesta Report reveals that in the UK both Incubators and Accelerators rely heavily on public funds – from a variety of sources (in many areas and sectors for a substantial proportion of funding and in some, completely.)

It is now well recognised that the greatest opportunity for the development of entrepreneurial eco-systems is in ‘sectors that have a deep and local focus’; and the Scaleup Institute is busily working with LEPs to help them to do so.

However, innovation strategy and practice are evolving; and there is still little experienced management of proactive support.

Recent research by IDEO revealed something surprising: neither a more traditional approach to product development – coming up with three good options, analyzing them, and choosing one to move forward with, nor the lean startup approach – taking a best guess, piloting it, and then pivoting based on what works – is the most effective way to launch a new product. Instead, when teams iterate on five or more different solutions, they are 50% more likely to launch a product successfully.

‘Entrepreneurial support organisations are critical infrastructure for cities, communities and for corporates; and they too need clearly articulated support’ says Village Capital, a major US philanthropic business. The most common form of support is mentoring, but the promotion and management of mentoring (and of support in general) is a role that is extremely rare, but much needed, and rarer in Incubators than in Accelerators. Moreover a different format of support programme is also emerging – in the form of regular monthly meetings – especially of hi-growth businesses – based round collaborative learning.

There is at present no body that adequately encompasses Incubators and Accelerators – to help steer policy, identify best practice, and foster training and development in innovationeering. Innovate UK should take urgent steps to create an appropriate KTN.

John Whatmore, May 2017

VC + Research Institute run Accelerator

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VC collaborates with national research institute to run its own accelerator

A specialised investment firm has partnered a research institute to create an accelerator – for companies whose business is centred on the creation of data and the application of data science.

Winton Labs is a startup accelerator for data science companies, run by the venture division of Winton, a data-technology global investment firm. Winton has a long history of successfully applying data science to disrupt the world of investing, and wants to support companies that have the same data centric view of the world.

The Alan Turing Institute as the national centre for data science sees part of its role as nurturing the next generation of data science leaders and entrepreneurs, and offered technical advice built on their own academic and industry experience and connections in the field.

London is, reportedly, home to world-class academics, start-ups, data scientists and innovators and a hotbed of innovation on such topics as algorithms, big data and artificial intelligence. The programme provided a great opportunity for collaboration to help entrepreneurs build new, value-generating companies able to compete on a global scale.

Managed by Winton Ventures, the 3 month programme took place in the Lab’s co-working space at Winton’s London HQ, and drew mentors and expert advisers from Winton’s internal experts, the Alan Turing Institute, academic partners, and a broad external network.

The five early stage start-ups won their place on the accelerator programme from over 100 applicants and have now had an opportunity to pitch to funders for future investments.

John Whatmore, April 2017