Imperial’s vast new incubator

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Imperial White City to house vastly more space for young businesses

With four times more startups and scaleups than on its South Kensilngton 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.

Imperial White City in West London consists in the development of a wholesale new university campus. Imperial, very much a leading university, long constrained by the shortage of space in its part of London, took an opportunity offered by property developments in White City to rethink the complete structure of university education.

The gap that has emerged between students and staff could be bridged, the thinking went, if it were possible to bring together – into a community – students, staff, alumni, local businesses and the local community.

One of the dozen or more buildings on the new site is, rather enigmatically, called the Translation and I-Hub; (another is the big new ‘maker’ space, about which I will write next). The aim is to create a ‘dynamic, enterprising environment that enables the translation of research outcomes into internationally significant technologies’, co-locating research capabilities with ‘allied [commercial] enterprises’.

The building will offer ‘spinouts, startups, SMEs, scaleups, established industry leaders’ about seven times more space than was previously available on the South Kensington campus (1) (ie it will house perhaps 250-350 businesses,) for incubation, grow-on and collaboration with corporates.

Of the 13 floors, three are already kitted out as wet labs/office spaces devoted to incubator grow-on use – with coffee/community areas, that will house around two dozen bioscience businesses (one floor will be for businesses in synthetic biology). And the other ten floors are open plan office space, (initial plans show no coffee/community areas), each of which could make an ideal incubator for a community of carefully matched young businesses. While access to experts in departments still at Kensington will of course be harder, the bioscience incubator has recruited its first alumnus (‘who has done it before’ ie built a big business from the ground) to work with its occupants. (2)

The new facilities, all shipshape, will be impressively modern, not least with all the latest communication facilities. In so far as more of the accommodation than in the past is oriented towards more mature startups, the offices anticipate a greater focus on the individual company and less on the centre as an innovation community; yet the essence of the new thinking lies in the unity of the community.

If cross-fertilisation is of increasing value, the proactive management of support will be vitally important. But it will be unusually challenging by virtue of the wide spectrum of the parties involved and the very large area of the accommodation.

John Whatmore, June 2017

  • The South Kensington Incubator was home in all to around 80 young businesses – 20 core SMEs plus 10 in cleantech and 10 in synthetic biology; some 30 were virtual/hot desk businesses, and around 10 were brand new startups.
  • Wayra Lab, Startupbootcamp and MassChallenge inter alia average 5 mentors per startup, some closely attached, others called up as their businesses evolve.

See also: 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. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-gu)

STOP PRESS Imperial has just announced that it is seeking to recruit a Director of Entrepreneurship to lead its new Enterprise Lab.

John Whatmore, May 2017

 

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

London Met’s Challenge Prize

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London Met runs a Challenge Prize in social enterprise for students in a number of FE Colleges across London

Recently three students were named the winners of the Big Idea Challenge, one of the UK’s fastest growing social enterprise competitions, run by London Metropolitan University. One an Italian and two Spanish – received a prestigious award from His Royal Highness The Duke of York in St James’s Palace.

Their idea? To modify an iconic London bus to create a mobile support centre, complete with showers, for the capital’s homeless. ‘Fresh Start: the bus that changes lives’ will now go forward to implementation – the prize for winning the Big Idea Challenge. Corporate sponsors are being sought to fund it, and the bus will soon be on London’s roads, making a real difference to real lives.

The recent Higher Education and Research Bill sought to challenge universities to work in new ways with schools and colleges, with closer relationships with business as part of the Industrial Strategy.

The Big Idea Challenge aims to get entrepreneurial spirits to come up with solutions to some of societies biggest problems. This year, London Met decided to extend its Big Idea Challenge to 17 colleges of Further Education across the capital.

The teams who progressed from the first round were brought to RBS’s headquarters in Liverpool Street and matched with inspirational mentors from the business world, such as Microsoft, RBS, Unilever and The Prince’s Trust, to develop their idea into a viable business.

John Whatmore, June 2017

 

WeWork, WeBuild, WeFund, WePlay

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WeWork, WeBuild, WeFund, WePlay WeWork is adding to its concept as a simple and extensive provider of co-working spaces – with a new and more highly supported incubator in London, an opportunity to win a prize and to have access to a funding pot, and a summer camp.

London is the first location for the relaunch of WeWork Labs and its first labs space outside of the United States. WeWork Labs: London Fields is a creator space located in the heart of London’s creative and startup hotbed Hackney. It gives its members exclusive access to targeted events and mentorships, in addition to WeWork’s worldwide network of creators across the globe. It will host 100 members at a preferred rate selected through a carefully curated application and vetting process.

WeWork’s Creator Awards offer UK entrepreneurs the chance to win investment of up to £360,000 and desk space as part of a £16m global funding pot to help small businesses. People who are “making a difference in their communities” and “pursuing their passions”, could apply. All applicants would receive free desk space in its facilities for two days per month for a year. Those who are successful would join the global finals in New York.

For years, one of WeWork’s most iconic events has been in an American summer camp. Members, employees, and guests spend these weekends-in-the-woods ‘from log cabin to lake dock’, making ‘invaluable interactions’ with lasting impact. A quintessentially English country venue for Summer Camp 2017 offers a getaway where individuals and companies of all sizes can come together from around the world to take a break in the great outdoors. The camp provides all-inclusive access to food and drinks, al fresco fitness, networking events, musical performances, relaxation, lake boating, team sports, and creative workshops.

WeWork looks more and more like an incubator every day!

John Whatmore, June 2017