Are there any limits to the scope for Accelerators


Are their any limits to the scope for Accelerators?
Hallowed publication ‘Nature’ reports on a nine-week ‘Biotech Boot Camp’ in the US, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which aims to get entrepreneurial scientists to get out there and ask potential customers what they want. Its author used to think that his method was applicable in all industries except one – Bioscience! Should the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst and even the Wellcome Foundation be funding their own Boot Camps?
Next week: I enumerate persuasive examples of intensive support for early-stage ventures; and suggest that a lot can be learned from one another on key aspects like the recruitment and the management of supporters.

Steve Blanks’s I-Corps (Innovation Corps) runs a Boot Camp – a nine-week course designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – that has now been rolled out for biomedical firms as part of an experiment by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Its ruthless pitching tests have encouraged some of the participating companies to change course drastically and others to abandon promising science for something more market-savvy. “You can be a great researcher and you can think you have great ideas”, said one Congressman, “but until you’re forced to talk to a potential customer, you never really know.”

Nineteen teams formed last December’s first cohort. ‘Each morning was spent presenting, and then re-presenting the ten-minute team pitches. Each afternoon, the teams raced to interview experts in their fields, then reported back for more workshops. Nights were filled with class readings, homework and preparations for the next day’s presentations and interviews.’

The interviews are central to the process. Teams needed to talk to scientists, pharma company reps, regulators, doctors, billing specialists and more – essentially any person with expertise in what it takes for companies to get their products to patients and get paid. A time-consuming process, and Blank insists that the interviews be conducted face-to-face, to build rapport and allow interviewers to better gauge their subject’s emotions. If an expert cannot be met in person, the team must hold a video-conference. “For commercialisation, being able to explain it to your mother is what matters”, said Blank.

Steve Blank is a college drop-out who wandered into Silicon Valley in 1978 and has launched eight technology companies there – not all of them successful. From his introspections, he crafted a curriculum for tech entrepreneurs, to teach them to think beyond their own technology and to dive early and deep into the details of commercialisation: who the customers are, what they need and how much they are willing to pay. The technique is said to have swept through the tech industry, though it needs to be guided in order to obviate its tendency towards focusing on incremental rather than revolutionary improvements.

The US Small Business Research Programme had been concerned that top earners of grants were rarely focused on commercialisation, sometimes being used not to further a business, but to continue research. The National Science Foundation was the first to offer the programme to scientists on the threshold of launching a company, and since 2011 about 500 teams have taken the course. Then the NIH followed, first with the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

At first, Blank believed that his method was applicable to all industries except one – life sciences – where the gestation period was too long. But life science companies have cut back on in-house research in favour of early partnerships with smaller firms, effectively turning big pharma [and in the UK the Wellcome Foundation too] into early customers. So startups must deal with the difficulties created by heavier regulation, the importance of intellectual property, and the challenge of payment services.

In order to assess whether to get more companies involved, NIH is tracking the teams’ success over the next five years, monitoring how many partnerships with major pharmaceutical or medical-device firms the companies form, and whether they receive funds from other investors. The NCI is expected to decide within the next two months whether to continue its programme. In the meantime, 82% of participants said that they would recommend the programme to others.

The US Department of Energy has announced a similar project and the Department of Defence is also considering one. Several university technology-transfer offices in the US are interested in Blanks’s methods for aiding academic entrepreneurs; and Imperial College has adopted a similar programme – for startups based on synthetic biology. The Cabinet Office’s second round of funding of Accelerator programmes has been for startups in Healthcare; and its participants recently made their final presentations at an event in London.

There is no shortage of opportunities for these kinds of programmes, but there is a risk that they will not be appropriately adapted to their sector and their purpose, and that there are too few people with the necessary expertise and experience the ensure their success. They have a long way to go.

Biotech Boot Camp’ Nature, 26 March 2015

See also: ‘i-Teams: the teams and funds making innovation happen in government’ tells the stories of 20 such teams in various countries.
Nesta, June 2014.

John Whatmore
April 2015

Startups: test your judgement


Startups: test your judgement – an Easter diversion
Rate the six startups below on how investable you think they are:
five stars – outstanding
four stars – a good investment
three stars – worth considering
two stars – probably not
one star – a complete non-starter!
Then scroll down to compare them with our ratings (from records).

UBeam – developing devices that transmit power wirelessly – over the air-waves – to charge your portable device.

Meet the famous – have a ‘live’ CGI conversation with famous people: Barack Obama, Cate Blanchett, the Queen of England, Oprah Winfrey, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and others.

Kin Community – learn how to make a tartine, get make-up tips, and even launch your career as an internet star.

Gem – prevents your crypto-currency (like Bitcoin) from being lost or stolen.

The Wizard – finds items closely related to a search by reference to your past search history.

Ring – actually see who is ringing your door-bell – whether you are 10,000 miles or just 10 paces away.

Now compare your ratings with ours – based on the records that we have seen:

UBeam – developing devices that transmit power wirelessly – over the air-waves – to charge your portable device.
Has raised $23mn in funding so far – our rating: five star

Meet the famous – have a ‘live’ CGI conversation with famous people: Barack Obama, Cate Blanchett, the Queen of England, Oprah Winfrey, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and others.
Our invention! But Siri and the imminent arrival of Mattel’s Hello Barbie suggest that it may not be long in coming. ‘Nul points’.

Kin Community – learn how to make a tartine, get make-up tips, and even launch your career as an internet star.
Looks as though it has raised $118mn on Crunchbase and is very active – four star

Gem – prevents your crypto-currency (like Bitcoin) from being lost or stolen.
Announced $2mn seed fund round in Sept 2014 – two star

The Wizard – finds items closely related to a search by reference to your past search history.
Doesn’t exist – as such. Apparently you can do it for yourself, but not easily. If you fancy it you could start it, but then the market might be stolen by a big player! No stars.

Ring – actually see who is ringing your door-bell – whether you are 10,000 miles or just 10 paces away.
Raised $13mn in funding last year – three star

Now tell us how you fared (

Mentoring gathering pace


Mentoring Conference illustrates the many different roles that mentors play
The interplay of minds is perhaps the essence of mentoring, but up-to-date experience is of increasing importance in a fast-changing world.

The government launched a compaign for mentoring with a great fanfare in 2012, so this first conference of the Association of Business Mentors is something of a milestone in the progress of mentoring. The point was well made that mentoring is experiencing rapid growth, and becoming more professional, with rising standards and the first signs of institutionalisation (ie the appearance of mentoring organisations.) Far less pervasive than in the United States, it has a long way to go.

Finding a mentor is often provoked by a need that is felt but cannot be met by any other means. Discussions illustrated that it is seen as an enduring and personal one-to-one role (like that of Prince Charles and Laurens van der Post), in which the kind of relationship is of the essence: as providing an opportunity
• to discuss one’s private thoughts;
• to consider one’s aims, objectives and progress;
• to work through a particular issue;
• to get a different perspective (eg longer term/more holistic)
• to help in identifying problems or opportunities;
• to reveal unseen factors;
• to get a better understanding of oneself;
• to gain inspiration;
• to affirm one’s commitment.
So it is unsurprising that people often choose people they know well for these roles; and any intermediary needs to know both parties well or risk a mismatch.

For more specific issues, such as advice on a business function, objective or technology, or about the marketability of a proposal, nothing can replace up-to-date knowledge (your mentor needs to know about the latest in Google Analytics, Crowdfunding or 3D printing, as he or she does if the business or the industry is going through a specific phase eg a period of great change or rapid growth.)

The conference was mainly about helping self-employed mentors to develop their business. For most mentoring roles, depth of experience that a second career implies is an essential qualification. Sessions were about identifying one’s mentoring strengths, defining one’s roles, getting more clients and enhancing one’s business processes. While many see mentoring as something that has its own rewards and payment is not among them, Jonathan Pfahl of the Rockstar Mentoring Group urged us with great gusto to treat it as an entrepreneurial young business.

Organisations that aim to provide mentors often have great difficulty in enabling those mentors to establish satisfactory ongoing relationships with their mentees: making a good match is evidently very difficult. Experience, background and expertise can be matched easily enough, but understanding motives, needs and feelings is more elusive. For many people, their mentors play an enduring role; but for some people, mentoring needs change with circumstances and with moods, and some organisations like Accelerators YCombinator and Techstars (and more rarely some people) are able to provide different mentors to meet those changing needs.

Mentoring clearly has an important role in a fast-changing world, and conferences like this one can help in advancing its cause, especially in terms of mentoring skills and mentor-matching.

John Whatmore
February 2015

See also at ‘Applied Creativity’

(1) I am a fly on the wall at an Accelerator’s Mentor Day
The day provided the programme’s entrepreneurs a free-form opportunity to meet mentors and for them to learn something about each other. It suggested to me five different mentor roles. Sept 2014

(2) I interview the ‘best mentor’ in Startupbootcamp’s FinTech Accelerator
In and out frequently, he steadily evolved his role by offering the wealth and breadth of experience of a life-time’s work in a top bank – clarifying progress and problems, acting as a sounding board, offering experienced insights, and marshalling help. Dec 2014

(3) ‘Mentor Managers’ can work miracles for startups
Above all else, early-stage ventures need their hands holding in their new adventures, but they have no idea about whose hands to hold. Mentor Managers can help them by finding experienced and expert mentors. Jan 2015

(4) Mentoring: great benefits, but considerable problems
The benefits and the problems are well recognised. Several different routes are evolving, and four distinct approaches to the managing of mentors have different benefits and different problems. Dec 2014

Stories from the front line


Stories from the front line: what Startups value most in Accelerators
What they get out of ‘Office Hours’, group lunches, others on the programme, their first meeting with mentors, mentor slots and other events.

Short periods of intensive development for a small number of carefully selected teams are turning ideas into marketable propositions: ‘Accelerators’ bring these teams together to work alongside one another, and they provide structured support and a wealth of mentors. I asked some Startups what was their magic.

“The weekly session with the Accelerator staff [known as ‘Office hours’], who always asked you:
What have you achieved in the last week?
What are you planning to do next?
What is stopping you?
What have you learned?
This forced you for example to think about what were the bottlenecks; and sometimes they would offer answers, and sometimes not.

“Monday’s group lunches were valuable – where each team had five minutes in which to give an update about their project; followed by a speaker – often an entrepreneur who talked about his or her own experience in developing their project.

“Talking to other people on the programme – people who were working beside me, or who were working with a similar technology but a different system (there was one who was one or two years ahead of me in terms of stage of development), or who were working in the same field and with interesting technologies.

“Mentor meetings were extremely valuable. At the initial speed-dating meeting, the mentors were in groups of two, three or four, and each team had five to ten minutes to present their project – to each group of mentors, and then got responses, advice or contacts from each mentor – exhausting but great!

“On offer were two or three slots with mentors most weeks. They gave us advice, contacts and evaluation. One told us how to approach one potential user, who to talk to, what to say and how to say what we had to tell them. Another introduced me to someone who in turn introduced me to the business development manager in a potential user organisation.

[There is now a different approach: a weekly meeting of staff considers the current mentoring needs of teams, and potential matches from the mentor bank, all or most of whose members are known to someone in the staff team.
Mentors are now divided into those whose contribution can be expected to relate to a single problem and those who are longer-term contributors; and those whose main experience is in investment join the teams for ‘Office hours’ only in the final third of the programme.]

“Every Tuesday a different ‘mentor’ would give a talk about their special interest: design, social impact, investment, marketing, pricing etc – the most valuable of these for me was marketing.

The comments are from meetings I had with participants in a Bethnal Green Ventures Accelerator programme in 2013. I would very much like to hear others’ experience about what they got out of Accelerators (

See also at ‘Applied Creativity’

I interview the ‘best mentor’ in Startupbootcamp’s FinTech Accelerator
In and out frequently, he steadily evolved his role by offering the wealth and breadth of experience of a life-time’s work in a top bank – clarifying progress and problems, acting as a sounding board, offering experienced insights, and marshalling help. Dec 2014

I am a fly on the wall at an Accelerator’s Mentor Day
The day provided the programme’s entrepreneurs a free-form opportunity to meet mentors and for them to learn something about each other. It suggested to me five different mentor roles. Sept 2014

Three pieces of Pixie Dust: Bethnal Green Ventures ‘accelerates’ six new social enterprises
Pervasive mentoring, proximity (to one another – getting people to interact on their own terms) and pressure to deliver – but all created by a leader with empathy, experience and contacts – with top people who have ‘done it before’ Sept 2012

Good Incubation: the craft of supporting early-stage [social] ventures
Models, methods and types of venture, together with some views about the future. April 2014

Ideas from across boundaries


Ideas from across boundaries
Ideas that inspire radical innovations often come from quite different fields.
A meeting at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory will bring together innovators in Healthcare and Motor Sports – to explore their use of real-time data.

Health monitoring and motor sport currently have a common interest – in making use of real-time data from multiple sources. A novel cross-industry partnering and innovation event will take place at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory on 24 March with the help of experience in F1 (see below for details). The focus will be on remote monitoring, data acquisition, better analytics and ease of use. Keynote speakers Include Magna, Leica Biosystems, Siemens Healthcare and the Williams F1 racing team.

With the never-ending segmentation of technologies, the need for cross-boundary links is becoming ever more vital. The Innocentive website is a classic approach – in which problems are posted, and it is from other fields that solutions commonly arrive. Open Innovation (P&G) is one source of such links, art and business another (Watershed, Bristol), innovation workshops a third (BT Labs) and partnerships between designers and technologists (Dyson) another.

Increasing life spans and longer independent living mean that holistic health-monitoring can be a valuable asset to health services; but making effective use of the data is, at least at present, more of an art than a science.

Events like this one at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory with leading-edge practitioners in motor sport and healthcare can help to inspire enduring cross-boundary links. (Maclaren once helped cardiac surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital to reduce the risks involved with changing the feed-lines when patients were handed over from Surgery to Intensive Care – by virtue of their expertise in the pit stop. See also ‘ideas via Intermediaries’ – below)

What is needed to encourage the use of real-time data, whether for domestic or public applications, is examples of systems management that are not merely intriguing, but have got real sex appeal; energy management or traffic management don’t have the appeal that F1 does!

If you are wrestling with a difficult problem, join me in this opportunity for thinking up sources that might inspire you with innovative ideas.

For full details of the event, contact

Ideas via Intermediaries – stories of different perspectives
Including how British Airways used a specialist operating theatre design company to enhance cleanliness in its planes; and another airline used the pit stop as a model for its baggage handling systems

The Internet of Thingummies – my worst Christmas dream
I assembled all my devices and told them that I was giving them all the boot! (

John Whatmore
February 2015

Ideas via Intermediaries


Ideas via Intermediaries
A collection of stories about the ingenious use
of different perspectives

How often we are floored when we have to think about what kinds of things to do that might help us to get new ideas for solving one of our problems. The same old approaches come readily to mind (look for analogies/do something different/leave the problem to incubate etc), but the stepping stones we think up feel either way-out or else too weak; and we lack the courage to play with them.
Jurgen Wolff, the writer and teacher of creative writing skills, in his monthly newsletter “Brainstorm” suggested an approach: ‘for a current challenge you are facing, generate a list of situations that have something in common with it, and a list of apparently dissimilar situations. Then brainstorm ways that the latter are similar, and see what new ideas that gives you”.
Sometimes you hear stories about ways in which problem-owners have introduced people with radically different perspectives who have been able to come up with magical ideas. Below you will find some.

* British Airways used often to pay for a day of his/her time to a specialist from a different field in order to get new perspectives on old problems. On one occasion, faced with the problem of how to stop grease trails developing along the aisle floor-covering from the galley of an aircraft, they invited an expert on the lay-out and equipping of surgical theatres to help them. (Bob Nelson, then at BA)

* A group of cardiac surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital, concerned at the dangers involved when an infant was handed over from Surgery to Intensive Care because monitoring and feed lines had to be disconnected and new ones reconnected, asked Maclaren, the Formula One racing company, to help them because of their expertise in the pit stop. (John Farago, Royal Society of Arts.)

* First Great Western wanted to develop new products and they invited a Cabin Service Director from British Airways to their session along with a specialist in Stress Relief, Yoga and NLP! Needless to say the results went far beyond just train-related products and gave the resulting new product development ideas a much broader scope than would probably otherwise have happened. (Carole Lee, LB Innovations)

* Which direction? Not so long ago, but before the fast digital communications revolution, BT had a growing problem they needed help to solve. When routing phone calls at peak times, calls blocked by volume of traffic would be passed from one major centre to the next in the general direction of where the call was headed. This eventually caused a blockage at the next point and so on until the system became very slow. Apparently they approached Cambridge University Maths Dept. for a solution. After some modelling effort, it was soon demonstrated that the ‘random walk approach’ was the answer. This simply chose any route at random and this ended up being far more efficient at finding a clear path than persistently trying the main and hence busiest routes. At the speed calls are transmitted, even with contorted loops and doubling back, the extra distances travelled were not noticeable. (Graham Bushnell-Wye, CCLRC)

* An interactive illustration of apportioning time to tasks – useful at group meetings. Standing at the front of the room, the lecturer asks how many of these big stones can I get in this one litre glass container. Several suggestions are forthcoming and 5 or 6 stones are fitted in comfortably. “Is the container full – can I fit anything else in?” is asked. “It’s pretty full, so probably not” is the usual answer from the audience. Then a bag of pebbles is produced and much of the contents duly poured into the container, fitting into the voids left by the stones. “Is it full now?” – fewer people in the audience now think so. A bag of sand is produced and some of this too is added as the grains fit between the pebbles and stones. “Is it full now?” – not many think so at this stage and, sure enough, a bottle of water appears and some of this tipped into the container. “What’s the message for time management then”, asks the lecturer. A volunteer says “You can carry on squeezing more and more into the time available”. “No!”, says the lecturer, “whilst that is true, if I’d tried to put the stones in after the pebbles, sand and water, I wouldn’t have been able to fit any in. The thing is, to make sure you put in the important things first, then fit in the less important things around them.” OR, for time management, the most important thing is to spend time doing the most important thing, AND, to determine the most important things when planning your year/month/week/day. Ask yourself what thing(s) can I do that will have the greatest impact on the organisation/ my team/ my personal objectives/ my home life (important to consider home-life balance too!). (Graham Bushnell-Wye, CCLRC)

* One particular Canadian Province was having problems during the winter with ice build-up on the telephone lines that stretched across the province on telegraph poles. Each winter when the ice built up and the weight became too much the lines would break and the province had to send out teams to repair the broken telephone lines. They got together a team of people to try and work out how to a) stop the ice build-up, b) save some money as it was a costly exercise each time it happened and c) ensure the phone lines stayed up for customers! They held an open creative brainstorming session where people were asked to offer ideas as to how to stop the build-up of ice. During the initial session someone wrote or offered ‘get bears to climb the poles’. During the first review the person was asked how this would stop ice build-up and it was said that if bears climbed the telegraph poles then the poles shaking as they climbed would cause the ice to break up, loosen and fall. So along with other ideas they freewheeled again and were asked how might they get the bears to climb the poles, the answer came out, ‘put food on top of the poles to encourage them to climb’. Mmm, good but how do you get food on top of the poles? Well another solution came out, you could fly a helicopter low level and drop food on to the top of the poles. At this point came the Eureka moment when someone realised that if you flew low level in a helicopter along the phone lines, the downdraft from the helicopter blades would be more than enough to shake the ice build-up from the lines before it got too heavy and the lines broke. So from ‘getting bears to climb the poles’ they got to ‘flying a helicopter low level along the lines’ and this is now how they keep the ice from building up on the phone lines! (Gary Austin, Circle Indigo.)

* I’ve heard of the Formula 1 pit stop idea before (urban myth?!) used to inform commercial aircraft turn-round at terminals. Similar problem: speed is essential, refuel & re-supply, get it moving again. I used to teach business process re-engineering and the generic technique I call “industry hopping”, ie take a great idea from one industry and apply it in another. Example: if your problem is marketing, identify who you think is a star at marketing, and see what they do. If you think Coca Cola is a star (and they manage to sell us fizzy acid in remarkable quantity) then consider what they do as a source of ideas. As ever, it relies on the “nothing new under the sun” principle. (Mike Barrett, Marcham Consulting.)

* I have been asked by Renison Goldfields to take a fresh view of a gold mine. As a systems person (IT consultant) I had no prior knowledge of gold mining, but that was the point. Traditionally there were two processes in sequence: dig out the ore and then extract the gold. Each operated separately. My contribution was to recognise that the only thing that really mattered was the amount of gold produced, implying that it’s better to compromise the amount and/or choice of ore if that meant more gold produced. I think I had unusual advantages in having great trust from the client; and mine management determined to set new benchmarks for the way things were done. (Mike Barrett, Marcham Consulting.)

* A recent Radio 4 programme was about natural analogies and the fact that BT has a section which develops technical ideas from nature. And there is said to be a US technology outfit called Antics or something similar which devises ideas exclusively from the behaviour of ants. (Rosie Walford, CEN Network.)

* In a workshop looking for new ideas for toothpaste based on the senses, ‘What if..” recently got a blind woman to make delegates do tasks with different visual impairments, a glassblower to talk process and textures, a cocktail barman to mix cocktails to conceptual briefs like ‘smooth white’ or deep down freshness’, and a composer to have delegates sample sounds to concept briefs then compose them in a studio into a short piece of music. (Rosie Walford, CEN Network.)

* I’ve had a masseur and Cosmopolitan magazine editor come to sessions about a contemporary female brand. (Rosie Walford, CEN Network.)

* In an effort to learn more about project management we recently had two talks back to back. The first was from the Project Manager of the London Eye and the second the Project Manager of the Windsor Castle restoration after the fire. The things I picked up where the many and different constraints that projects face. The London Eye had a fixed time (31st Dec 1999), but not fixed cost (original cost £25M – final cost £75M). The Windsor Castle contractors were chosen because of their reputation in restoration of old buildings, and known to be ‘good’ contractors – interestingly one of the highest project priorities was that the palace didn’t want any scandal about being ripped off or dodgy work. The London Eye talk was Powerpoint (ie modern) – the Windsor Castle guy showed two overheads (I think) but essentially just sat at the front of the lecture theatre and talked. Both were very good talks, but it was almost surreal seeing the different styles of presentation and how this mapped to the actual projects. Both projects were very much in the public eye and this had a factor on the project plans – not just technical issues, but ‘softer’ factors dictate how a project is run. Both had many issues to face and had to manage risk eg the London Eye had a huge safety assessment, whereas the Windsor Castle needed 10th Century skills in the 20th century. At the point of taking on the project these were not solved, but by skill, sweat and determination were won through. (Andy Dent, CCLRC.)

* One international airline wanted to improve its luggage handling system so it studied how Indianapolis 500 car crews handled their pit stops during races. (Marion Devine.

* A Californian construction company raised its rate of on-time cement deliveries from 68% to 95% by taking route planning lessons from a local pizza delivery company. (Marion Devine.)

* BT used to despatch its 80,000 strong fleet of service vans as and when calls for repairs or service were received from customers. The trouble with the system was that those customers always faced a wait, and if their phone lines were down, that delay could be, at best inconvenient, and at worst financially costly. The system was inefficient for BT too, because its personnel spent a large part of their time driving between customers’ sites and the local BT service centre. Did they invite an anthropologist in to suggest that they look at these vans as a system like that developed by ants to gather food and detect threats in the area around their nest? Rather than wait to be despatched by the nest, ants constantly patrol designated zones around it, remaining on the alert for food and enemies – without the need for a command centre. BT vans now each spend all day patrolling local areas where demand is expected and they are able to respond far more quickly to calls. In the first year after the system’s introduction, the company saved £240 million. (Do disturb: how to have better ideas. Design Council, 2001)

* Britannia Building Society got a blind person to talk to them about how he experienced different branded retail outlets – to give a perspective on non-visual branding stimulus towards the redesign of new branches. (Simon Gravatt)

* The BBC has arranged for the person who is to head its coverage of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations to get together with the person in Honda who is responsible for the launch of one of their new models. (Deryn Holland, BBC)

* A conference on mentoring for women was attended by one man – who wanted to better understand how women think. (Rachael Leggett, Sun University)

* The oil company Amerada Hess was concerned that it appeared unable to attract talented young people into the company, so they made contact with the BBC in order to learn more about how and why the BBC attracted talent so effectively. (Deryn Holland, BBC)

John Whatmore First published 2001
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity
Tel: 020 8748 2553
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What makes a great mentor – I meet one


I interview the ‘best mentor’ in Startupbootcamp’s FinTech Accelerator
In and out frequently, he steadily evolved his role by offering the wealth and breadth of experience of a life-time’s work in a top bank. With regular reviews, he was clarifying progress and problems, acting as a sounding board, offering experienced insights, and marshalling help. His team succeeded in raising the funds they were seeking; and they gave him a great accolade.

Having recently retired from the bank, he was looking to fill his calendar, to escape the City, to keep up to date and to have a bit of fun; and for a team with a cool idea, and with people who were intellectually interesting, and with whom he felt he would like to work. He thought that they were looking for someone who would provide them with connections and who had as much excitement about their idea as they had.

There are so many tasks and so much to take in, all competing for the attention of the entrepreneurs in the very early days of an Accelerator, that it is evidently difficult to determine your focus. One result is that what the mentoring can offer and how to make use of it get less attention than they might. He felt that it would be useful if there was a data base from which you could learn about the specific skills of mentors and the nature of their contacts [as well perhaps as their availability and degree of commitment; and commendations.]

In the Beauty Pageant, when at the beginning of the 13 weeks small groups of potential mentors met with each of the teams on a rotating basis over two days, he and the team which he ultimately mentored had each quickly identified and singled out the other: ‘it was a matter of personalities’ And the relationship simply grew from there – ‘swanning into a formal programme’. There had been no discussions of expectations between him and this team.

‘You could tell from the questions and answers where there was informal interest.’ You could tell, he said ‘who wants to play’, who is passionate, who knows their stuff and can articulate it by means of how people ask and answer, as you can who has a sense of humility [as willing to listen and learn].

Accustomed as he was to a pattern of working in which Friday was review day, they had evolved a way of using a video link by which to publish major documents [and commentaries], circulated to everyone including Directors and existing investors, from which everyone could keep completely up-to-date with situations.

He saw himself as facilitating, making things happen and in getting politics out of the way. He was in and out frequently – working with them to reflect on each situation, to clarify their plans, their options and their decisions and to maintain a road map and timetable of where they should be and when over the 13-week period of the Accelerator – always listening, acting as a sounding board, offering comments, and helping the team to make use of the resources available (- other participants in the Accelerator, entrepreneurs in the adjacent incubator, and his own contacts).

He was impressed at the quality of the original idea behind the business. Over the course of thirty years in banking, ‘I have seen plenty of stuff – people, management and businesses’, he said. He was also deeply impressed at the confidence and competence of the members of this young team; and proud of their successes. He commented on the change in working together brought about by the Accelerator’s lay-out, which located all the members of each team together around a table and adjacent to all the other teams.

He had attended a Mentor Day, when a small number of mentors had met together for discussions at a mid-point in the programme, which he had used to satisfy himself that his own work as a mentor was not biased in some way; that he was not missing something; and in order to meet and hear from other mentors.

He commented on his contribution to one situation where there was no Plan B; and to another critical situation where progress had become seriously slow, where he had contributed to working out solutions. By way of example, we discussed the team’s Demo Day presentation (each team’s presentation to potential investors was repeated several times, each time to new audiences) where he had contributed to its organisation, and to its logic, sequence and structure. And he had sought to use the questions people raised to help identify gaps in the presentation.

He had felt that both at Selection Day (when the candidates for inclusion in the Accelerator were reduced from twenty to the ultimate ten) and at Demo Day, and maybe on other similar occasions, that the large number of participants (there were nominally over 200 mentors and there were other hangers-on) had ‘dumbed down the process’: fewer people, he felt, would have enabled the presentation to be more targeted.

He was evidently pleased that the experience had enabled him to learn something, to give back, and to give value; and that he had enjoyed it so much. He observed that every mentoring situation was different; and commented that ‘mentoring improves your mentoring’. And the best thing of all (and completely unexpected) was that they had asked him to become Chairman.

January 2015

Innovationeering in 2015: eight and a half forecasts


Innovationeering in 2015: eight and a half forecasts

The future focus of innovation

1. Breakthrough innovation – radically different ways of doing things – will become increasingly sought after.

2. Open Innovation – scouting, identification and support of potential innovations – will become increasingly widespread.

3. The drive for innovation will accelerate in systems, such as the Internet of Things, especially in services, and including public services.

4. And radical thinking will take place around the very pillars of our culture -capitalism and democracy.

The management of innovation

5. Innovation and its management will become increasingly aligned with strategies, and increasingly important.

6. Leaders will increasingly articulate the needs and opportunities for innovation in their particular field; and will induce entrepreneurial talent to work with or for them.

7. Innovation team-building and team working will increasingly become the focus of attention; and teams will become more fluid in their composition (1).

8. Coaching and mentoring will transfer from sport and the arts to business, enterprise, education and healthcare; and will become increasingly expert.

And one from left field

9. Organisations will increasingly look to behavioural economics and psychology for new ways in which to bring about change.

(1) For example, creative groups are led by ‘visionaries’ rather than by ‘co-ordinators’. For more, see ‘Releasing Creativity – how leaders develop creative potential in their teams’ John Whatmore, Kogan Page, 1999, available on Amazon.

John Whatmore December 2014
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity

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?
While Accelerators have been ‘big news’, they have tended to focus on apps or websites. But initiatives are afoot to focus them onto bigger issues. As twelve-week curated programmes of intensive development for a dozen carefully selected startups – with a lot of support from mentors, Accelerators have spread rapidly and attracted a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs with ideas for new businesses, though many of them have been no more than new apps or websites. Now attempts are afoot to focus the interest of aspiring entrepreneurs onto bigger problems and opportunities. The first two below – Cambridge’s Open Innovation Forum and Harvard’s Healthcare Challenge – are essentially introductions to emerging opportunities for new businesses; the next three – BioCity’s new Accelerator, FinTech Accelerators and Village Capital – are about tackling bigger issues – a longer pathway. All are providing the links between talent, knowledge and experience that are the essence of clusters.
If you are interested in this and would like to be put in touch with others who have similar interests, e-mail me at

A group of corporates in the food industry in Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing’s Open Innovation Forum, is about to run its third event (…/open-innovation-practitioner-forum/‎) – a veritable market place for serious entrepreneurs with adaptable technologies – at which pitches are invited for propositions for new products – from SMEs, B2B companies, startups, entrepreneurs or university-based researchers and organisations. Among innovation needs listed on this occasion are for sustainable packaging, reclosing systems for metal cans, sugar reduction solutions and anti-counterfeit technology.
Harvard Business School together with the Harvard Medical Centre has announced the Harvard Healthcare Challenge whose aim (see is to find healthcare innovations that will disseminate faster – a recognition of the need for speed in healthcare developments – innovations that are credible, can show demonstrated evidence of their value; have a compelling dissemination plan; and are at the cusp of scaling. Finalists will gain access to 150 senior health care leaders at an invitation-only conference where they will discuss their scale-up plans and have an opportunity for one-on-one discussions with health care leaders at networking events.
With support from Nottingham City Council, BioCity ( is breaking new ground in creating an Accelerator whose projects are generated by identifying and bringing together a technology, an articulated unmet need, a key user/expert insight and/or an entrepreneur – of each of which ‘there are many, but mostly found in isolation’. It starts with a series of themed events, of which two such have been ‘wearable technologies’ and ‘the gamification of healthcare’. It then offers a series of one-to-many events and ad hoc coaching to test the viability of early-stage ideas through a process of customer discovery and evidence based business model design. This is followed by a rolling 3-month Accelerator programme with intensive coaching to help opportunities build their business and, if necessary develop an investment proposition.
In a tough but dramatic call, consortia of banks have recently sponsored three Accelerators for SMEs in the financial services sector. Accenture’s two FinTech London Labs ( at Canary Wharf’s Level39 and Startupbootcamp’s FinTech ( at the Rainmaking Loft have brought SMEs together from all over the world with the aim of creating new products which will be of interest to the banks, who are seeing their market attacked by the arrival of mobile payments systems that leave them out of account.
Village Capital (, a US-based charity brings aid and innovation together: it has sought to put the achievement of social objectives as the over-riding determinant of the various processes of innovation in which it invests its aid funds. Projects tend to start with a vision – a vision of how things might be, and then move on to issues about how realistic and how realisable such a vision might be. It then looks for entrepreneurial talent in people who are already working in the field in question who are likely to be acquainted with the problems and the people concerned. Village Capital has sought to have funds readily available – on an unconditional basis – for its 12-week programmes, each of 10-15 teams with different but relateable issues.
Innovationeering of this kind may be riskier, take longer, and be more expensive, as is suggested by the Royal College of Art’s 2-year Accelerator programme ( which is confined to projects which involve engineering or design: its teams do not always endure, and it is financially difficult to maintain.
But clusters are not necessarily closely located, though they do all have points of intensive interaction: of experience – as in the fortnightly races of Formula 1; of knowledge – as at universities and related industries; and of talent – as in commutable regions. But they are not simply about connectivity, but collaboration – bringing people with different backgrounds to work together to create something new – what conductors, impresarios and directors do in the arts (as at the National Theatre’s Studio, where we hope to hold a small workshop in the near future – see below (1)).
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in partnership with the Shell Foundation has been exploring methods to transform the markets surrounding an innovation – a significantly more all-embracing task –
which I will follow with interest.

(1)The NT Studio brings together writers, designers, performers and directors for short periods in the hope that they will spark off one another (see
(We are planning to hold a small workshop there in the near future – for incubator leaders and leading mentors to see this ‘sparking off one another’ in action. If you are interested, e-mail me.)

John Whatmore
October 2014

Innovation Officers with a range of tools to help managers at the coal-face in delivering innovations


Corporate have tended to look for their innovations more to acquisitions of early-stage businesses than to internal developments, perhaps because of the difficulty of the latter; but Innovation Officers are evidently developing their tool boxes and shifting their targets to achieve greater success.
Evidence has for some time been indicating that Innovation is the top objective for organisations and their CEOs, but what they are doing about it is less evident. Appointing an Innovation Officer is one such response, so it was interesting for me to be a fly on the wall at a recent conference of Chief Innovation Officers (run, rather surprisingly, in a deeply old-fashioned style!)
Such people often faced the impossible option of either attempting to change the entire culture of the organisation – a vital but entirely impossible job without the total commitment of the CEO, or of diverting funds towards developing new products, a task likely to be killed by the existing divisional Barons. So it was a dead-end job.
Many of the conference presentations demonstrated a range of other roles – including the support of those Barons in terms of their own objectives – helping them to achieve outcomes that would deliver their bonuses. One of them: delivering a process that would elicit new ideas; another the use of an online facility to aggregate questions and knowledge on current issues; another the bringing together of groups of people (from both inside and outside the organisation) to identify and wrestle with issues and deliver solutions; and another to help the Barons to enhance their existing services, especially with new perceptions, new ideas, new skills and new kinds of support.
Yet another was that of Tesco Lab’s dozen or so members, with their 6-week projects. It has a number of strings to its bow, including new products, product design and development, open innovation, hackathons and supplier workshops, and even culture change. It relies on delivering new products that would clearly benefit the entire business, like a mobile app that enabled all staff to interrogate stock levels, locations, delivery expectations etc; and another (fascinating) gadget – a pair of google specs with which the wearer could read the barcodes of items running short, and re-order them for subsequent delivery.
One outstanding address was that of Lee Burton, Director of Innovation at Stanford’s School of Engineering, who presented a comparison of the culture of Silicon Valley with that of European businesses, highlighting the latter’s key ‘missing catalysts’. While Europe’s economies are supported on science-based cultures, Silicon Valley’s is an innovation-based culture – and in its economy ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast!’ Comments from the floor countered that Europe has to develop its own particular approach to innovation culture. Speakers suggested that innovation units were busily growing, and Lee Burton reflected on the time it takes (maybe three years) for units like Tesco Lab to move from ‘push to pull’ – from pushing their ideas into the organisation to the organisation seeking to pull out ideas from the unit.
A small number of corporates have tasted the concept of the Accelerator (short, intensive programmes designed to help a small number of teams with fulsome support to develop their ideas for a new business into marketable propositions), but only Telefonica has done so wholeheartedly, establishing its own Accelerators in around a dozen countries – apparently with success in terms of new products for itself.
However, there has been a feeling that such Accelerators (as those of Johnson & Johnson, Banco Sabadell, Barclays, John Lewis et al) will be less attractive to startups because if their venture does not receive further funding from the corporate, the sponsor’s subsequent support will be indifferent, whereas the likes of Techstars Europe and Startupbootcamp rely on their reputations for launching as many new businesses as possible from each cohort of startups.
Accelerators supported by clusters such as Fintech Lab London for the banking industry have been more attractive – to SMEs from all over the world, but while the Fintech world is beset with rapid change (not least from Apple), in this field before they are adopted new products require a great deal of testing – not least for reliability and security, and across the entire organisation.

John Whatmore
October 2014