A purposed accelerator – in public services

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Making use of external expertise to deliver innovations in public services. Innovationeers in the public sector have not shared the same raw enthusiasm for startups and scaleups as the private sector: they have come much later to the game.

I wrote last about Village Capital in New York, whose modus operandi is upside down, in that it starts with the identification of major issues and only then builds teams and finds resources to tackle those issues. In the UK, CivTech’s young programme is now doing likewise.

CivTech’s mission is simple: it is to support innovation in the public sector by creating an environment in which issues can be identified and new products and services developed – thus contributing to more effective and efficient public services.

Its second programme, just launching, aims to offer opportunities for entrepreneurs to ‘solve a challenge, build a product, develop a relationship and build a business with public sector benefits’, by engaging with a major public sector organisation.

This year’s programme has identified nine challenges provided by their public sector sponsors, of which seven will be tackled by the seven teams that have been selected for the programme. These include:

  • how to create a better booking system for outpatient appointments
  • how better to understand citizen data
  • how to provide better [internet] access to public services.

Applicants could be existing companies with relevant material, graduates, a digital team or just someone with insight or a good idea.

 Three potential solutions to each sponsor’s challenge go through to a 3-week Exploration Stage – to develop their idea further, to engage with the CivTech team and the Challenge Sponsor, to participate in some workshops, and then to make a final pitch – for which each team receives £3,000.

The CivTech Accelerator that follows is three months long (for which teams are required to relocate to Edinburgh) – of innovation, experiment, development and production; with workshops, talks and mentors; of team and business building; of product building; of developing real and lasting relationships with public sector organisations – for which each team will receive £17,000 (CivTech takes no equity nor IP).

The CivTech team provides specific advice about its approach to service design, product development, government standards and system integration needs.

 Sponsors are expected to set aside £106k for each challenge, of which £27k goes to the solution provider (as above), and the remaining £81k is for ongoing development of the solution. The Challenge Sponsor receives an in-perpetuity royalty free licence to enable the successful participant to further develop and test their work with a view to its exploitation in the sponsor’s services.

The website inviting applications is couched in very full and clear, and charmingly optimistic terms, though the exploitability of the proposals is uncertain.

Of the nine teams that had participated in Round 1, two had worked with the NHS and were confident of new business; two had worked with Transport Scotland, one with sales already and both with more to follow; and two of the nine reported that they were still working on future business. New businesses, a new platform, a new product and a new client were among the mentions in their final reports.

The small team that has conceived and evolved this programme sits in the Digital Directorate of the Scottish Government, which has not only backed and endorsed the programme but has recently doubled the amount of money behind it. And this work has attracted widespread interest.

John Whatmore, November 2017

For more see https://civtech.atlassian.net

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A uniquely comprehensive development arena

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A UNIQUELY COMPREHENSIVE DEVELOPMENT ARENA Quite unlike most startup or scaleup programmes such as Techstars or Startupbootcamp (which tend to be short term injections), the programmes at Goldsmiths Centre are unique in that they aim to cover comprehensively all the stages and aspects of development for people in its field. The startup world needs something of this sort. 

The essence of the Goldsmith Centre is the professional training of goldsmiths. While these people are charmingly depicted as bespectacled, white-haired, elderly craftspeople, the skills and talents of the next generation are clearly an important target.

This training takes the form of a ‘community that works and learns together’ – a community of trainees, working goldsmiths and other interested parties – to help them grow and thrive; funded substantially by the Goldsmiths Company, and overseen by a Board of Trustees.

The Centre which opened in 2012, runs for budding goldsmiths a progressive series of programmes that are aimed at developing their future – for what will mostly be small craft businesses. Here are six of them:

* a one week programme of intensive workshops, seminars and talks called ‘Getting Started’ – for recent graduates in precious metals, which introduces its 30 participants to the basics of business.

* a one-year programme called ‘Setting Out’, which is currently home to 8 young goldsmiths, carefully chosen (this year from 30 applicants), who take part in a curated programme that aims to equip them with business, creative and product development skills.

* a one-year Foundation Programme in which 10 young goldsmiths are attached to the Centre and enabled to use its excellent working facilities.

* an appenticeship scheme, under which some 40 young goldsmiths are attached to ‘Masters’ and meet regularly at the Centre for further training.

* a membership scheme called ‘Creative Links’ for people with aspiring or established businesses to attend events and make and meet contacts at the Centre and a special membership scheme for craftspeople requiring ad hoc access to benches, hotdesking or a meeting room.

* and the Centre houses some 80 resident makers and businesses on the premises – on special terms as providing work collaborations for the goldsmiths who are connected with the Centre.

In addition to short courses on specialised subjects, the Centre has also created a number of videos and runs taster workshops; and there is a substantial programme of all sorts of events.

Some 50 craftspeople are linked to the Centre as providers of skill, tutoring, information etc; as are some 15 business people as contributors to the Centre’s business programmes.

The Centre houses the latest equipment and facilities into a meticulously crafted old building, and provides an atmosphere of spare elegance in which design, skill and beauty meld.

It includes spaces of all kinds: there are 24 professional workshops and 4 educational workspaces; tool rooms (one containing over 150 different kinds of hammer!); a CAD room with terminals; a conference room; a snug; a high quality café cum meeting space (depicted as ‘coffee, kitchen and craft’); and an area for exhibitions, conferences, product launches, receptions etc.

*

In the startup world, training and development do not have a place: that world relies instead on ‘entrepreneurs’ to emerge spiritually. There is an urgent need for some organisation in the startup world to take up these roles.

John Whatmore, October 2017

Organising your venture’s supporters

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Organising your venture’s supporters Priscila Bala of Octopus Venture Capital, (formerly Mentor Director at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute) has emphasised the value of advisers, and suggested how to set up and make good use of them.

Savvy enterprise start-ups understand the power of relationships. When it comes to entering new markets, gaining the support and endorsement of well-connected or local industry players can make all the difference. Advisory board members can fill knowledge and network gaps within your company or your own background – to help with product development or sales strategy or to introduce them to valuable clients, suppliers and investors.

An advisory board can be a bounty when you find the people who are experts at solving a set of problems you have, engage them with clear expectations and rewards, and turn to them whenever you have issues related to that problem. To find the right people, you have to be clear on what problems you want them to help you solve.

For example, Steve Blank [of I-Corps] suggests (1) that there are five primary types of advisory board members:

  1. Technical advisor: for product development advice
  2. Business advisor: for business strategy and guidance
  3. Customer advisor: for value proposition and positioning advice
  4. Industry advisor: for domain expertise
  5. Sales advisor: for market tactics and demand creation

Beyond these, it’s important that you identify the crucial challenges in your scaling up roadmap, to determine what kinds of advisors will be strategic to you, and which will complement your team’s skillset.

Go for ‘stars’! Advisory member relationships can work particularly well if the candidates you are courting are well-connected leaders in their space

Clarifying your objectives will also enable you to have you targeted conversations. For example, if your goal is to grow a base of customers in a particular vertical, try the following:

  1. Ask your customers or prospect customers who they respect.
  2. Ask your Board of Directors and industry connections for referrals.
  3. Have a point-of-view related to the industry, and build a profile and relationships based on your expertise.

If you are a first-time entrepreneur or an early-stage entrepreneur, there are often many apparent candidates but who won’t be valuable advisors for your business. Ask for referrals within the industry and spend time getting to know the advisor. Before formalizing any advisor relationship, ask for their input on a few demonstrative issues — how would they approach them? Who might they reach out to? What strategies have they seen in the past? What were the outcomes? Which risks do they anticipate?

Compared with Board members, you can focus the work and input of those advisors much more narrowly to their expertise, there is more flexibility on the time and level of engagement the advisor can offer and you can successfully engage a larger group of advisors within this mandate.

Most companies don’t engage their advisory board in meetings as a group; instead they reach out to specific advisors as needed, and set different frequency for those interactions.

Strong advisors are busy people. Since you likely will only have a limited amount of their time each week or month, be rigorous about setting agendas for each meeting or call, be explicit about actionable items between conversations (your action items and theirs), and send follow-up summary emails after every meeting. Some entrepreneurs find it helpful to use a running Google Doc shared with the advisor to keep track of ongoing notes together.

Ongoing feedback is another helpful tactic to successful advisor relationships. Mention to the advisor up front that you will want to spend 15–20 minutes in your third or fourth meeting talking through how the relationship is going to-date, and how you can improve your collaboration. Advisors are professionals, and should be receptive to feedback. Some relationships will work better with a set schedule of interactions; others might require more flexibility and unfold in “bursts” of support. Work with the advisor to find the style and cadence that works best for your partnership.

Compensate your advisors. In addition to aligning incentives and recognizing that expert time is valuable, compensation will make you more disciplined about the calibre of advice and support you are seeking and getting. It formalizes the professional relationship you expect from advisors, as it does your commitment to receiving their open and honest expert feedback, rather than having them tell you what you want to hear.

Advisory boards can be a powerful asset, accelerating your access to people and solutions that are key to your company’s success. Advisors can make strategic introductions, help you secure contracts or fundraise, attend strategic meetings with you, help you secure press coverage for your company or serve as a reference for your product or your work, and help you recruit other members of the advisory board or your team.

(1) My work at IdeaLondon came up with exactly the same analysis.

See the full article at: https://medium/octopus Ventures/how-advisory-boards…

John Whatmore, September 2017

 

 

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