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

 

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.

*

(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

 

Growth Builder’s first cohort

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‘Growth Builder’ builds and grows Forty high-growth business leaders have spent the past 12 months working together on their businesses, gaining vital knowledge to help them scale.

Upcoming: I focus next on two radical new incubators: BioHub at Alderley Edge, a recent winner of Incubator of the Year; and the new Incubator and Maker facilities at Imperial’s new campus at White City in London.

Growth Builder’s claim is that it is a programme designed by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs with the aim of helping established British businesses to take on the next stage of growth.

A collaboation between a number of interested parties, it offers an educational programme to a curated peer network of ambitious business leaders, along with access to introductions and networks through its cross-sector partners. It claims to be the first of its kind to work with Government, universities, entrepreneurs, risk capital and leading UK corporates (as is REAP, MIT’s Regional Acceleration programme – one of its sources).

This first cohort included businesses from the tech, manufacturing and retail sectors. Meeting monthly over twelve months for half a day at a time, the focus of meetings alternates between learnings; and then alternate months in smaller selected groups, discussion about how to apply the learnings – supported by accredited consultants/coaches.

Ben Fletcher, its chair (Professor of Occupation and Health Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire), commented that poorly defined objectives were a common focus – reducing their range, an important outcome; as was understanding the triggers of change; and that it takes time to effect changes back in the business. It was important to be able to assure participants of the quality of coaches and their reliability. Participants reported gaining valuable insights from the programme.

Growth Builder is now looking to recruit a second cohort in London during 2nd quarter 2017 and hopes to launch elsewhere in the UK later in the year, with the North East and South West of England among the potential locations.

See also: Progressive support programmes for SMEs – a must! In the course of their work the authors of the just published Barclays Report – on the scaling up of SMEs – participated in a new programme at the Judge Institute for CEOs of hi-growth SMEs, to which they give a nod of approval in their report. Innovate UK should promote this kind of programme – of which there are several similar. May 2016 http://wp.me/p3beJt-fn.

 

John Whatmore, May 2017

An accelerator partnership

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A partnership between a catapult and an accelerator launches a new programme

A partnership between an organisation whose role is advancing the development of an emerging technology and an experienced funder and developer of SMEs has launched a short accelerator programme for a small number of young businesses.

The Digital Catapult and Seedcamp have partnered to launch Augmentor, an equity free programme to support early stage tech businesses developing applications of immersive technologies. The ten-week programme will seek to help advance next generation virtual, augmented and mixed reality early stage tech companies by providing technical and business mentorship.

Digital Catapult’s centre in London will be available to successful Augmentor applicants as a space to work. Dr Jeremy Silver, CEO Digital Catapult said: “Immersive technologies are fast becoming a central part of the digital economy and there is a real demand for access to expertise and equipment in this space. Our new lab will help to provide businesses with access to state-of-the-art immersive technologies under one roof, providing a vital opportunity for them to refine their ideas and test products across the range of equipment on the market today.”

Dave Haynes, from Seedcamp’s investment team, commented: “Having invested in several immersive companies including Splash and TheWaveVR, we’re excited to be launching this initiative to develop a new wave of entrepreneurs solving problems with emerging technologies.

“We’re still on the frontier of what immersive tech can do and what founders need. And European founders will need an investment of both time, expertise and money to succeed. That’s how Seedcamp has been helping startups for years now. Augmentor is the first programme in London looking to bridge that gap for companies working with VR and AR.”

John Whatmore, April 2017

 

See also:

 

Big bets on big ideas – by philanthropists

‘Problem first, tool second’ is a maxim that is common among philanthropists, but far from common in the startup world.

http://wp.me/p3beJt-ip.

 

Recent research suggests that specialised support programmes could facilitate the development of hi-growth SMEs

Recent research showed that the more successful teams in Accelerators tended to be existing ventures, with well qualified teams, focused on the adoption of their products/services, and on building their organisation.

http://wp.me/p3beJt-eh.

 

 

Raising the Mentoring Game

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Raising the mentoring game

Stops and starts have marked the very slow progress of mentoring in the UK. As the ultimate beneficiaries of mentoring, funders of new businesses should be leading the way.

The big question is (and was) why hasn’t mentoring taken off in the UK. Its best known successes include Richard Branson (said to have four mentors). the Princes Trust, and in Accelerators. Two levers were touted at the recent Annual Conference of the Association of Business Mentors (‘ABM’), both winners of the ABM’s Award for Commitment to Mentoring, but both embryonic.

Two initiatives

National Mentors Day’s third incarnation, masterminded by the redoubtable Chelsey Baker, will take place in October 2017, as a seriously bigger, more widespread, much more inclusive and hopefully more impactful day. And Janette Pallas, now at the University of Warwick Science Park, received this year’s award for her pioneering work in creating ecosystems of support in incubators and their ilk – a way forward being strongly encouraged in two recent regional meetings by the Scaleup Institute.

Non-progress

It is now several years (2011 to be precise) since the government made a commitment to put 10,000 mentors in place; and mentoring was a key part of the government’s Growth Builder programme, started in   2012, but alas for some strange reason withdrawn in 2016. Mentoring is an integral element of recent scaleup programmes, such as the Judge Institute’s and the RBS/UCL programme, but the mentoring scene is necessarily local and its institutions fragmented.

                                                   Funders should take the lead

It would be good to see funders take the initiative (eg VCs and Angel Funds) and along with innovation centres and development programmes (where mentoring is usually mandated) work in partnership with sources of mentors like the ABM (eg running joint workshops). The likes of the ABM could encourage mentoring by appointing ambassadors, and running more awards schemes or prizes. What is needed is a campaign of the extent of the Public Understanding of Science.

John Whatmore, March 2017