Helping aspiring entrepreneurs


Helping aspiring entrepreneurs to see their way forward – by engaging with their community

One Million Cups is a nation-wide programme in the US that could provide a bottom-up infrastructure for supporting startups in the UK, where provision is currently totally inadequate.

As inventions and innovations become more pervasively disruptive, never were there more opportunities for entrepreneurs. While there are many who aspire to that role, the infrastructure for supporting them remains embryonic.

The speed with which the latest co-working space in London has filled up (WeWork at Moorgate) testifies to an unsatisfied need for flexible incubator space; and the minimal amount of incubator spaces in universities falls well short of potential demand.

Despite strong evidence as to its value, the Government has just shut down the Business Growth Service which offered mentoring for hi-growth businesses. Mentorsme, the focal website for mentoring services, has expanded their availability only somewhat; and mentors are currently not only hard to find, but also of uncertain quality. Few incubators provide proactive support for their young businesses, yet that is demonstrably what is needed.

One Million Cups is a movement inspired by the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City. It has the merit of providing a seed-bed by connecting startups with local communities: as a filter, for feed-back, for support and for expansion.

In 66 cities throughout the US, once a week one or two aspiring entrepreneurs make a brief presentation about their startup to a diverse audience of peers, mentors, educators and advisers. They have six minutes to tell the audience about their journey so far, and where they have got to, followed by 20 minutes for questions. They then get feed-back from the organizers and via an audience survey. They are expected to prepare for this by following lessons from the Kauffman Foundation Founders School website and video.

This experimental learning opportunity is based on the notion that entrepreneurs discover solutions and network over a million cups of coffee; and that connecting with communities helps that process.

Entrepreneurs gain insight into possible ways they can improve their businesses, gather real-time feedback, connect with a community that cares about their progress, and walk away feeling like they have advanced their business.

The audience in these dynamic and diverse settings also learns a great deal from the presentations and by engaging with the entrepreneurs.

The program takes place every Wednesday morning from 9:00-10:00 a.m. in locations all around the country. Each city runs the program semi-autonomously (events are led by some 300 volunteers), and gathers in coffee shops, co-working spaces, and even TV stations.

The Kauffman Foundation is the largest American foundation dedicated to entrepreneurship – with its programmes of research and development activities. The One Million Cups programme started in Kansas City in 2012 and has spread rapidly. Innovate UK should work with Kauffman and offer to support it in all the Local Enterprise Partnerships.

John Whatmore

February 2016


What mentees get from mentors


What mentees get (and can only get) from mentors

Presentation to UCL Symposium, 24 February, 2016

 I have for some time been collecting stories from my encounters with mentors and mentees. So I have picked some to tell to-day. UCL would probably call me an ethnographer!

I have developed and sold a small company; I have been Chairman of a group of venture capital companies and a Nesta Associate; and I have always been fascinated with how you ‘manage’ innovation. My simple aim is to pass on to the innovation community advances that I come across.

Aggressive mentoring characterises to-day’s Accelerators. Seedcamp claims to have a thousand or more; Telefonica’s Wayra Lab 150; and Jon Bradford over a hundred. But in Incubators, they are much rarer – some of Oxford Innovations centres for example have none at all.

The rationale is simple enough: if you are creating a completely new business, it is great to have by your side someone who has done it before.

I have been asking mentors and their mentees in both startups and SMEs what mentors contributed, and what their mentees got out of them. Their answers depend on where they have got to with their new business.


The Conceptor

helps in identifying something new and useful The Strategist and Manager

helping to find ways of delivering it

The Technician

helping to make it function, and produce a prototype

The Marketer

helping to adapt it to users, buyers and customers

The Investment adviser

helping to find ways of funding its scaling up

And not forgetting the Mentor Manager


Feed-back comes top – about their new product or service – for their mentors’ ability to introduce startups and their ilk to users, buyers or customers. They can never get enough of it.

Two participants I met at the recent MassChallenge Demo Day each said that they had made use of five mentors.

David Parker, a mentor at Startupbootcamp, helped his startup to identify possible routes to market; and then introduced the team to 10 people who were possible customers – who would chat with them only because David had introduced them.

One mentee told me: ‘Our mentors gave us advice, contacts and evaluation. One told us how to approach a potential user, who to talk to, what to say and how to say it.’ (Intriguingly Wayra Lab teaches the one minute pitch, the three minute and the five minute pitch!)

Andrew Grant who mentors at IdeaLondon used to be a senior manager at BT, and for that reason was able to effect an invaluable introduction for the company he came to chair; and BT became their first customer.

Nobel Prize Winner, Physicist Richard Feynman used also to be a painter of Life models – and when he wanted to sell some of his nudes, he asked the waitresses in the local topless restaurant which of the bosses of the local massage parlours would be most likely to buy them!


The voice of experience comes next in importance. Jim Milby retired recently as a Director of Barclays Bank – in his locanic mid-Atlantic brogue – says he has known a few companies. He now mentors several SMEs – one of them with Startupbootcamp’s Fintech Lab. It is his extensive experience and importantly his independent voice make him highly valued – in relation to strategy AND to management.

While the team, he says, are preoccupied with driving towards their current objectives, he might be asking questions about whether it is time to change something – in the product, or the target market segment, the key customer benefits, or the strategy for getting there.

He has always insisted on having a regular review of progress – once a week ‘because it is no good getting to Demo Day to pitch to investors if you still don’t have any customers’.

Wayra Lab, one of Telefonica’s startup schools, attaches three mentors to each of its young companies, and they meet once a month along with programme staff – to assess progress in Board Meeting style.

Paul Miller at Bethnal Green Ventures does it once a week – asking about what you achieved last week, what are your pain points and what you expect to achieve next week.

YCombinator does it over dinner every week; and Watershed Bristol does it over lunch on Fridays. As one mentee there observed: ‘there is always someone around who has done just what you are trying to do.’

Advice about the team comes with the same depth of experience.

When Jim Milby began to have doubts about the length of one of his team’s runway, he insisted that they change their finance guy.

Jacoby Thwaites CEO of Sparkl here at IdeaLondon was asked by his mentor, Alastair Moore, two questions: how long is your pipeline of prospective customers; and who generates it. To Jacoby’s answer, Alistair simply said: Hire him – an exchange Jacoby has never forgotten.

And when Bill Clee here at IdeaLondon, had won two big projects, his mentor Andy Mulholland, an ex-CTO at Cap Gemini, helped him to sort out his back office and appoint an Operations Director and a Sales Director in quick time.


Making it work. Joe Rabin is Technologist-in-residence at Wayra Lab – highly appreciated for his help to participants in building their products and services.

Trained as an engineer, he is something of a technical polymath. Many of the participants, he says, need help with their IT.

On one occasion, he spent the entire week-end with a team whose developers had just jumped ship, helping them to reshape their strategy and get back on track.

Azita Esmaili helps young businesses to adapt their structure and their organization to their IT strategy – both at IdeaLondon and at MassChallenge.


Advice about investment is harder to come by. Many finance mentors are with the banks, but the banks are no longer lenders of this kind. And new sources of finance abound, but comprehensive advice about them is hard to find.

For example, Crowdfunding can be a nightmare. My father was a city expert in Prospectuses and would be turning in his grave; and my son rejected this route for his SME because of what is needed to service 40 or 50 shareholders.

A guy who once participated in one of my Learning Groups had designed and prototyped a 3D copier. He used Kickstarter to get almost two hundred pre-orders for his 3D copier; and their payments funded manufacture.

Sussex Innovation Centre has on its staff a guy (actually an ex-bank manager) who runs a local Angel network.

What is certain is that funders inevitably take time to get to know your company, and they take time to complete any deal.

Perhaps the best single mentor to have is a potential investor with experience in the field in which you are operating.


Lastly, I come to the role of Conceptor. It is this guy in whose hands it is to raise the entire status of the entrepreneurial revolution. IT-based new businesses are quick and cheap relatively speaking. But Healthcare, public services and education for example have hardly been touched yet.

Here are three inspiring leaders who work at the very front end of innovation.

Jackie Ying started at MIT. She has always encouraged her students to tackle projects that have commercial prospects as much as academic benefits.

In one such project, in order to create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes they used the same technology her MIT lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines. They sold it for an undisclosed sum to Merck.

Later she founded her own Bioengineering and Nano-technology laboratory in Singapore, and over the last 12 years she has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences and 8 startups. A Conceptor par excellence.

Ian Downey is another Conceptor. At the European Space Agency, he puts consortia together for innovative projects enabled by Satellite technology.

To combat the recent sharp rise in Lyme’s Disease he had brought together researchers into malaria in Africa and in the UK, GPs and hospitals in Scotland, and pharmaceutical companies – in a project funded by the ESA at Harwell.

Steve Blank in the States runs nine-week Boot Camps designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – a bit like Accelerators. Since 2011, some 500 teams have taken the course.

His ‘Innovation Corps’ programme has been adopted by the National Institutes of Health and has now been backed by the National Sciences Foundation.

It has inspired new approaches in a variety of other similar bodies in the US and has recently been adopted in Imperial for startups based on synthetic biology.

And Wayra Lab has been asked by Oxford’s Isis whether they would set up a similar programme in Oxford.


Not forgetting the role of mentor manager.

Thibaut Rouqette, the Mentor Manager at Startupbootcamp’s Fintech programme made himself continually aware of the mentoring needs of each and every team all the time; and equally aware of the expertise of all the hundred or so mentors; so that he might take a good stab at who to introduce to whom and when.

He could even find you an expert on payments in sub-Saharan Africa! But there are very few who play this role.


Mentors remain undervalued and undersupplied. Under appreciated largely because it is only after the event that their value becomes so evident. And undervalued because they are only just beginning to be recompensed.

In the early days, the mantra used to be: never adopt a mentor who wants to do it for money (does that necessarily taint everyone?); but these days, as I discovered recently while I was recruiting a mentor for an e-commerce business, the norm seems to be around 1% of equity – no doubt over a period, or in options.

And choice of mentor is often the outcome of a momentary interaction – startups won’t give time for anything longer. While programmes used to depend on someone’s large address book – Reshma Sohani, Jon Bradford or Nektarios Liolios, to-day organisations like Startupbootcamp run more extensive processes. The recruitment and development of a mentor bank is up to the mentor manager. I am just offering my services to a charity – the Rainmaking Foundation, and I shall be very interested to see how they do it.

Above all else it is their different perspectives that makes mentors so valuable, and so essential especially in incubators and research organisations like Harwell; and in Universities.


John Whatmore

February 2016






Ten trends in the doing of innovation


Ten trends in the doing of innovation

In the world of innovation, I see increasing maturity, and shifts – in targets, (item 1), in leading players (item 2), and in supporters (items 3 and 4); but a continuing belief in Unicorns.

*         Attacking bigger issues: various approaches to challenge-led innovations

*         Accelerators migrate to new sponsors – charitable foundations, corporates and                                        even universities

*         Mentoring becoming more commercial you pay; but how do you find?

*         A programme of support for v hi-growth companies A new support          programme for 50 hi-growth companies; while the Government folds the Business Growth Service


Attacking bigger issues

Challenge-led innovation is a difficult topic because the range of possible challenges is so wide. In several sectors there have been Open innovation events where leading companies have pitched their challenges to potential innovators. Nesta has focused on Prize-led challenges. Vinnova, the Swedish Innovation Agency, has focused on critical needs in society and industry, promoting new cross-sector collaborations and fostering systemic approaches. Innovate UK has focused on challenges and grants for strategic product development; and Silicon Valley’s Singularity University focuses simply on what might work for you.

Accelerators migrate to new sponsors

Accelerators have continued to flourish despite the entry of several charitable foundations that have reduced the cost to participants (in equity sought, and by paying more expenses). Corporates have adopted them with a vengeance despite the moderate chances of returns, and the smaller attraction to participants – in terms of finding ongoing funding (see Nesta’s report: And interest is stirring in universities (notably in Imperial and Oxford).

Mentoring becoming more commercial

The mentoring weather has changed. It used to be: ‘No mentor who expects to be paid is worth his salt’, but nowadays there is virtually no such person to be found (except in Accelerators (in Incubators and their ilk they remain – for some reason – rare.)) The standard fee appears to be around 1% of equity, but finding the right mentors is still an issue. I resorted recently to encouraging two CEOs with complementary needs and skills to mentor each other! (The 24 Feb meeting of UCL’s INTER-CEP Symposium Series in London is on Mentoring – it still has places.)

A programme of support for v hi-growth companies

Growth Builder is a new, independent 12-month programme of support for 50 hi-growth companies – that provides tutor groups, workshops with hi-growth founders, networking events, introductions and other events to inspire and inform. The Government’s abandonment of the Business Growth Service (which provided access to mentors for businesses with hi-growth potential) seems more than perverse just at the moment when Innovate UK had begun to roll it out to its grant winners.

John Whatmore, February 2016

See for recent commentaries on:

  • innovation centres – in Sussex and Oxford
  • mutual support groups for senior executives in SMEs
  • The latest and largest co-working space in Europe is in London
  • Five different kinds of mentors – all of whom you may need





These mutual problem-solving and support groups for senior executives in well-established SMEs would be beneficial in every incubator, science park, innovation centre and tech hub. All they need is a good facilitator.

Next up: Oxford Innovations – a major source of incubator space in the South East, but one that provides meagre support for occupants.

‘Vistage’ forms groups of senior executives from SMEs, each group of about a dozen people, who meet regularly to help each other to:articulate their issues (‘what is your biggest pain point?’)

  • clarify their thinking (‘what is its root cause?’)
  • identify possible solutions (re-motivate/hire/fire?)
  • and to hold them accountable (‘What are you doing about it?’)

(- comparable to the Belgian Plato programme (see below.)

It now has some 1000 members in 70+ such groups in the UK. Big in the US where it started several years ago, it now operates in 16 countries with over 20,000 members.

Each group is of about a dozen senior executives, all with similar levels of responsibility. (Groups in the Plato programme are matched both for function (eg marketing/finance etc) and by industry.) Vistage runs some for large SMEs (£4mn+ turnover); some – on a smaller scale – for smaller SMEs; and some for ‘key directors’.

They meet on each other’s premises, normally monthly, for a full day, in which they draw from each other’s experience. The centrepiece of the day is for two (or sometimes three) members of the group to bring a key issue to the table, by:

  • stating succinctly what it is
  • saying why it is important
  • and indicating their ideal outcome.

Other members of the group then ask questions to get to the heart of the problem (diverse thinking being encouraged) until in a final round, each person proposes their solution. Only then does the problem-owner comment, and say what he or she will now do.

Most meetings will start with a presentation by a well-recognised speaker – on a relevant topic; and may finish with a general discussion on a common or topical issue. These groups have a life of their own, including an annual retreat; and this life is itself managed by the group.

Between meetings of the group, each of its members has a coaching session with the Chair of the group, focusing on their current major challenge; and helping them to make decisions about what they will now do. Those who were in the spotlight at the previous meeting will be asked what have they done since; and they will be asked again at the next meeting of the full group.

The nature of these groups consists in:

  • willingness to accept vulnerability
  • the sharing of issues, experience and ideas
  • and the acceptance of challenge.

Openness to these qualities is the overriding requirement for joining any group. Group Chairs have a crucial responsibility for putting groups together, for which they depend on their interviews, though some candidates may attend the Speaker workshop part of the meeting as a guest, and sometimes they join for a trial period.

Candidates come from several sources and have to be invited by the Chair – to ensure that they’re right for this kind of meeting and for the specific group. (To ensure openness and confidentiality, no group can include competitors, suppliers or customers). The fact that most group members sustain membership for long periods of time makes it clear that these groups have a role that is different to any other relationship in almost any organisation – whether with directors, colleagues or subordinates – essentially because of their intimacy (they could be said to be addictive and comforting – a bit like the confessional!)

The group Chair is of course responsible for sustaining the life of the group, for organising and facilitating the meetings of the group, and for the one-to-one coaching sessions between each of its meetings. Vistage carefully selects Chairs, and runs training and development courses and events for them. The expert speakers are equally carefully selected and only retain their Vistage accreditation if the members score them highly.

In addition to the group meetings and 1-to-1 coaching, Vistage also runs a series of exclusive keynote speaker events throughout the UK – to further support the development of group the members, but also to help them develop their teams.

It is evident that Vistage supports growth in the businesses concerned (apparently three times that of the average SME), just as it also helps to allay the stresses in those involved.

The main advantages of this well-established model (which is not unlike that of Action Learning) is that it:

  • focuses on major issues
  • brings to bear on them a wide range of thinking and experience
  • encourages decisions and action
  • enables close relationships with a number of fellow travellers
  • and provides comfort and re-assurance.

However, it does not necessarily provide advice related to the specific context of those issues (eg the sector), nor from people with closely related businesses.

January, 2016

A comparable programme:


I have just returned from a two-day workshop in Belgium about mentoring small groups of senior managers in SMEs, who meet together regularly to draw on each other’s experience, and with the support of mentors – a striking example of collaborative enterprise. Set up by a passionate individual in East Flanders Chamber of Commerce, it has been running for twenty years and has now been seeded in at least fifteen different countries. April, 2012.



Accelerators or Incubators – or combinations?

Flexible and adaptive development, challenge and support are what is required for hi-growth young businesses.

 IT is revolutionizing or disrupting many sectors of the economy and providing opportunities for endless innovations. And as it does so, first-mover advantage has been an important asset, and speed of development has become an increasingly vital element. While Incubators provide valuable spaces and an umbrella for SMEs, Accelerators (12-week managed programmes of intensive development for a small number of early-stage businesses, all working beside one another, and with fulsome support) aim to provide injections of development.

 Incubators provide flexible accommodation and basic services for SMEs, while Accelerators aim to provide 18 months of development for dynamic young businesses in the 3 months or so of their programmes; and they differ in two main respects: pressure and support.

While Incubators have no time limits on their occupants, Accelerators calibrate their progress and provide at the end of the period an opportunity to present their case to investors – for further funding. And while Incubators are reactive – they may have access to a range of advisers, available on request, Accelerators are proactive – they work with their young businesses to help them identify the advice or support they need, and then find it for them.

The reality is that different things are important at different moments and for different stages of growth. Most valuable is to have access (and not just the one-shot injection that the Business Growth Service provides to its adherents) to people with a depth of experience in the long-term growth of young businesses – a changing quorum of experts in a non-executive role. The big new co-working spaces like the 3,000-seater new WeWork building in Moorgate London (or for that matter the new Crick Institute at Kings Cross, and even the Harwell Campus), would benefit from having a number of such experts on tap, and ready to take up that role.

They can also mediate access to specialist mentors and advisers, and they are also in a position to bring together from time to time those businesses with similar growth issues and in similar sectors – to learn from each other’s progress and experience (like the Belgian Plato programme, and like Wayra Lab – the Telefonica Accelerator And they can run sessions of intensive assessment (like those run by the Sussex Innovation Centre) and short periods of intensive development (like Hackathons

The other crucial difference between Accelerators and Incubators is that you pay for the former in equity, and for the latter in rent.

For an analysis of the several roles that supporters play, see “Managing Creative Groups – how leaders develop creative potential in their teams”, Chapter 9, How leaders provide support. John Whatmore, Kogan Page, 1999.

 John Whatmore

December 2015

Five Ace Mentors – all of whom you may need: No 2


Five Ace Mentors – all of whom you may need

If the benefits of mentoring are only really appreciated after the experience, the mentors in this series tell us about the special contributions they have made to their mentees.

No 1 Concept development: coming up with something for which there is a real need and that is achievable, marketable and fundable. Jackie Young – in Life Sciences

No2 Strategy and management: determining objectives; getting there; and making and managing the team. JMD – in Fintech.

No 3 Technical: designing, creating and delivering the product/service. Jo Rabin – in Technologies.

No 4 Marketing and sales: attracting users, buyers, customers. Andrew Grant – in modelling.

No 5 Finance: managing the funds.

 No 6 Mentor and support Manager –helping to identify issues and provide mentors; and running events – Thibaut Rouquette – Startupbootamp

 No 2 Regular reviews of strategy and management – from an independent viewpoint

An evident contributor, likeable and enthusiastic, he brought a life-time’s experience of businesses (he recently retired as a Director of a major UK bank), and an effervescent clarity to issues that interested him.

He would ensure that there was a regular review system; he encouraged ‘plan B’ thinking; he was always a ready sounding board; as he was a difficult tank to stop when he thought change was needed.

He picked four turning points to which he had (or in one case had not) recently contributed.

  • I eventually persuaded a team of 30-year old young Turks based in Shoreditch whose finance man aged 50 lived miles away and had other interests, to let him go. Though he had some special assets, cash was becoming an issue, and other needs were being met only tardily. I gained the support of other Directors, and the separation was done elegantly.
  • Missed key milestones was the signal for me to try and persuade one company that they needed to woo not just one major customer, but several others. I had to hammer away at the issue, and I had no emotional attachment to the first strategy.
  • It took me four months and the occurrence of a sharply relevant Court case in Japan for me to persuade ‘African Exchanges’ (not its real name) to change its name as the company found itself increasingly drawn into trading in other currencies.
  • At a first meeting with one company, none of my thoughts and ideas went deeper than to get a mild brush-off. Both parties are looking for an instant link – that will suggest a fertile union. Like many young companies, they seemed dead-set on their plans; and perhaps they did not understand what they might get out of a mentor.

‘As a Startup, this is the biggest thing they have ever done, and they are of course passionate and determined about it. So to lose clarity is unsurprising. Moreover, consensus in the team is a vital factor, so there is also a danger of Groupthink. When passion becomes rigidity, it is time for a dose of adaptability. ‘

‘At least two qualities are important for a good mentor: that ‘he/she has seen it before’, and therefore the more he/she has seen, the better the mentor. And secondly, he/she needs to be (and in status is) dispassionate.’

Confessions of an talented mentor

An evident contributor, likeable and enthusiastic, he brought a life-time’s experience of businesses (he recently retired as a Director of a major UK bank), and an effervescent clarity to issues that interested him. (




Five Ace Mentors – all of whom you may need: No 1

If the benefits of mentoring are only really appreciated after the experience, the mentors in this series tell us about the special contributions they have made to their mentees.

No 1 Concept development: coming up with something for which there is a real need and that is achievable, marketable and fundable. Jackie Young – in Life Sciences

No 2 Strategy and management: determining objectives; getting there; and making and managing the team. JMD – in Fintech.

No 3 Technical: designing, creating and delivering the product/service. Jo Rabin – in IT.

No 4 Marketing and sales: attracting users, buyers, customers. Andrew Grant – in modelling.

No 5 Finance: managing the funds.


No 6 Mentor and support Manager –helping to identify issues and provide mentors; and running events – Thibaut Rouquette – Startupbootamp


No 1. A Concept Developer like no other

A Lab head who encouraged her students to tackle issues that could have commercial appeal as much as scientific appeal, and helped them to realise their commercial capabilities as well as produce great science.

Jackie Ying was eager to push her already productive lab at MIT into the life sciences. Todd Zion was first attracted to her lab because of her fanatical work ethic; and her business-minded approach appealed to his nascent interest in becoming an entrepreneur – she says that every graduate student should tackle a project not only of tremendous scientific interest, but also of great commercial potential.

He was asked by Ying to see if the same technology her lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines could create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes. He spent two years trying to find a material that prevented the insulin from leaking out before he realised that the secret lay in chemically modifying the insulin itself. The discovery led to SmartCells, a company he and Ying co-founded in 2003, which was later sold to Merck for an undisclosed sum.

His business savvy drew the attention of Lita Nelsen, the longtime director of MIT’s technology licensing office because of the way he had run the company as a tight operation, and he was soon back starting another company with his former colleagues.

Ying says that roughly a quarter of her MIT students have founded companies or gone to work for a startup, but she has chosen not to take that path. ‘What interests me’, she says ‘is bringing the technology to a certain level where you can spin it off and then playing an advisory role to make sure that things are running smoothly.’

Andrey Zarur, one of Ying’s first graduate students who developed the technology that Zion later modified to create SmartCells says Ying ‘would take me with her on visits to companies to get funding for the lab. And I would make the presentation. People thought she was taking advantage of me because she made me do three PhD projects, but this was preparing me for the life I want’.

Ying went on to become the founding director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore – to spread the twin gospels of top-flight research and entrepreneurship that she had learned at MIT. Her record over the past 12 years suggests that she has done exactly that. IBN has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences, and eight startup companies.

Sometimes, she suggests, faculty members need help in finding a project with commercial promise, and sometimes she needs to find partners in industry to help with a project. Overall she hopes to find a way for IBN to help nurture new companies without losing all the scientists who did the technology’s foundational work. ‘We will continue to help the firms with research’, Ying says, ‘and maybe they will give us not just royalties but some shares to the people involved.’

(Abstracted from ‘Science’, June 12, 2015)

Shorter, not longer, Accelerators

How do you come up with an idea for a business that meets a big need, will be desired by customers and is readily fundable. BT’s Hothouses, quicker though more complex and involving, suggest a counter-cultural model: do it as one problem, not as a series of problems. (

Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world?


Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world

Focusing on major issues rather than relying on people with good ideas is likely to be a good source for the 6% of businesses with hi-growth potential (- and Unicorns)

 Next: the Business Growth Service’s coaches, mentors and advisers are having a real impact for SMEs; it must be exploited.

Following: Five Ace Mentors – you may need all of them

Most of the commercial supporters of hi-growth businesses depend on who turns up with a good idea – for which they search keenly; yet many of those ideas are often limited, ephemeral and even trivial, and many of their protoganists far from suited to the heavy sweat of growing a business. Few focus on issues of strategic, technical or sociological importance – like basic needs, lifestyles or communities.

Among those that have done so are:

Village Capital in New York – which seeks to identify large scale needs in any country throughout the world, and then to match them with experts and funds designed to find and implement solutions.

Syncona Partners, a subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust, which identifies potential solutions to major healthcare issues that are of technical or strategic importance and matches experts (or sets up the necessary management) and funds for delivering their benefits.

BioCity Nottingham which runs a programme whose starting point is identifying major issues of organisations in its area, and then finds experts who may be able to help solve those issues; and goes on to provide them with intensive support for the development of solutions.

The provision by Innovate UK’s for its grant winners of free access to The Business Growth Service is a welcome focus on technological opportunities that have been identified in competition, and thus a well-directed initiative for supporting young businesses that have the potential for high growth.

Innovate UK’s Business Growth Workshops bring these grant holders together and illustrate the analysis that the service’s Growth Development Managers put together, and which they use to offer a choice of three coaches, mentors or advisers to the business involved.

The success of this service must be exploited by making sure that it is adopted for example in clusters and in innovation centres everywhere.

John Whatmore

October 2015

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? (

A major programme for new hi-flyers


A major programme for new hi-flyers that includes an Accelerator
Public support for a major programme of development for a relatively large number of early-stage ventures, designed to identify and accelerate some world-class companies for to-morrow – from the Middle East. Why doesn’t InnovateUK do something similar?

Lebanon has a history of cultural development that is currently shrouded by the strife in the Middle East, and it has long-established international tentacles, so it is not surprising to come across a major commercial initiative from the Lebanon that is both far-reaching and high-flying.

Over a two-year period, teams will be brought to London for 6 months with the objective of grooming them – via partnerships, networks, mentoring etc – to become major global businesses of the future. Carefully selected for their promise, about half are already growing businesses, a third are early-stage startups, and the rest are at ‘product stage’

I spoke to two people who had just come to London for the duration of the programme, who were developing with US partners an algorithm for selling on the internet. They already had an investment of about $1mn from sources in the Middle East, for which they had given a substantial stake in their company, an amount that would provide them with a runway of about a year in which to achieve full commercialisation of the business.

The UK Lebanon Tech Hub’s Accelerator consists of a 4-month programme in Beirut with one-on-one mentorship and business support from international entrepreneurs and subject-matter experts for 45 carefully selected businesses – run by Babson Global. Fifteen of these will be selected to come to London for a 6-month programme and follow-on, which is designed to help those businesses to deliver their business plan – with training events, meetings, access to contacts and one-to-one mentoring.

The London office mirroring that in Lebanon is to be managed by PAConsulting whose role includes the Outreach programme and the Signposting Service as well as contacts and the support of mentors – sourced from various other organisations.

The Outreach Programme aims to understand business and innovation needs, and identify strategic opportunities for synergy with Lebanese and UK partners. The Signposting Service, available also online, offers opportunities, knowledge and advice on how to enter the UK and international markets – for Lebanese entrepreneurs, investors, academics and media professionals; and will facilitate action on significant business leads or proposed partnerships.

With the Capacity Building programme, the UK Lebanon Tech Hub will contribute to the development of Lebanon’s Tech Cluster with training events and master classes on a regular basis, tailored to the needs of individual businesses, with study tours, internships, and job shadowing for key entrepreneurs and investors; and with Tech talks, seminars, and workshops with internationally recognized tech entrepreneurs and experts.

The UK Lebanon Tech Hub is an international initiative kick-started by Banque Du Liban and the UK Government through the British Embassy in Beirut and with the active support of UKTI. The initiative is privately run and managed by UK-based PA Consulting. The programme’s objective is to open global markets to Lebanese entrepreneurs through the expertise, exposure and experience to be found in London, with the aims of growing Lebanon’s knowledge economy, its GDP and its job opportunities.

The striking aspects of the programme are the commitment by the Lebanese government and Lebanese institutions to identifying and supporting early-stage businesses that might have the potential to become the Microsofts or the Googles of to-morrow; and secondly the fulsome and collaborative nature of the development programme that is being run by a semi-independent public body. Why doesn’t InnovateUK do something similar?

See also:
A cluster-based ‘Accesserator’…
here helping to enable SMEs with innovative products to market to the big companies of this cluster; the process energised both by collaboration and competition Feb 2013

Bioscience brings development expertise to bear on discoveries with big potential benefits
We are widely recognised for the quality of our academic output in the UK, but stories abound about the inflexibility and lack of commercial understanding of Technology Transfer Offices. The Wellcome Trust recently launched a vehicle for investing in spin-outs and start-ups for developing promising discoveries. March 2014

A model of support for hi-growth SMEs – Octopus Ventures
Octopus Ventures applies all the techniques of intensive development that are typical of Accelerators, but it does so at longer range. It invests in small businesses with potential for very high growth, and then it is set up to provide whatever support is necessary in order to achieve that potential. March 2015

John Whatmore
July 2015

Shorter, not longer, Accelerators: BT’s Hothouses


Shorter, not longer, Accelerators
How do you come up with an idea for a business that meets a big need, will be desired by customers and is readily fundable. BT’s Hothouses, quicker though more complex and involving, suggest a counter-cultural model: do it as one problem, not as a series of problems.

Next week: A major programme for new hi-flyers that includes an Accelerator – so why doesn’t UKTI do the same for the UK?

The problem: one of the dangers in the conceptualisation stage of a new business is that what meets a need may not be marketable; and what is marketable may not be fundable; and the process of meeting all three requirements may go backwards and forwards interminably.

BT recognised long ago that the danger of the waterfall approach exemplified in the three phases of the Accelerator (the project handed on down the line to its next stage – to the product managers or the marketers and thence to the accountants before eventually being signed off) is that unforeseen problems may arise late in the development process and can involve expensive iterations and missed opportunities. BT’s solution (‘tangible outcomes are essential’) was to bring together into the early stage of the process authoritative representatives of all the parties concerned.

BT’s solution – the Hothouse is perhaps better described as a small problem-solving conference (or even as a Hackathon) rather than a workshop. Between three and eight teams (each of 6-8 people – they can involve lots of people during the Hothouse itself, though less both before and after) compete for small but significant prizes in the presence of the problem owner, his boss (and often his boss) and other stakeholders.

Participants are chosen to fulfill a specific mix in a team and while fully briefed beforehand, they may or may not have had previous experience of Hothouses. Teams are composed through an electronic auction; the facilitator will regularly call very brief ‘stand-up’ meetings to ask about progress, obstacles, needs, and resources that might be made available; and the 3-day process is marked by presentations at the end of each day, and a carefully chosen panel of judges is on hand throughout the proceedings.

Each team’s space in the large communal break-out area has its plasma screen and white board; and Microsoft’s Sharepoint Online software is used for enabling each team to share material, with two other programs for sharing software in development.

Some 70 Hothouses a year are now run, each focused on a significant business problem or opportunity – identified by a Business Unit of BT, for which suites of rooms have been built in two locations. The ‘conference’ space is institutional and Spartan (no toys – what would their bosses think!); and the process is intensive and full of energy. There are no signs of any input – either of people or materials – from outside BT, (though that will apparently depend on the business problem, and customers will often form part of the process); and the technical members of the teams ensure that use is made of relevant existing BT platforms.

The main uses are currently for bringing new products and services to market, many of which are opportunities offered by new technology, where the objective is to overcome obstacles in the development process. Formalised methods more than experience or expertise in this type of activity distinguish BT’s Hothouses; and they are very process-driven.

The lesson: BT’s method suggests that a more comprehensive problem-solving approach might have a useful place in developing new businesses – intensive, shorter, but with more supporting resources.

See also: US non-profit ‘Village Capital’ has a different perspective on social enterprise: objectives first, resources next Oct 2013, http://wp.e/p3beJt-6K

John Whatmore
July 2015