Innovation and changing peoples’ lives


Innovation and changing peoples’ lives. In a fast-changing world, helping people to make changes to their lives is at the heart of innovation. This programme of mutual learning brings people together who can help one another – easy to set up and run, and ideal not just for innovation centres and their ilk, but for groups of all kinds, such as job changers, patients, students, local communities et al.

Alcoholics Anonymous is the most dramatic of life-changing groups: its regular meetings, mutual discussions, exchange of commitments, and reporting back on progress are its backbone.

Participants in Accelerator programmes (around 12 weeks of intensive development for a dozen or so startups working alongside one another) regularly say that their best sources of help are other participants. At Watershed in Bristol they meet at lunch time every Friday and talk in turn about their progress, their problems and their plans. Notes of the meeting are then immediately circulated to ensure that everyone can identify and meet up with those whose issues chime with their own – to draw on each other’s experience.

Enrolyourself (1) is a 6-month programme of mutual learning – for people who feel a need to work on their ideas together with others who are on similar learning paths. They may be pursuing a new interest or venture, in a new role or job, or looking to add new skills and experiences.

The programme, curated by a learning organiser, is of weekly meetings, every alternative week being a meeting of the whole group, and in the weeks between, buddy pairs meet up. There is an initial kick-off week-end; and after two months there is a PowerUp day; and another after four months – meetings that regularly addressing learnings and build accountability.

Zahra Davidson (2) has nurtured this project, running two pilots before seeking funds to scale it up. In a competition at the Royal College of Art, she won the prize – of some funds, a place in the RCA’s incubator and support from Unltd – an investor in social entrepreneurs; and she is currently appointing her first cohort of learning organisers – in different parts of the country (whose interests include bringing together groups of professionals working on social impact, work/life coaches, and people from one field bringing their expertise into another).

At the Kick-off week-end, there are exercises to help people to get to know each other; skills and networking mapping, role playing, coaching training, and the principles of peer-to-peer learning are presented. The group – of ten people – divide into buddy pairs (who will meet by their own arrangement in the intervening weeks – if necessary by Skype) for mutual coaching, creative exercises and encouragement about their ideas; and they will plan their own sessions and how to capture their content. (Any who feel the need of an outside mentor are encouraged to find their own right person.)

The facilitated fortnightly meetings of the whole group are made up of Workshops (teachings) and Group Challenges (problems and opportunities), and are constructed so that responsibility for facilitation and organisation moves around the group.

At the bi-monthly PowerUp days, each person presents their achievements, their insights, their learnings and their plans – with five minutes to talk them through, then five minutes for questions, and five minutes to capture feed-back, ideas and contributions from the group.

The final week-end meeting is a chance to reflect, with peer assessment and feed-back, including about where next; and about the programme, which finishes with a ShowCase Event – a day or an evening.

Programmes of this kind – periodic meetups of a small group – have been around for some time, as of great help for tackling new issues – for their mutual support and learning. Uprising, a social enterprise, uses weekly meetings to embolden its young members; the Clore Leadership programmes enable similar exchanges of experience; Plato, a programme widely used in a number of countries but originally from Belgium, brings together small groups of similarly placed executives, as does the Vistage programme; and the Judge Institute Growth Challenge programme for CEOs of young ventures uses a similar format.

Collaborative learning programmes have not attracted academic interest perhaps because they differ from the standard model of pedagogy (teacher/pupil). But they are of increasing and wide-ranging interest in these times of constant change, including for new ventures; and an invaluable source of inspiration.



(2) Zahra Davidson at

John Whatmore, April 2018


Research-led new businesses need commercialisers


Research-led businesses desperately need commercialisers Few leading business people started their careers as scientists, yet the need for commercial support for research-led businesses is acute. How can this chasm be bridged? Innovators need to be identified; science entrepreneurs need to be hallowed; support needs to be tailored for and concentrated on young science businesses; and universities need to redouble their work to identify and foster their research that has commercial potential, and incubate and support more young businesses.

It has long been a concern that in the UK we fail to profit from the high ranking of our research. Yet there are far fewer commercial startups and spinouts in UK universities than in the US. What distinguishes Apple is the speed with which technical innovations are translated into commercial products.

As Innovate UK plans to focus more onto the commercialisation of UK research, the US ‘Science’ magazine (June 12 issue) writes up five stories about scientists who have or have not turned their hands to their own businesses, one of whom has become a catalyst for others to follow the commercial route. A second article discusses ways in which commercialisation of research has been encouraged in the US, including:

  • campus competitions to solicit valuable ideas
  • establishing university VC funds
  • university incubators, and
  • ‘accelerator’ programmes, such as the 10-week Innovation Corps programmes of the National Science Foundation.

Commercial-minded heads of labs The founder of one company tells about a knock on the door from a university tech transfer official who asked her if she had anything that could be taken to market. “We thought she was crazy”, but that person ‘took a shot’. A second company grew out of an I-Corps boot camp for would-be academic entrepreneurs that has been widely espoused in the US but so far only found a single adopter in the UK.

While the main interest of the majority of academics is research and teaching, some academics have a strong orientation towards business (who may become founders of startups) and others have some interest (who might become members of teams). So blanket programmes to encourage commercialisation are of little value. Successful commercialisation depends not only on having the ability to develop new technology but also on having the capacity to do so.

Jackie Ying was head of a lab at MIT where she 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. She went on to become founding director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore where her objective was 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 that: IBN has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences, and eight startup companies.

Identifying real innovators One (personal and itself innovative) view of great innovators (in drug hunting) is that they are:

  • risk-takers with a dislike of the status quo
  • have an outstanding grasp of the cognate science
  • have a non-compliant attitude to formal organizational processes
  • hold strong scientific convictions which they express forcefully, and
  • are genuinely ambitious more for their [idea] than for themselves.

They will usually originate in academia, possibly from an experience in academic/industrial collaboration. This suggests a need to rethink the ways in which innovators are selected and managed.

Other research strongly confirms that you need to know a lot about your subject before you are likely to lead it into new directions; and that such leaders are visionaries/ideas people, who annex the help of others to turn their ideas into reality.

Support for innovators and commercialisers in academia MIT ‘s recent report (1) reinforces the well-acknowledged need for comprehensive eco-systems comprising [a culture of entrepreneurial] teams, [plentiful] risk capital, and corporate and university leadership; and it acknowledges that such systems are difficult to catalyse. MIT’s programme in Scotland has been focusing on two components, namely:

  • entrepreneurial mentoring, and
  • the development of a dynamic network for entrepreneurs.

Parallels with other fields emphasise the importance of working with early-stage ventures and providing support in the form of mentoring, training and access to networks (with peers, customers, experts and investors.)

Innovate UK is now offering to its grant winners the services free of charge of the Business Growth Service. This service gives access to a review with a Business Growth Manager, and thence to one of a choice of coaches, advisers and consultants, to help identify problems and formulate plans for the growth of the business. It should be made available on the same basis to all young businesses in Accelerators, incubators, science parks, innovation centres and tech hubs.

Daresbury Innovation Centre has expanded, as has the range and quantity of support available – together with its innovation network; but the minimal support available to the young businesses in Harwell’s incubators raises questions about the support for other businesses on the site, or at Culham or at other Science and Technology sites.

Short programmes like the I-Corps programme (which has been espoused by a number of government agencies in the US) that aim to provide intensive support for early-stage businesses (‘Accelerators’) are now common in a number of fields both in the US and the UK, though the only directly comparable programme in the UK is one adopted by Imperial College for startups based on synthetic biology. Isis, the Oxford University tech transfer office has just enrolled Wayra Lab, Telefonica’s Accelerator organisation, to set up a similar arrangement for Oxford University entrepreneurs.

Many unversities are already embraced by the IP group and other groups of VCs, but overall the emphasis on entrepreneurialism is minimal. Most universities have their own incubators, but the number of places in them is tiny in relation to the number of aspiring entrepreneurs ion universities. And while there is of course a wealth of technical support available in universities for their young businesses, they do not necessarily know what they need to know, with which mentors can help. Tech transfer offices have often been filled from university staff rather than from the commercial world outside; and in sharp contrast to the business world, support tends to be limited and to be reactive rather than proactive.

Structuring projects for commercialisation Whereas few Biotech incubators offer significant support, BioCity in Nottingham is unusual in that it runs a programme that seeks out areas with identifiable needs for innovation and aims to match them with innovators in a programme of intensive development. The Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst has adopted a different route in that it is positioned alongside GSK’s Laboratories and aims to enable its occupants to work with and make use of GSK’s scientists. The new Crick Institute in London needs to be as strong at bringing into use as it aims to be in research.

While Life Science VCs are said to need big pockets and a wide range of expertise to be effective, and tend to seek quick wins, in 2012 the Wellcome Trust launched a fund that aims to support developments that may be of strategic or technical importance, that seeks to identify important discoveries with potential to significantly impact the healthcare market, and not only to fund their development, but also to put management into place.

The European Space Agency is actively seeking to generate development projects in the range of £500k- £1mn investment that address major issues that might be solved by consortia of disparate organisations with the help of space-related technology (of which it currently has about 10 in hand in the UK). One such integrated application is attacking the recent sharp rise in the incidence of Lyme’s Disease, where the project entails a development plan for research into malaria in Africa and in the UK, GPs and hospitals in Scotland, and pharmaceutical companies.

If scientific collaborations play an increasingly important role in driving world leading research, the Nature Index of Collaborations database — with its focus on high-quality science articles — lends itself well to the analysis of collaboration patterns both between institutions and countries. It paints a rich picture of the global research ecosystem and yields insights into the power and impact of joint research.

Alas, the Queens Anniversary prizes ‘for universities and colleges that demonstrate excellence, innovation and impact – for the institution itself and for people and society more generally in a wider world’ hardly get a mention in the press to-day.

(1) Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme

John Whatmore, November 2015

Leaders of Creative Groups


The leadership of creative groups is more relevant than ever in to-day’s competitive global business world: innovation and disruption have given a new impetus to creativity; but the skills of leading creative groups have changed little.

The Leadership of Creative Groups has seemed increasingly vital as year by year the creative industries have burgeoned, product-oriented industries have become more creative and the service industries more important. The Dysons, the Nick Serotas, the Reid Hoffmans are the leaders of to-day: what makes them great leaders?

Creative people are often seen as difficult to manage – as experimental and intuitive, open to experience and extravert, but also sensitive and temperamental. Yet some people have a knack for getting the best out of them: they are more concerned with developing individuals and their talents, and creating or sustaining culture and climate than achieving particular objectives. ‘Creativity can be led, it can be channeled and fostered, but it resents being managed’ Martin Sorrell once opined.

Leading creative teams is different: it consists in taking the lead when you have the most appropriate contribution, (‘leadership hops from shoulder to shoulder’,) whether that contribution is technical, process, the making of contacts, the finding of resources, supporting someone else or whatever. It is authority and responsibility without domination or control.

Research (see footnote) has shown first and foremost that leaders of creative groups tend to be Visionaries, (or Ideas Generators or Ideas Prompters). Experts in their field, they see opportunities for doing things differently that others did not see, that are tough, will unlock other issues and have big pay-offs.

These leaders play a variety of roles: they are very often Team Builders and Coaches, and Entrepreneurs. In the big organisations which were the main participants in these studies, they were also Spokespersons and Shielders – as they often are to their shareholders in young businesses.

They are described as having empathy and understanding:

  • in selecting their team,
  • in using the constraints as the very challenges that would help members of the team in the development of their own talents,
  • in providing the freedoms they appreciate, and as an encouragement to experiment,
  • in using milestones and other opportunities for setting up tensions that might lead to creative breakthroughs,
  • in making themselves available as constant ‘supporters’, and
  • in ‘shielding’ them when necessary.

‘Warm and approachable, passionate and enthusiastic’, they are described as providers of all kinds of support, as very ‘process’ aware – as projects evolve and change, and as creaters of climate and culture.

These leaders tend to see everything as a learning opportunity – they have a ‘rage for learning’ – as a close parallel with creativity. They learn by doing and then reflecting on it (‘the way we learn cookery, burglary or sex’) – the very approach adopted by the latest growth programmes for SMEs, like the new Judge Institute programme and the UCL/RBS programme – which provide regular periodic meetups for CEOs for some 12 months at a time (See

Is the time ripe for more programmes like the Clore Leadership programme in the arts, with its emphasis on experience?

John Whatmore, January 2017.

“Releasing Creativity: how leaders develop creative potential in their teams”, John Whatmore (www. is based on a study for the then Department of Trade and Industry of 40 leaders of project groups – including in science, r&d, design, marketing and the arts. Out of it there emerged a self-assessment instrument (not unlike Belbin’s team roles test) designed to help leaders to identlfy their own typical leadership roles.






Village Capital identifies issues and then builds teams to attack them


Let’s try Village Capital’s proven model for tackling big problems in local areas

Since 2009, New York-based Village Capital has sought to tackle real-world problems in local areas, by using the principle of peer-selection, and investing and leveraging capital. It has sought to focus on big problems, and to tap directly into sources of expertise and of funding that relate to them.

Village Capital’s mission is to find, train and invest in entrepreneurs solving real problems. If MIT’s REAP works for entrepreneurship on a national scale (see October 2016), VilCap works for it on a more local scale (see also my website Nov 2013).

It has concentrated on certain sectors, namely those that are about the essence of our future:

* access to opportunity for all communities (health, education and financial inclusion), and

* resource sustainability (energy and agriculture); and it has operated mainly in the US, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America,

It has several unique features:

  • it operates entirely by peer selection – of projects, methods and funding;
  • its projects have a sector specific theme that fits with local/regional strengths; and
  • it partners with any organisation that is committed to the same objectives.

Aside from the contributions to life in the places where it works, (which are effectively incalculable), it has supported over 500 ventures in 45 programmes, made 72 investments with a survival rate of over 90%, leveraged over $200mn of additional capital and created almost 10,000 jobs.

Examples include a company in Cincinnati which focused its programme on innovation in water; a company in Guatemala which focused on the future of its agriculture-based economy; and Philadelphia launched a financial technology programme building on its history of financial services R&D.

It is oriented towards social and public enterprise and its underpinnings, and bears little resemblance to the venture capital based model of the commercial startup world (with its idea-lite pop up entrepreneurs). And its methods run counter to the accepted wisdom of that world, in that it relies on expert entrepreneurs and collaborative working.

How do you find and train entrepreneurs are topics that currently concern Vilcap. The parallel here is: is the pool of lead investors/serial entrepreneurs big enough and/or sufficiently widespread; and how can the pool be grown. My work, supported by the then Department of Trade and Industry was clear but not easy to implement: they are essentially learners by experience! (Is failure a useful stepping stone?)

What better model could there be for the Scaleup Institute to espouse, and enable it to work with LEPs to revive the fortunes of run-down areas such as Grimsby, Toxteth or Tottenham?

John Whatmore, October 2017

Organising your venture’s supporters


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



Growth Builder’s first cohort



‘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


John Whatmore, May 2017

Re-shaping support for SMEs


Making the most out of young businesses Lessons are arriving from all sides about early-stage businesses (Village Capital, Nesta, Scaleup Institute, Growth Builder, IDEO). What do they tell us? Shouldn’t Innovate UK be taking a bigger role in the support of innovation practice?

 Most striking is the extent to which Accelerators – a fast growing phenomenon – have become the province of corporates. They force new businesses to focus not just on good ideas but on important (commercial) issues; they know their own field – its problems and opportunities; they provide invaluable support; and they are willing and capable investors (Wayra Lab, Cisco, John Lewis, and many others.)

However, this does leave great swathes of the population and of the economy untouched by support for innovation eg the public sector, several industries, large parts of the country and the everyday lives of most people. The Nesta report identifies some; and Geoff Mulgan, its Chief Executive, has focused on others, not least in the public sector.

The main sources of funding for Accelerators are now Corporates, the Public sector and Philanthropics. Venture Capital is a source for only 8% of Accelerators (and 2% of Incubators). The Nesta Report reveals that in the UK both Incubators and Accelerators rely heavily on public funds – from a variety of sources (in many areas and sectors for a substantial proportion of funding and in some, completely.)

It is now well recognised that the greatest opportunity for the development of entrepreneurial eco-systems is in ‘sectors that have a deep and local focus’; and the Scaleup Institute is busily working with LEPs to help them to do so.

However, innovation strategy and practice are evolving; and there is still little experienced management of proactive support.

Recent research by IDEO revealed something surprising: neither a more traditional approach to product development – coming up with three good options, analyzing them, and choosing one to move forward with, nor the lean startup approach – taking a best guess, piloting it, and then pivoting based on what works – is the most effective way to launch a new product. Instead, when teams iterate on five or more different solutions, they are 50% more likely to launch a product successfully.

‘Entrepreneurial support organisations are critical infrastructure for cities, communities and for corporates; and they too need clearly articulated support’ says Village Capital, a major US philanthropic business. The most common form of support is mentoring, but the promotion and management of mentoring (and of support in general) is a role that is extremely rare, but much needed, and rarer in Incubators than in Accelerators. Moreover a different format of support programme is also emerging – in the form of regular monthly meetings – especially of hi-growth businesses – based round collaborative learning.

There is at present no body that adequately encompasses Incubators and Accelerators – to help steer policy, identify best practice, and foster training and development in innovationeering. Innovate UK should take urgent steps to create an appropriate KTN.

John Whatmore, May 2017