A Venture Capital company runs its own Acccelerator

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Venture capital company runs its own accelerator

Activate Capital is running an accelerator programme in Ealing, London over a six week period – it’s ‘digital startup studio’. It includes strategy and planning, product design, advice on company structure as well as pitch coaching for future funding rounds.

It aims to focus on the needs of individual startups, with specific topics addressed each morning and afternoon in a structured programme, tutored by the eight principals of Venture Capital business (founded in 2016).

Startups contribute up to 5% of their equity; and once the programme has finished, successful applicants have the opportunity to gain access to seed investment of £100K, to optimise product development and secure future finance.

Activate Capital claims to have invested in three companies last year. Their concern is that the average success rate in Accelerators is one in ten and they are seeking to ensure that all of those that go on their programme succeed. “We are committed to working hand-in-hand with start-ups to ensure that they get the advice, insights and support that they need.”

John Whatmore, March 2017

 

 

A venture capital company that knows its onions – because it grows them

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Sovereign Capital runs its own academies – in the music industry

I’ve just come across an unusual set-up in the innovation eco-system: a venture capital company that runs its own academies for startups; but would you believe this: one of them is for song writers! It is as though a VC in Bioscience had set up its own entrepreneur school for potential CEOs in synthetic biology.

But why not? Song writing and bioscience used to be callings which had their own very specific origins, but both of which now demand business nous.

What is being taught? Isn’t songwriting something “you’ve either got…or you haven’t”; “they just come to you”, said one successful writer. But the pedagogues at the Institute of Contemporary Music say that popular musicians hide the fact that they have had to study their craft; that there are elements of songcraft (just as there are in creative writing) that can be taught – like where to put in a middle eight or a key change; and individuals can be introduced to writer’s works that speak to their own work. ‘We provide tools and a regime of learning and development – about production, performance and business.’ (See the video ft.com/rockschool.)

Importantly, students are helped to develop their brand and to monetise it – for example by making contacts. When they are ready, they get introduced to potential managers, publishers and labels. There are lots of panels, with guests from the industry – talking about digital marketing, how to analyse data, the demo-graphics of your potential fan base, and of course contracts; and there are regular Master Classes.

“We used social media to find out where people were listening to us, and where our potential market might be going”, said one band that had just organised a tour.

If programmes like this, which provide aspiring musicians with a variety of routes to using their talents in the music industry, are more common than they used to be, the presence of a venture capital group is a great deal less so. Sovereign Capital, ‘the largest and leading provider of contemporary modern music education in the UK and Europe’ (which inter alia owns the British and Irish Modern Music Institute with its branch in Fulham,) is described as a big player in this sector with some notable and much trumpeted success stories to its credit.

The recent Barclays Scaleup Report emphasised the importance of expertise in venture funding. There can be few better ways of developing that expertise than in having an organisation whose essence is the development and commercialisation of talent.

John Whatmore, March 2017

 

Big bets on big ideas

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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.

We celebrate the fast growing entrepreneurial culture, but too many startups are ‘noddy projects’, built on exploiting little more than convenience or alacrity; often led by people with scant knowledge or experience of management or about the sector which they aim to enter and its customers.

Many fewer are the enterprises that start by identifying major needs or opportunities and building a business to fulfil them. Among these are the Young Foundation in the UK, which has long supported social enterprises, and Village Capital in New York, which has raised funds and then used them to bring experts to bear on major world problems.

But also there are individuals who have made millions and then sought to use their wealth to attack these problems, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Do their approaches tell us anything about how we could address bigger issues and address them better?

What is common to most of them is that they aim to use the high level of their own expertise with which they have achieved their own success, and do so in wider, more beneficial fields where the returns are not necessarily financial.

Soon after Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder, and his wife began their philanthropy five years go, they partnered with a charity research organisation called Give Well, that identifies projects that ‘provide outsize human benefits for the dollars invested’, through which they gave substantial sums, inter alia to a programme for distributing mosquito nets to reduce malaria, and to a programme that gives cash directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda. More recently they have chosen to fund projects that mitigate potential global catastrophes, like an epidemic of a deadly disease, biological warfare and the dangers posed by artificial intelligence.

‘Tech people tend to be more interested in early-stage startups’, said one expert, ‘they typically support disruptive new ideas, get more involved in their giving and show a willingness to move quickly to another approach when one fails.’

Zuckerberg and his wife (who is a doctor) chose to invest funds in efforts to build basic tools to help the whole scientific community to make breakthroughs in research. A substantial sum went to create a new research institute in San Francisco – the ‘Biohub’, whose first project was to map all the cells in the body and set up a rapid strike force to tackle outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola and Zika viruses.

And they aim to advocate for more private money for this purpose, and will ‘likely take ownership stakes in for-profit companies doing promising work.’ Their multipronged approach – gifts, VC investments in businesses with social missions, and policy advocacy is described as ‘giving them maximum flexibility’.

Pierre Omidyar , founder of the eBay online auction and retail site, was an early pioneer of this concept. His philanthropic organisation focused on efforts to bring financial services to underserved populations. It financed a non-profit that makes microloans in Africa, Asia and Haiti; and it has invested in a peer-to-peer lender and in a company that provides insurance to low-income people in emerging markets. He participates in an advocacy group that partners with governments and others to encourage the distribution of money digitally instead of through cash handouts. ‘We have a motto here: problem first, tool second’, said the managing partner of his Foundation – an approach ‘widely adopted by the region’s philanthropists’.

The Omidyar Foundation which focuses on early-stage projects, also takes board seats and provides networking opportunities and training to the organisations it finances. ‘Half of the organisations report that our non-monetary assistance is as valuable as our monetary assistance’, says the managing partner.

Measuring success ‘is a bit of a fool’s errand’, he has said; but proactive, they are. At all events, principles like that of focusing on underfunded yet highly effective charities seem to remain paramount. So far we have rarely seen comparable individuals or organisations in the for-profit field.

Source: New York Times, 8.11.2016

John Whatmore, January, 2017

Attracting SMEs to the UK

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Bringing leading young businesses to the UK The UK’s attractive Sirius Programme has a new format and a new (private sector) management 

The Sirius programme aims to bring some of the best young entrepreneurial talent from around the world to the UK where they can build their businesses for the benefit of themselves and the UK economy. Participants receive a complete package of services to maximize their potential for success – probably better than any UK young business could expect.

The package includes seed funding of approximately £35,000 plus 30-days of acceleration training, mentoring, twelve-months office accommodation and support in obtaining visas from a dedicated Sirius allocation. The total package is estimated to be worth up to £60,000. Companies participating will cede a 10% stake in exchange for the support received.

Sirius was developed originally by the then UK Trade and Industry (UKTI) in 2013 to promote the UK as a destination for young entrepreneurs, and to date has attracted over 2,300 gifted and ambitious applicants from 93 countries, leading to 73 companies coming to the UK. The programme aims in the future to attract up to 100 entrepreneurs representing 40 new companies to the UK each year; and these will be spread across different regions of the UK.

Management of the Sirius Programme has been transferred to a consortium of private and charity sector organisations to facilitate its growth and development. The consortium includes The Accelerator Network, Entrepreneurial Spark, NACUE, Natwest (part of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group), The Rain Gods and White Horse Capital.

The support programme is to be run on a not-for-profit basis and seed funding for the start-ups will be sourced from UK private investors under the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS), with the expectation of a strong investment return given the calibre of international start-ups and the support they will be able to access in the UK, now including investor input.

Timothy Barnes, Chairman, Sirius New Direction Ltd commented (3 Nov), “The development and growth of the Sirius Programme underlines our confidence in the reputation of the UK as a leading global destination for young entrepreneurs. There are some incredibly ambitious entrepreneurs with great business ideas that would benefit from being based here and we are keen to hear from them all!”

He added: ‘It is a highly competitive programme, but with much of the previous marketing conducted outside of the UK it is not as well known within the country as it might be. Teams from anywhere in the world can apply, as long as one or more of the co-founders is from outside of the UK. Overseas students already in the UK as part of their education are particularly welcome.’

Applications for the new format programme are open now via http://www.siriusprogramme.com – the first cohort to be selected before the end of the year, to be active in the Spring of 2017.

John Whatmore, November 2016

The contribution of the “10,000 SMEs” programme

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A small but effective contribution to Scaleup needs

New research shows that Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Programme is an effective growth builder, but it makes only a limited contribution to the UK’s Scaleup needs.

For leaders of small businesses from across industry sectors this is a ‘high quality, practically-focused business and management education programme’ during which every small business owner develops a customised Growth Plan to direct their organisation’s business strategy and expansion; and it provides networking and peer learning opportunities.

For the cohort of 70 small business leaders selected to participate in each programme (and there are firm criteria – which do include an indication of growth potential), the three-month programme (offered by five leading UK universities) is delivered over 100 hours. It is made up of ten days of residential learning in three separate sessions (each at a different location) in between which are periods of flexible online learning. Each session features education, discussion and peer-group work to enable individual participants to define their growth goals and pool their experience.

The success of the programme is ascribed to a blend of formal learning, mentoring, and peer-to-peer support, which includes:

  • specialist workshops
  • one-on-one business advising
  • business coaching
  • access to professional experts
  • ongoing support and guidance offered through networking with the resulting community of business leaders.

A just-published survey of past participants indicates that they enhance turn-over and go on to employ more people – more so than comparable businesses in a control group. In line with some though not all of the needs for successful scaling up indicated by the recent Barclays Report, they:

  • introduce new processes
  • use more financial data
  • source new suppliers
  • introduce new training opportunities
  • develop and launch new products/services
  • seek external finance

and above all they

* develop increased confidence.

The latest assessment report focuses explicitly on the successes of the small businesses that it has attracted. But it also ends on what is a sobering note: if the 33,000 other small businesses with profiles like those of the 933 participants to date were to show similar growth, while it would add £4.3bn to the economy, at this rate it will take years to reach just 10,000.

John Whatmore, November 2016

Action Learning: I meet a programme leader

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Action Learning – I meet a programme leader

Regular group meetings feature in many recent development programmes for SMEs, so I asked an expert on Action Learning: what is it; what is its magic; how does it work; where does it take place; who manages it; and what are its credentials?

What is Action Learning?

It is an intimate process in which people who want to get things done come together to support and help each other:

  • to clarify individual’s goals;
  • to benefit from the ideas of others in determining how to tackle obstacles;
  • and commit each other to progress towards objectives.

It is for people who come together on their own authority, whose decisions have significant consequences, and who are committed to this kind of process.

(Prospective candidates need to understand what it will be like, to have met one another, and to commit to a number of days for its meetings.)

What is its essence?

It is a way of helping people who are inspired by working with others to resolve their problems, to make use of challenge and support in equal measure, and to do things differently. It aims to draw on the personal experience and insights of other people whose fields of interest/activity are similar but different, in order to help you in your way forward. (It is on a completely different plane to a board or committee meeting.)

“It empowers you to play at a higher level.”

What happens at meetings?

Getting in the right mood (‘How do you feel to-day?’ ‘What has happened in your world since we last met?’) is the launch point for the day; then everyone has a slice of time in which to air a big issue that is bugging them and elicit the thoughts and ideas about it from the others. (Members will have given thought in advance to how they want to use their slice of time, which will include talking about how things have gone since the previous meeting of the group.)

They share their current objectives – problems or opportunities – and invite help from the knowledge and experience of the others (‘ruthlessly, compassionate with one another’); and aim to clarify thoughts and to identify plans. (And at the end of the day, they reflect in the same frame of mind on the process.)

“Support from another planet!”

How does it work?

Groups meet regularly – every several weeks (people from different organisations commonly meet every four to six weeks) – often enough to maintain the unity and commitment of the group, but not so often as to interfere with people’s jobs. ‘It is like losing an arm if one person fails to turn up.’

Where do meetings take place?

They usually meet in a relaxing space, for a day at a time, and each time in a different location – often on the premises of different members of the group (or in locations that are of common interest to the members eg a research organisation or an innovative developer, with a tour during the day.)

How is the process managed?

Someone – sometimes a member of the group – handles the organisation, prepares and/or circulates material, arranges the day’s happenings, leads the process, and articulates the plans that members have concluded, as well as the group’s decisions.

What are its credentials?

Professor Reg Revans first formulated the process in the 1940s, drawing on his experience of scientific method, and put it to use in the Coal Board, where substantial increases on productivity were attributed to it; and it found applications later in the Health Service. It has only rarely featured in academic work on management.

Lately, Growth Builder programmes (like the Judge Institute programme and the UCL/RBS programme, and others) have made use of its techniques (which could also be beneficial in incubators) – especially in terms of drawing from other people’s experience, perhaps because collaboration is increasingly valued in a disruptive world.

John Whatmore, November, 2016

 

SETsquared tops Trumps

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SETsquared tops Trumps 

The top Incubator illustrates the range of support that can be offered to young businesses.

Karen Brooks of SETsquared, a partnership of five universities centred on Bristol, recently rated ‘Global Number 1 University Business Incubator’, spoke at a recent ‘Knowledge London’ meeting of leaders of university incubators about the six programmes – at a variety of levels in the innovation pipeline and in various sectors – that SETsquared runs; and added that it was all about a mutual relationship with industry – understanding what business wants; and she commented that SETsquared had no academics on its staff.

The most striking contrast, I suggested at that meeting, between Accelerators most of which are branded ‘pop-ups’ (as c.12 week programmes) and Incubators many of which are in universities, is that the former:

  • are more involved with their businesses
  • provide more input and support,
  • have many more contacts with the business world.

But SETsquared is a leader in all of these respects.

At the Pervasive Media Studio at Wastershed, Bristol – a twelve month home to a dozen young businesses, over lunch together on a Friday everyone has to talk about their progress, about which notes are immediately circulated so that teams can meet up to learn from one another’s experience. Jim Milby, until recently a Director of Barclays Bank, who mentors at Startupbootcamp, insists on a weekly review with his team wherever he is a mentor. Paul Miller, one of the authors of Nesta’s The Startup Factories, and founder of Bethnal Green Ventures – a winner of a major grant from the Cabinet Office’s Social Enterprise Startups programme – holds a review once a week with every team in the Accelerator. At ‘Office Hours’, he asks the same questions of each team “What did you achieve last week, what will you do next week, what is stopping you; and what have you learned”.

Accelerators provide more input and support, especially in the form of mentors, notably with specific advice eg on design, potential customers, fundability etc – often in a ratio of four or five to every team. Techstars, Startupbootcamp and Wayra Lab all have around 150 mentors for each programme, (as does SETsquared,) among whom two or three are regularly attached to each team; and Seedcamp has even more.

As does SETsquared, they have many more external contacts with local practitioners, experts and entrepreneurs in businesses in the sectors in which their young businesses are involved, upon whom they can call for specific help. Moreover their leaders are often entrepreneurs themselves.

Incubators are still essentially providers of office space more than they are facilitators of business development, but it takes little (often only a canteen) to encourage their occupants, who are all on the same growth path, to draw from others’ experience and find the essential help that they often did not know they needed!

John Whatmore, November 2016

Innovation Managers visit Maker Lab

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US Innovation Managers visit a brand new Maker Lab

While Maker Labs are becoming more common in the UK, they have not attracted the same interest as this group of innovation managers showed.

The Maker Lab movement has attracted interest alongside the startup frenzy as enabling entrepreneurs to make a model or prototype very quickly – so as to be able to show it off, and to prove that it works.

The US Association of Managers of Innovation (AMI), a by-invitation network of innovation practitioners – started in 1981, brings together managers who often have to work with leaders of enduring businesses when the latters’ primary interest is in their established components. It meets twice yearly in different locations in the US – for members to wrestle with their issues and exchange experience, and to use the opportunity to visit or learn about some topical aspect of innovation. The UK seriously lacks organisations and collaborations of this kind.

At this Autumn’s meeting for example, a visit will build on the theme of the Maker Movement. “We will be joined in Ann Arbor by Will Brick, General Manager of TechShop Detroit and we will visit the TechShop on Thursday late afternoon.
TechShop is a community-based workshop and prototyping studio on a mission to democratize access to the tools of innovation. The facility is packed with cutting-edge tools, equipment, and computers loaded with design software featuring the Autodesk Design Suite. Most importantly, TechShop offers space to make, and the support and camaraderie of a community of makers.
TechShop Detroit is a unique collaboration with Ford Global Technologies and occupies 38,000 square feet adjacent to Ford’s Dearborn Product Development campus.  Ford employees enjoy access to TechShop as a reward for contributing to Ford’s Employee Patent Incentive Award program.  At TechShop, Ford employees invent alongside members of the local community. Everyone has one thing in common, they are working to bring their ideas to life! …We will tour the facility and will share the story of how this unique collaboration with Ford began and the success they’ve had since opening their doors in 2012. Read more about TechShop in Forbes.”

Facebook has apparently just spent a considerable sum to open a brand new hardware lab of state-of-the-art machinery – to provide engineers from a wide variety of the company’s teams with a place to come together to share expertise, and work quickly on projects; and to save the time that would otherwise be necessary if third parties did the prototyping and testing work. Though people think of the company as a software company, says the article in Fast Company, its long-range plans are very much tied to hardware.

Richard Feynman, scientist and author, once opined of the US National Institutes of Health that any scientist who wanted to achieve a Nobel Prize should get apprenticed to an existing Laureate; and the same probably applies in Cambridge’s MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology – home to a series of Nobel Prize Winners. If incubators and their ilk are likely to harbour some of the best prospects among young businesses, it is surprising that since the demise of UK Business Incubator, the incubator association, there is no similar set-up (like the US Association of Managers of Innovation) under which the leaders of innovation communities can meet to learn together.

John Whatmore, October 2016.

The latest twists in Accelerator programmes

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Support for startups and scaleups: the latest new twists

Six developments all designed to enhance interactions among and between the entrepreneurs in Accelerator programmes, their mentor community, VCs and relevant corporates.

FinTech in London could hardly be more topical or more relevant; and Startupbootcamp is among the most experienced of support programmes. So what is new in their latest programme? (For a description of a recent programme, see http://wp.me/p3beJt-8W)

  • They have invited one startup to be a startup-in-residence – to add to and benefit from the experience of being in the Accelerator.
  • They are running three, yes three, mentor matching days in the first four weeks of the twelve week programme. This acknowledges that match-making is a chancy business, and that as a new business evolves its needs for help evolve too.
  • They are running a social meeting for their mentor community, where an inspiring entrepreneur will share his/her story, which will also provide an opportunity for mentors to share their own experience.
  • They are holding a meeting well into the programme at which heads of innovation in this case from major financial institutions will debate how they can best work with startups – an opportunity for those present to exchange experience.
  • And they are holding regular weekly ‘Coffee Houses’ – expert gatherings for mentors to meet informally with startups to discuss their challenges in the week to come, each one focused progressively on a topic of the moment.
  • Finally, some incubators arrange a session at which a number of VCs can listen to pitches from emerging businesses so that they might keep in touch with those that interest them.

Chance meetings are well-recognised as among the best sources of support, and time is so vital to every young business that anything that can increase the chances of a good chance is valuable.

See also ‘Design you own Accelerators’ http://wp.me/p3beJt-K.

John Whatmore, October 2016.

The latest support programmes for SMEs

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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.

Incubators have been essentially providers of low cost accommodation for small businesses, but they are coming under pressure to be more active in the support of their growth and development.

The concept of the Accelerator has illustrated what can be achieved by orchestrated forms of support – at least for startups. And the recent Barclays report has suggested that some of those approaches might also be usefully applied to Scaleups, with the aim of nurturing some great businesses of the future.

New programmes for Scaleups (such as the Judge Institute’s Growth Builder programme (http://wp.me/p3beJt-fn) and the RBS/UCL Business Growth programme (http://wp.me/p3beJt-dK) have taken the form of periodic meetings for CEOs, usually monthly meetings over twelve months, and consisting of mutual discussions of their problems and opportunities, and learnings about the latest developments in the most relevant topics, such as the latest uses of social media and the latest sources of finance. The Belgian Plato programme (http://wp.me/p3beJt-dH) (widely franchised in other countries) and the Vistage programme from the US (http://wp.me/p3beJt-cb) now popular in the UK – both for cohorts of senior executives, both use a very similar format.

What is common to these programmes is:

*         the exchanging of experience

*         their regular but occasional meetings

*         their intimacy and confidentiality

*         their ability to bring together individuals with common issues or experience.

And surprisingly, their addictiveness.

Their participants are usually carefully matched – for sector, technology, markets, size or maturity.

Young businesses with high growth potential will often be found in incubators, co-working spaces and innovation centres, where it would not be difficult to set in motion programmes of this kind, which could give a major boost to their participants.

John Whatmore, October, 2016