A long-established university incubator


A long-established university-based incubator that is just now spawning off-spring

With a small residential staff, and access as needed to specialist experts locally, it offers flexible office space and provides services on the premises to small businesses with clearly viable ideas, with readily available support especially on marketing and fundability. Can it deliver support in the future to its new locations?


  • A brilliant commercialiser of research: a concept developer like no other.
  • A programe for groups of executives in SMEs who meet regularly to help one another with their major issues.

Then the spotlight is on Oxford Innovations.

Sussex Innovation Centre aims to be a centre of support for the growth of its businesses (eg. getting turn-over up from £200k to £2.5mn pa) by means of learning about their needs for support and then being able to provide what is required – or find within the area one or two people with appropriate experience.

Some businesses fail to last more than a year; others will remain for two or three years or more depending on growth potential and the scope of support required (about 20% of them go on to achieve hi-growth, with the largest of the current tenants worth some £150mn). The turn-over of occupants is about 30% pa – and there are around 15-20 new applicants for places every month. (An idea and ambition are sought, and the business needs to be something to which the Centre can add value and help it grow.)

Owned by the University of Sussex, it supports about 120 young businesses of which it is also home to around fifty, for which (together with one or two corporates) it provides: office space – of varying sizes, a small hot-desking room, a boardroom, seminar room and a café, plus advisory support and accounting services, and offices (for the almost 30 staff).

                             Its philosophy: a ‘training ground for management’

Mike Herd, its Executive Director since it was founded nineteen years ago, came from a career at Schlumberger where he was a globe-trotting leader of field development programmes; and was recruited, as he quips, on the then topical basis of  ‘getting some money out of science’. He sees the Centre’s role as that of training up management, and his philosophy was from the outset about discovering what support the businesses need and then finding it for them, which he describes as a more gentle and broad form of support than providing or attaching mentors to teams, who might then meet with them regularly. A model he quotes as having been successful is when an investor with experience in that field plays an active role in the company in which he has invested, especially so in its commercial dealings. (Many are those who offer to act as mentors, but he derides the use of ‘coaches’ because their contributions can be insufficiently closely related to the needs of the  business; and even if the entrepreneurs get good advice, he feels that they often do not have the practical [business] skills to make good use of it.)

                          A trusted adviser – with a support team and a network of experts

He sits in the café for an hour each morning for anyone who wants to come and see him – the morning I met him, he had met people from four of his businesses. “He is always interested in my challenges and opportunities”, “a trusted adviser”. “He opened and shared his network of well-connected experts”; and “he runs a cracking team with whom you can always talk” “…very good when you need help; but there are times when I don’t know what questions I ought to be asking – maybe I would like to be able to talk to someone who had faced the same dilemma as I currently do.”

He has a network of some 30 senior experts – from companies in the area, with which he has developed relationships over the years, whose most common contributions are about selling; but also filling gaps in teams’ expertise; and about turning points, such as hirings, new markets, mergers etc, and whose contributions are more casual, various and occasional.

He is supported by a small Business Support Team – of seven senior members of staff, all with practical experience in business, with expertise including investment readiness, market research, marketing and sales. They maintain close relationships with the businesses and are readily available (and highly valued) for acting as sounding boards as well as providing help; and organise events (including a number of days of intensive analysis – like reporting to the board). And there is of course ready access to the entire university research community.

‘Customer Dens’ attract a lot of interest. In these, several young businesses pitch their products or services to a panel of three or four people from their field, (eg in education: a teacher, a lecturer, someone from the education department of a local authority or from such as the Institute of Education) looking for feed-back about applications, potential users, and purchasers; and the Centre houses several businesses with expertise in applied psychology, whose work is often relevant in this context.

One member of staff, a former bank manager, leads a small Business Angels group a which includes some people who have ‘done it before’, and runs quarterly investment meetings, which help the businesses to focus on cash and to learn about funding, investor expectations and requirements, and about the various ways in which they might be funded. (The businesses in the incubator raise around £4mn of capital a year.)

And there is a finance department, which serves the accounting needs of the Centre, but also provides not only accountancy services to those of the businesses that choose to make use of them, but also helps businesses use financial information, and provides financial consultancy.

From time to time, workshops are run, about such topics as

  • aspirations and what makes a good idea
  • how to raise funds
  • employment law – with a specialist lawyer.

There is a much valued team of about ten students and recent graduates (the one to whom I spoke had a Masters in Management and Entrepreneurship) who help both resident and non-resident businesses – on a similar basis ie ascertaining what their needs are for help and then providing it, or marshalling it from elsewhere, and who are trained and mentored to deliver projects by the senior Support team. The intention is to provide businesses with a more flexible and cost-effective resource than traditional internships, while giving these ‘Catalyst’ team members the opportunity to develop a range of practical and entrepreneurial skills that will help make them more employable. Several have moved on to full-time roles at the businesses they have worked with, or are even launching their own ventures.

                                                    Expansion into new locations

Significantly in the UK’s current entrepreneurial climate, as with comparable organisations there are plans for setting up similar incubators in three different locations, one of which just opened in Croydon – where the University has established links with the nearby Croydon College. Sussex Innovation – Croydon will provide premises for around 30 local businesses, with its own dedicated Director and a team of support rotated from the Centre, together with some services provided locally. Another centre in Brighton itself is due to open in spring 2016, with three floors of accommodation, but many more of the businesses served are expected to have their own local premises; and a third – in Biotech – when rebuilding takes place on the Falmer Campus in 2017.

These plans will make for new contact points, and will mean that the Centre’s team will have to concentrate its work into a short period in each location; it will have to establish contact with local entrepreneurs to provide support – a major task; and it will bring in businesses that have no understanding of support nor of the Centre’s credibility, and will take time to establish.

John Whatmore, October 2015

Other programmes include:

Birmingham’s Science Park without walls

The essence of the burgeoning Innovation Birmingham Campus consists in the physical and virtual proximity which it offers – co-working in new dimensions, providing opportunities for co-learning and collaboration. Nov 2014 http://wp.me/p3beJt-9q

Managing support for early-stage ventures – a fast emerging role

In Silicon Valley support is everywhere, and it is increasingly immanent in London’s entrepreneurial world, with some high profile examples – promoted by a new breed of support managers. But there are other areas where it is still a distant prospect. March 2015 http://wp.me/p3beJt-ax

 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 this sort of thing? July 2015. http://wp.me/p3beJt-bh

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. (http://wp.me/p3beJt/9P)




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. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-bf)

The Business Growth Service itself needs scaling up


Undervalued and undersold, the Business Growth Service itself needs scaling up.

It has demonstrated the value of support for SMEs, but few make use of it; so why doesn’t the service concentrate in a big way on developing its market?

Innovate UK worked with the Business Growth Service to assess the value of offering to its grant winners access to this service free of charge. It showed that they benefitted substantially – in evolving their ideas and helping them in the marketing of their business, especially in filling gaps they did not know they had. The coaching, mentoring and training in entrepreneurial skills helped them to make better use of the grant, achieve higher growth and effect better communications (especially those from academia). However, it is not easy to induce young businesses to take up this offer, says Nigel Walker of Innovate UK; it is only afterwards that they appreciate just how valuable it is.

Accelerators (like Techstars, Seedcamp and Startupbootcamp), VCs (like Octopus Ventures) and the new Business Growth Fund have all highlighted the importance of mentors for early-stage businesses, providing ‘access to strategic support and advice – ideally from someone who had been there and done that and who carries the battle scars of business and has come out the other side. ’ Achieving a high rate of growth calls for support in many different areas, and those needs also evolve and change.

The bare bones of the scheme are these: the four organisations delivering this service:

  • seek out businesses with the potential for high growth
  • select those for whom this support is appropriate
  • provide an initial meeting with an adviser
  • offer from a database (not currently public) a choice of three coaches, advisers or consultants to fit the company’s specific needs
  • facilitate connection to local advisers and other local and central organisations.

The country-wide Business Growth Managers – the initial advisers (c.180) – are employed by the service, and are credible and experienced advisers, who have run their own businesses, and whose job is to reach a diagnosis about the opportunities for the business and the obstacles that it is facing – challenging thinking, identifying goals, and setting out a clear plan; and then to select three people who might work well with the company.

The coaches, advisers and consultants (c.5000) are independent, working specifically on client support and delivering the service. They provide new eyes, advice that is specific to the technical and/or industry context, introductions [eg to users, buyers, sellers etc], and strategic advice. And match-funding up to £2k is offered for leadership and management training for senior managers. One-to-one coaching and third party opinion are the aspects that are most highly valued; and a number of the beneficiaries go on to appoint non-executive directors.

The heart of the scheme is to be found in the help it has provided. Businesses that have used the service have been shown to have benefitted by notching up growth four times faster than the average SME. The highest proportion of barriers to growth are associated with Strategy and Management (53%), followed by Skills and Staff (39%) and Sales and Marketing (38%), and Finance (27%); and support has proved most effective where it has addressed strategy and sales and marketing.

The best sources of high growth SMEs must lie among those that are in Accelerators, Incubators, Science Parks, Innovation Centres and Tech Hubs, of which there are perhaps 15,000, and the service should be offered free of charge to these. In the two years to April 2014, ‘15,000 businesses engaged with the [Business Growth] service’, but the 6% of SMEs (repeatedly identified as the key source of growth in the UK) could number 300,000.

Moreover, we are seeing a geographical spreading of innovation Centres, Tech Hubs and co-working spaces, but their vital mentors, advisers and entrepreneurial communities are harder to catalyse. Coaches, advisers and consultants on the BGS’s database need to be made available online, and accessible either via Cisco’s National Virtual Incubator, or of course via Skype. What is needed is a national virtual network of business growth managers, which could be led by the BGS, to bring the service’s benefits to smaller clusters and local nodes of growth.

Is it time for Innovate UK to offer this service free of charge (or say for 1% of their equity) to all potentially hi-growth businesses?

The service needs to be run by a commercial board; it was set up by BIS and is ‘delivered’ by four organisations, but it has no commercial element to re-evaluate its strategy: when it comes to governance it lies in nomansland. What advice would it give itself?

See also:

Managing support for early-stage ventures – a fast emerging role

In Silicon Valley support is everywhere, and it is increasingly immanent in London’s entrepreneurial world, with some high profile examples – promoted by a new breed of support managers. But there are other areas where it is still a distant prospect.



Our research continues – into what makes for effective mentoring. It is clear that different issues call for different experience eg in strategy, management/team building, technical help (IT the most common), sales and marketing, finance etc. And matching personalities and learning styles is no easy task. We are currently working with about a dozen outstanding mentors and their mentees.




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? (http://wp.me/p3beJt-9e)

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 http://wp.me/p3beJt-3

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 http://wp.me/p3beJt-8r

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 http://wp.me/p3beJt-ap

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

Space Catapult driving new markets


Rolling out innovations – making use of a whole field of new opportunities
Subverting concern that in the UK we fail to exploit our technical leads, the Satellite Applications Catapult foresees a big future in space and is charting new applications for satellites and facilitating path-finding initiatives in technology, markets and finance.

Next week: Accelerating the adoption of innovations
Big changes are difficult to bring about. So far semi-public but independent bodies have been the spur behind them – with their ability to take radical approaches. Is it time for institutions and associations to take the baton?

With the rapid miniaturisation of components, the enhancement of data transmission, and the substantial decreases in the cost of launching satellites, there has opened up a starlit array of opportunities for startups to make commercial use of space satellites. InnovateUK has just launched its first technology demonstration satellite (TechDemoSat-1) – to piggy-back experimental payload and platform technology from academic and commercial organisations.

Views from space are finding new applications in city planning and inspection, agricultural productivity and natural resource management, transport navigation and management, weather forecasting and climate change, and site security, among other emerging uses.

The Satellite Applications Catapult’s main objectives are to bring different parties together to facilitate the development of the field – mainly in technology, markets and then finance.

On the Science and Technology Facilities Council site at Harwell, in addition to the Satellite Applications Catapult there are some 50 space businesses; and elsewhere there are centres of excellence in this field working in conjunction with Universities, notably in Scotland.

The Catapult is the source of information about the state of knowledge in this field, about experts – their expertise and about their needs, and about the substantial supply chain of technology providers. One of its main aims is to demonstrate what can be done. With a team of eight in business development, it is putting designers alongside entrepreneurs in creating startups; and it can bring organisations together to achieve the advances it foresees. Moreover it has the trust of its community.

The Catapult regularly hosts Hackathon-style events known as ‘Inventorthons’ – unique two-day event combining traditional technology development with an entrepreneurial spirit. Their objective is to enable groups of people to work together to solve a set of challenges derived by specific communities, organisations or individuals. They focus on using space technologies and data to identify how they can be used to benefit other markets sectors, eg. transport, healthcare, natural resources, emergency services, etc. And they are open to anyone who would like to participate – software developers, engineers, technologists, scientists, designers, artists, educators, students and entrepreneurs etc. Winners of each Hackathon are given the opportunity to work with the Catapult to develop their solution further.

The Catapult’s Co-space facility provides workspace is a vibrant, entrepreneurial environment that can be used by anyone from start-ups and small- to medium-sized enterprises to large organisations, as well as end-users and academic researchers (free till end 2015). Co-Space clients can use the facility to work together to develop new satellite-based services, technologies and applications, and also get access to valuable networking and business growth events. Where required, technical and business experts from the Catapult can offer mentoring support.

Focusing on technology, while there are two companies in the UK building nano (100Kg), notably in Scotland and Surrey, there are none building micro-satellites (between 10kg and 100kg). The Catapult has been working with InnovateUK to a programme for funds with which to build one so as to encourage existing and new companies in this field to do so.

Combating illegal, unregulated and unlimited fishing is a market that can benefit from satellite data. While there is the political will to do so, together with some funding, it is currently an extremely expensive approach. The Catapult has created a demonstrator (WatchRoom), and tested it in a delimited area – the Pitcairn Islands, and is now challenging satellite operators to change their business models and enter this field. While such operators have so far sold and managed satellites, the Catapult is encouraging them to become a service provider, and by doing so to open up a larger market for itself in this particular field.

The Accelerator ‘MassChallenge’, has selected two space startups for its first UK cohort, which will start in June and culminate four months later in ‘Demo Day’ for investors. One of them (WeatherSafe) is designed to help coffee growers to use satellite data to plant, harvest and sell their produce more effectively; and the second (Bird.i) aims to make use of under-exploited earth-observation data by making it available to the mass market.

The Catapult’s picture of Space in 2030 foresees the manufacture of advanced materials and biomedical products in space, the provision of high-level real-time global monitoring from space, benefiting finance, construction, transport and manufacturing – fostering new industries and becoming a major field of growth in our economy.

John Whatmore
June 2015

Hard-nosed sharing is the name of a new game


Hard-nosed sharing is the name of a new game
Sharing process is frequently and willingly done – especially in fast-developing fields, (this column is predicated on it); but sharing technology is a new phenomenon. Propelled by the need for speed, and by the ease with which sharing is now possible, strategies for sharing now have to be determined.

Next weeks: by exploiting collaborations, the new Digital Catapult Centre in London aims to tackle ‘obstructive problems’ whose solutions will unlock digital futures. And the Space Catapult is exploiting developments in space technology to chart new applications and facilitate path-finding initiatives.

‘To the new generation of technologists, moving projects and data fast is worth more than making everything in secret.’ ‘Technology for big computers, electric cars and micro-controllers to operate things like power tools and engines is now given away.’ The extensive sharing of once proprietary information would bring a traditional patent lawyer to tears.

‘The swapping of ideas has been commonplace for decades in software engineering. Open source projects like the Linux operating system revolutionised the Internet and tripped up companies like Sun Microsystems. Hardware was considered a tougher, more expensive business to enter until a few years ago. But now you don’t need a lot of people or a lot of capital to manufacture a prototype. PCH International, an Irish company with a development lab in San Francisco, has in the last 18 months made more than 1,000 prototypes for both big companies and small startups, producing 20-40 objects by 3D printer a day and over 50 working prototypes a week.’ And the global production of vast quantities of microchips has contributed to this facility.

Why do companies make software and hardware free? It can create competition for your opponent without spending money on a new product (as did IBM with its open source software); it can support your business by enabling suppliers to lower your costs or speed innovation (as has Facebook); it can help to develop the market for your own products, (as Tesla sought to do by giving away all the electric car company’s patents). But as Elon Musk of Tesla wrote, “Technology leadership is not defined by patents but rather by the ability to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers”.

The New York Times concludes that this does not herald a new world where everything is free and all ideas are open. “You have to figure out”, says one commentator, “where you are in business and what you want to own”. And you need to do so in a world in which collaboration is increasingly significant, as specialisation and interdependency increase.

‘Innovation without all the secrecy’, New York Times, 30 March 2015.

June 2015

What it takes to be a good mentee


What It Takes To Be A Good Mentee and what makes a successful relationship We hear a lot about the value of a mentor, but a less appreciated insight is that some people are easier to mentor than others. If you want to attract and keep great mentors, here’s how to stand out.

Next week: Hard-nosed sharing is the name of a new game

The search You may well need more than one mentor – as your business develops and your needs change. There is always the need to be able to talk things through, but there are also more specific and more ephemeral needs as your enterprise evolves (1). Look for people inside and outside your workplace – peers are an underutilised source of mentoring support, says one expert. The best way to catch a mentor is to show you know what you need.

Take the lead Good protégés take the lead in the relationship because it’s about their development. If you can be clear about your expectations – what you want and why you want it, and the time commitment, and if you can have an agenda in advance of every meeting, with a specific objective, you make it easy on people. [But: you don’t know what you don’t know, and there are times when the insights and experience of others may be just what you need: make room for them too.]

Follow through on advice If a mentor gives you a suggestion of something to try, try it [or at least test it]. If you disagree, “have a dialogue about it.” Failure to follow through can quickly sour the relationship. “If you say you’re going to do these four things and they don’t happen, the next time we talk it gets uncomfortable.” Not only will your mentor think you’re wasting their time, he or she might also think that you are not worth it.

Meet on your mentor’s terms Go to his or her office or home. Join them to fit in with their agenda. Not only will this make life easier for your mentor, but it also means he or she may be willing to meet more often. “Interaction frequency is one of the highest predictors of feeling close to someone.”

Make it a two-way street Both parties in a mentor/mentee relationship learn something from it. So be on the lookout for articles or people your mentor might find interesting. If your mentor works inside your organisation, talk him or her up in your networks. And finally, say thank you. “It’s the littlest thing, but conveying appreciation is really important.” Lots of people don’t send thank-you notes: people who do make an impression.

A bowdlerised version of a great article that appeared in Fast Company magazine by writer on management Laura Vanderkam (I just hope she doesn’t sue me!)

(1) A US Professor on the five types of mentors you need
You can’t expect one person to be able to give you all the career guidance you need. Here are the people you need on your team. By Art Markman (http://wp.me/p3beJt-am)