Accelerators getting more choosy and more targeted


Accelerators attract quantities of applicants, a number of whom have ideas for new businesses that are very evidently non-starters, some even barmy; many have ideas of limited scope, some of whom present poorly. A few have an immediate appeal as really disruptive, or as having an innovative approach to a big issue, though not necessarily demonstrating outstanding entrepreneurial qualities. How are selection processes trying to deal with these issues?


  Accelerator Academy originally opted for a computer-based test for applicants (about entrepreneurial potential) together with application form and interview; but it now relies more on having two of its staff hold Skype-based interviews  with candidates that aim to explore how well the programme suits the candidate and vice versa.

Imperial Innovations’ student Accelerator has adopted a two-stage application process, the first of which is simply a single line pitch and 500 character description, designed to force applicants to think concisely about the problem being solved and who are the potential users. Workshops once or twice a week during the following two months on various topics including funding sources, legal, and perfecting the pitch, and next year also time to work on their products (technical or business aspect) help the students to focus on each area of their business (value, customer relationship, cost structure etc). And then students are invited to complete a more in depth application based around their learnings and using the business model canvas as a framework. Finally the top 20 are invited to semi-final pitches and 5 go through to pitch for funding and intensive mentorship.

Newcastle’s Science City incubator is currently planning to hold sessions at which experts in the field in question talk about topical problems that are ripe for solution – in an attempt to get candidates to tackle issues of significance.

      Bethnal Green Ventures has cast a wider net: regional meetings have been canvassed; and candidates are invited to meet and talk about themselves and their work. Some assessment can then be made of those who later make formal applications about their progress and their entrepreneurial capabilities as well of course as their project.

Biocity in Nottingham runs three-day Bootcamps for aspiring entrepreneurs to develop their ideas for new businesses – that might find a place in the Biocity Incubator, the Nottingham Cleantech Centre and Antenna – two other specialist incubators in Nottingham.

The Royal College of Art’s incubator consciously takes candidates who have identified issues that entail significant engineering or IT Development. Oxford’s Said Business School has provided an opportunity for people to identify commercialisable opportunities from among a portfolio of IP from the European Space Agency and from CERN, in the hope that some of those people will choose to work together, perhaps taking space in Harwell’s Science Park, to develop a business of the IP.

The latest Wayra Lab cohort of 16 were invited, along with as many other candidates, to Wayra Week, where they were helped to identify the special focus of their proposed business and to learn how best to pitch it; and where at the end of the week they made their submissions to the seven assessors.

The 16 who won places in the Accelerator started off with a week’s Bootcamp – of instruction in essential aspects of business, and surgeries with experts. The week included a pitching session with mentors, at which each new team hade 2 minutes to pitch to the hundred or so mentors present and each mentor had 45 seconds to pitch to the teams, after which they were left to make their own contacts. It is the quality of the contacts that seems to be the most valued aspects of Wayra Lab.

Like other Accelerators EntrepreneurFirst (which is sponsored by several leading corporates) whittles its c600 applicants down – to 35 – by a three-stage selection process. But EntrepreneurFirst has adopted a year-long programme of periodic development and support for its potential entrepreneurs prior to its 6-month progamme.

Over the course of the summer, they have participated in team building selection and development days, including a 2-day session in which three teams of 5 had to make a 3-minute film on a theme around the Year 2022, and then get as many people as possible to view it – all in two days. Two months later, when in early August their university exams were over, they had a fortnight’s residential bootcamp, where they received training and support from entrepreneur mentors on how to build a lean startup. This also required them to test their early startup ideas with customers – a task designed to help understand product communications and the difficulty of getting heard!

At the end of  the programme that starts in September, while some teams will pitch to potential funders for ongoing support, others will be helped to find different roles in some of the more successful teams.


So who will fund an extended process of this kind?  If the Knowledge Transfer Networks were to take up the challenge of encouraging Accelerators on behalf of their different sectors, they might find that the benefits were worth the cost of providing support of this kind. The TSB has already identified areas associated with social or economic need where emerging technologies are likely to be able to contribute; and has run competitions for significant grants. Perhaps in addition, it should fund Accelerators in each such area.


Copyright 2013

John Whatmore                                                                                             May 2013

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity





Business Learning to become more personalised


Business Learning in Accelerators and their ilk will become increasingly personalised

Business learning provisions are increasingly migrating to online, and for very good reasons; so business learning and business development programmes will need to include learning coaches/mentors.

With the rise of the net, learning is being transformed: the President of MIT said when he spoke recently at Davos that his institution had started putting courses online a decade ago, and that MIT open coursework has accumulated 100 million individual learners, and this is increasing by one million a month. Stanford has been following suit.

A number of Accelerators give over a regular fixed time to learning – about business, usually consisting of lectures, presentations and discussions with experts, and about key topics such as IP, marketing and finance (among them Bethnal Green Ventures, Accelerator Academy, Entrepreneurfirst and the Young Foundation). Accelerator programmes, as short periods of intensive development for up to a dozen small groups of people who have ideas for innovations  (commercial, technical or social), have such an intensity that the participants focus strongly on the present needs of their developing venture. A standard syllabus (delivered in sessions of this kind) is increasingly seen as wasteful of valuable time – by those who already know or can do what they need to, and by those for whom it is not immediately relevant.

Learning from each other is another characteristic feature of co-working environments like Accelerators; and learning from each other’s learning experiences is part of that, and at least as important a source of learning as any other in this field. Every Friday, Watershed, Bristol invites its participants to meet and talk about their recent learnings; and an edited version is then put up on the intranet (

We can expect general business learning sessions to be replaced by the Learning Coach/Mentor ( – among other specialist mentors,) who will keep in close contact with the evolving learning needs of programme participants, and perhaps on hand by Skype, helping individuals to make effective use of material that is readily available on the internet and relevant to their issues of the moment; and helping them to learn from each other’s learning. The special value of such a person is that in an Accelerator, the help that participants need is in meeting their immediate learning needs – as those change from day to day.





An economically priced, part-time Accelerator; and Accelerator Academy has more plans


A small scale but significant presence in incubation, White Horse Capital plans to extend its initial accelerator for aspiring entrepreneurs on the ‘escalator of growth’:

* by supporting the conversations that precede commitment to entrepreneurship,

* by supporting the formation of teams and the adoption by them of issues that will generate hi-growth businesses,

* and by supporting them in their later growth phases.

Most investors in early-stage ventures find themselves moving inexorably up the escalator of growth, gradually seeking to invest in more mature ventures because they have a more visible record and because the returns look better, leaving the earlier stages open for newcomers, speculators and subsidies.  White Horse Capital is a venture capital company that has opened its hand by running a fixed-price, part-time Accelerator for hi-growth businesses in Tech, Media and Telecoms.

The Accelerator Academy programme consists of a 3-hour session one evening per week, and a 2-hour session every other week for 12 weeks. Each week’s Monday 6-9 pm session starts with a speaker on a topic that is very closely relevant to the development of every early-stage venture eg sales/financing etc – followed by Q & A; and the second session is for groups of 3 or 4 entrepreneurs, to develop worked examples about that problem as it applies to each of their businesses. In the final part of the session they are required to articulate an assignment for themselves  which they will present to their mentor, whom they meet once a week. In addition, there is a Clinic at 4-6 pm every other Tuesday, at which the participants bring to the six mentors a current issue with which they are wrestling.

The cost of this programme is £600 per business (ie approx £50 per session) together with a small share option for their mentor and for the Accelerator Academy.

While the applicants for the first three ‘semesters’ have included some who have been in employment and thus not focused whole time on the development of their venture, all of the participants on the fourth semester, just beginning, are self-funded and so fully dedicated to their venture. This represents a move to focus on first year startups that are up and running, not just aspiring entrepreneurs with an idea.

The six mentors (for each semester) are tied closely in to the participants and their businesses: they are committed to give 70 hours of their time to the task (ie about a half day per week, each mentoring two businesses); and they receive an option in each – of between 1½ and 2½% depending on whether the business is in revenue or not; and some invest in businesses during or at the end of the programme – as occasionally does White Horse Capital. (The Accelerator Academy has a panel of 12 mentors, all of whom are exited entrepreneurs and have ‘done it before’, six of whom work with alternate semesters (of which there are three a year).

The Accelerator Academy still uses an electronically based selection programme, but is finding that it broadly matches up with intuitive judgments about appropriate candidates (the mentors all participate in the selection process.) The Academy has received 100-150 applicants for each semester, from whom about 30 are selected for interview by Skype, from whom 15 are selected to fill the 10-12 places on each semester.

The Accelerator Academy is looking to extend its range along the escalator growth (in the footsteps of Biocity in Nottingham          ) – by forming relationships with sources of potential entrepreneurs, such as pre-seed programmes, hackathons and bootcamps, by providing coaching via trade and professional bodies, and by running earlier-stage programmes: a half-day programme for introductions, a 2-day intensive Accelerator Bootcamp – for ideation and team creation, a three-month coaching programme – for validating ideas; and then post-accelerator support for early-stage hi-growth investment, and ultimately White Horse Capital’s Accelerator investment Fund. By these means it hopes to raise the quality of its candidates and strengthen its post-programme support and funding capabilities.

Its results are encouraging: Semester 1 included one business that subsequently was absorbed into Groupon, but all those looking for investment have found on-going funding. About 60% of Semester 2 (which finished about four months ago) have received or are on course to obtain ongoing funding, and already a third of Semester 3 (which finished about a month ago) have raised equity. The Accelerator Academy is seeking to ensure that it does not lose participants mid-programme, and like other programmes that they manage to raise on-going funding, and that they turn into hi-growth companies that create long term shareholder value.