A new model of the Accelerator


A new model of the Accelerator – to meet the needs of particular sectors of science and technology
For Start-ups BioCity has developed a new model of the Accelerator, which is designed to focus on big issues, is of longer duration, more flexible and more systematic, though less communal, and one that does not make use of mentors.

What are the bugs in to-day’s Accelerators
Nottingham’s Life Sciences Incubator, BioCity, is alone if not unique in its field in making use of a Bootcamp and an Accelerator to select suitable candidates for its incubator. Its 3-day Bootcamp, run by a small number of people working in life sciences, started as an annual event consisting partly in learning and mostly in lots of opportunities for people to test their ideas. Its Accelerator was for people who already had a clear idea, who could then pitch for structured support for a given period (6-9 months) on a one-to-one basis with a mentor from the field of Life Sciences, who would help them to find a market, look for revenue sources and develop a business plan, along with some teaching about business.
Recognising that a considerable number of entrants to the Biocity Incubator had resulted from these approaches, Toby Reid, a Director of BioCity, has been looking critically at the present approach. Attracted to the concept of the Accelerator (classically, 12-week programmes for around ten small teams, working alongside one another but each on their own issue, with a defined regime including some business learning, with supervisory facilitators and a community of mentors, with the aim of developing a marketable proposition) – attracted perhaps by the large number of young businesses that are emerging from them, and by their popularity and rapid growth, he started to explore how the concept might be of use to BioCity.
He concluded that the objectives had to be:
• to get start-ups (and/or SMEs) to challenge substantial as opposed to trivial issues (acknowledging that the vast majority of start-ups that inhabit existing Accelerators are in IT, many of them developing apps or websites that represent small steps forward and/or are relevant to quite small groups of users.)
• to recognise that such issues do not take precisely 12 weeks (the duration of standard Accelerators) to tackle – usually a lot more, and that it is a process, and one which in most fields often takes several twists and turns as ideas evolve.
• to eliminate the haphazard and often contradictory contributions that the opinions of numerous mentors make and to become less dependent on a small number of experts. [Most prefer rather to manage the mentoring process so as to gain access to the knowledge and expertise of mentors, and to the views of customers and users, to whom they are often the best door-openers. See ‘What do participants in Accelerators value most.’ http://wp.me/p3beJt-7H and David Cohen’s Mentor Manifesto.]
And the process had to be effective, replicable and fundable.
Recognising that space in an incubator is a valuable asset but one which should be available only to those who will make productive us of it, BioCity set out to create a flexible and replicable ‘funnel’ that would ‘industrialise’ the Accelerator process – of producing economically and/or socially valuable new businesses (and/or advancing the development of existing SMEs).

How does Nottingham’s Next Business Generation differ?
Most Accelerators are only open to a full time team with a relatively well developed plan. As the number of Accelerators proliferates so the number and quality of opportunities entering each programme will likely decrease. Full time teams with well-developed plans, looking for help at a specific time in a specific location, are a relatively scarce resource.
The first differentiator of the Nottingham Next Business Generation programme is that it provides a more graduated source of support that starts at a much earlier stage in the formation of a start-up. The theory is that:
1. any business can trace its origins to one or more of 4 key elements – a technology, an articulated unmet need, a key user/expert insight or an entrepreneur,
2. each of those key elements exist in large number but also invariably in isolation,
3. to be successful you need a combination of some, it not all four, and if you can bring together those elements on a regular basis you increase the likelihood and quality of start-ups that form.
The second differentiator is that Nottingham Next Business Generation doesn’t rely on mentors opinions (and thus quality thereof) but instead actively coaches participants in the ‘evidence based’ approaches, conceived by Steve Blank amongst others, to help them discover the best model for their business.
The programme is delivered through three key areas of activity. Spark\Next Business Generation brings together the four key elements listed above on a regular basis through a series of themed events. ‘Wearable technologies’ and ‘gamification of healthcare’ have been 2 such themes to date.
Develop\Next Business Generation offers a series of 1-to-many events and ad hoc coaching to help early stage ideas test their viability through a process of customer discovery and evidence based business model design.
Launch\Next Business Generation is a rolling 3-month accelerator programme with intensive coaching to help opportunities build their business and, if necessary, investment proposition. The programme culminates in a pitch day. Those not ready to pitch after 3 months can remain on the programme for the next 3 months.
The Spark and Develop stages are free and open to all. The Launch programme selects from applicants and offers a loan of up to £10k for participation.

How did it come about; and how is it progressing
Funding for the programme came about through the Cabinet Office’s ‘City Deal’ project, under which eight core cities in England were invited to submit proposals for taking more control of their economic development: Nottingham chose fostering enterprise. BioCity was invited by Nottingham City Council to submit a proposal and this programme was accepted as part of the activity to support the city’s three main sectors – Life Sciences, CleanTech and Digital.
Alongside the programme there is also:
the Nottingham Technology Grant Fund (£10m)
the Nottingham Investment Fund (£40m VC fund managed by Foresight)
the Creative Quarter Loan Fund (£1m)
BioCity is just over 12 months into running the 2-year programme and is working with a local delivery partner in the Nottingham Clean Tech Centre and an international delivery partner in Accelerace – a Danish specialist in accelerator programmes. The activity to date has been focussed on Spark and Develop but there are now 3 successive 3-month Launch programmes running until March 2015.
Two successes have already been notched up: an organisation developing a web-based facility like WordPress for apps has raised £300k; and a startup has combined with a local manufacturer to secure £3mn of TSB money.
The evidence at this very early stage at BioCity is that this process is able to produce new businesses that are valuable. The evidence from the Danish firm – on whose format the Launch programme is based – is that their process is effective (out of 230 businesses with whom they have worked over 5 years, the survival rate is 91%).

(1) Accelerace http://www.accelerace.dk

* Village Capital, a project that first identifies important issues (for overseas aid work) and recruits participants from the relevant field to work on them. Nov 2013. http://wp.me/p3beJt-6K
* ‘Focusing Intensive Development programmes onto issues of strategic importance’, June 2013 http://wp.me/p3beJt-5A and EPSRC’s Sandpits (seeking to identify areas for initiatives in research) whose first stage is to identify issues and to form teams that might tackle them. June 2013. http://wp.me/p3beJt-5A
* ‘A cluster-based Accesserator’. Fintech Lab London aims to bring together SMEs with products that might be of use to the big banks and help them via ‘chaperones’ to meet relevant people in the banks. May 2012. http://wp.me/p3beJt-3
* ‘An Open Innovation Learning network for SMEs’. Plato is a Belgian programme, (also adopted in a number of other countries) of regular meetings for groups of SMEs that have been matched for industry, maturity etc, to enable them to exchange experience, plans and progress. May 2012.

John Whatmore
July 2014