Mentoring: great benefits, but considerable problems


Mentoring: great benefits, but considerable problems
The benefits and the problems are well recognised. Several different routes are evolving, and four distinct approaches to the managing of mentors have different benefits and different problems.

Among the benefits that mentors are recognised as offering are their contributions from personal experience, their specific knowledge and expertise, and the contacts they can bring about. Among complaints about mentoring are their uncertain availability, the fact that they may offer conflicting advice, and their potential for incompatibility. Above all, confidence and trust are quintessential factors in the equation. Entrepreneurs are on an express train and they don’t want to be held up by being mis-routed down branch lines.

The managing of mentors has been seen as no more than simply putting them in touch with potential mentees. As yet there have been no serious attempts to manage cohorts of mentors in order to overcome the problems mentioned above, though Startupbootcamp has set great store by the quality of its mentoring; Seedcamp and Techstars great store by their ability to find you just the expert you need; Healthbox has set out to offer advice to startups about making effective use of mentors; Wayra Lab encourages its teams to form non-executive boards; and startup eRipple is seeking to facilitate and enhance the matching process.

What kind of mentoring regime do you espouse? There are at least four different approaches, each with different benefits and different disadvantages:
The reactive: if an incubatee wants some specific help, a mentor with the appropriate expertise can be found. This depends on the incubatee’s inclination to use mentors, on his/her perception of needs for help, as well as on the effectiveness of the linking process. (Bethnal Green Ventures, Bathtub 2)
The proactive: helps incubatees to identify the kind of help they need from moment to moment and can wheel up a mentor appropriate to that need. This approach adds in the expertise of the regular supervisory facilitator – to help identify the often rapidly changing mentoring needs of inexperienced entrepreneurs, but it depends on being able to wheel up not just the right expert, but just the right mentor for this team. (Techstars, Seedcamp)
The mentor programme: a regular programme of mentor visits, each with a different expertise. Useful for those incubatees who happen to need that kind of help at that very moment. (Canary Wharf’s Level39)
The mentor attachment: where a single mentor is attached to each incubatee/team for a duration. More a coach than a mentor, there will be few people who can provide effectively for all of the rapidly changing needs of entrepreneurial teams eg for experience, expertise and contacts. (Birmingham Innovation Campus, BioCity, Wayra Lab – encourages its teams to form non-executive boards; but how are they managed?)

With eRipple I am working with a number of mentees to understand how effective was the mentoring that they experienced and what made it so.

(1) ‘Getting advice in early-stage ventures’ describes the different sources of support and advice that entrepreneurs find valuable – in Accelerators.
(2) ‘I am a fly-on-the-wall at an Accelerator’s Mentor Day’ includes descriptions of different roles that Mentors play.

John Whatmore
December 2014


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?
While Accelerators have been ‘big news’, they have tended to focus on apps or websites. But initiatives are afoot to focus them onto bigger issues. As twelve-week curated programmes of intensive development for a dozen carefully selected startups – with a lot of support from mentors, Accelerators have spread rapidly and attracted a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs with ideas for new businesses, though many of them have been no more than new apps or websites. Now attempts are afoot to focus the interest of aspiring entrepreneurs onto bigger problems and opportunities. The first two below – Cambridge’s Open Innovation Forum and Harvard’s Healthcare Challenge – are essentially introductions to emerging opportunities for new businesses; the next three – BioCity’s new Accelerator, FinTech Accelerators and Village Capital – are about tackling bigger issues – a longer pathway. All are providing the links between talent, knowledge and experience that are the essence of clusters.
If you are interested in this and would like to be put in touch with others who have similar interests, e-mail me at

A group of corporates in the food industry in Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing’s Open Innovation Forum, is about to run its third event (…/open-innovation-practitioner-forum/‎) – a veritable market place for serious entrepreneurs with adaptable technologies – at which pitches are invited for propositions for new products – from SMEs, B2B companies, startups, entrepreneurs or university-based researchers and organisations. Among innovation needs listed on this occasion are for sustainable packaging, reclosing systems for metal cans, sugar reduction solutions and anti-counterfeit technology.
Harvard Business School together with the Harvard Medical Centre has announced the Harvard Healthcare Challenge whose aim (see is to find healthcare innovations that will disseminate faster – a recognition of the need for speed in healthcare developments – innovations that are credible, can show demonstrated evidence of their value; have a compelling dissemination plan; and are at the cusp of scaling. Finalists will gain access to 150 senior health care leaders at an invitation-only conference where they will discuss their scale-up plans and have an opportunity for one-on-one discussions with health care leaders at networking events.
With support from Nottingham City Council, BioCity ( is breaking new ground in creating an Accelerator whose projects are generated by identifying and bringing together a technology, an articulated unmet need, a key user/expert insight and/or an entrepreneur – of each of which ‘there are many, but mostly found in isolation’. It starts with a series of themed events, of which two such have been ‘wearable technologies’ and ‘the gamification of healthcare’. It then offers a series of one-to-many events and ad hoc coaching to test the viability of early-stage ideas through a process of customer discovery and evidence based business model design. This is followed by a rolling 3-month Accelerator programme with intensive coaching to help opportunities build their business and, if necessary develop an investment proposition.
In a tough but dramatic call, consortia of banks have recently sponsored three Accelerators for SMEs in the financial services sector. Accenture’s two FinTech London Labs ( at Canary Wharf’s Level39 and Startupbootcamp’s FinTech ( at the Rainmaking Loft have brought SMEs together from all over the world with the aim of creating new products which will be of interest to the banks, who are seeing their market attacked by the arrival of mobile payments systems that leave them out of account.
Village Capital (, a US-based charity brings aid and innovation together: it has sought to put the achievement of social objectives as the over-riding determinant of the various processes of innovation in which it invests its aid funds. Projects tend to start with a vision – a vision of how things might be, and then move on to issues about how realistic and how realisable such a vision might be. It then looks for entrepreneurial talent in people who are already working in the field in question who are likely to be acquainted with the problems and the people concerned. Village Capital has sought to have funds readily available – on an unconditional basis – for its 12-week programmes, each of 10-15 teams with different but relateable issues.
Innovationeering of this kind may be riskier, take longer, and be more expensive, as is suggested by the Royal College of Art’s 2-year Accelerator programme ( which is confined to projects which involve engineering or design: its teams do not always endure, and it is financially difficult to maintain.
But clusters are not necessarily closely located, though they do all have points of intensive interaction: of experience – as in the fortnightly races of Formula 1; of knowledge – as at universities and related industries; and of talent – as in commutable regions. But they are not simply about connectivity, but collaboration – bringing people with different backgrounds to work together to create something new – what conductors, impresarios and directors do in the arts (as at the National Theatre’s Studio, where we hope to hold a small workshop in the near future – see below (1)).
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in partnership with the Shell Foundation has been exploring methods to transform the markets surrounding an innovation – a significantly more all-embracing task –
which I will follow with interest.

(1)The NT Studio brings together writers, designers, performers and directors for short periods in the hope that they will spark off one another (see
(We are planning to hold a small workshop there in the near future – for incubator leaders and leading mentors to see this ‘sparking off one another’ in action. If you are interested, e-mail me.)

John Whatmore
October 2014

A Workshop on Accelerators and Incubators in BioScience


BioCity’s new model Accelerator is one of several new-style initiatives in collaborative enterprise to be presented at the Workshop to be held at BioCity, Newhouse, Lanark on 9 October.

These initiatives vary in duration, in their focus, and in their themes, but all of them aim to provide intensive support so as to enhance the development process of early-stage ventures.

To register, go to

Incubation in Science and Technology
Thursday 9 October, BioCity, Newhouse, Lanark

8.30 Register
9.00 Chairman’s introduction
9.20 Who are we, and what do we want to get out of to-day.
10.00 Successful crafters of development programmes, Accelerace, Denmark, on the essentials.
11.00 Coffee
11.30 John Whatmore, the Centre for Leadership in Creativity chairs
a panel of experts discussing their initiatives:
* Entrepreneurial-Spark/the Saltire Foundation
* IDEASpace, Abertay, and the National Virtual Incubator
* Healthbox, London and Chicago
* Scottish Enterprise
* Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst
12.15Toby Reid on BioCity’s new form of the Accelerator concept
1.15 Buffet lunch
2.15 Crafting ‘Hatcheries’ Discussions in break-out groups: your experience, your problems,
your plans and progress.
3.15 Tea
3.30 Discussions continue.
4.15 Plenary session: groups report on their discussions.
4.45 What is the Future of Innovation Communities in Science and Technology:
Dr David Hardman MBE, CEO UK Science Parks Association.
5.30 Finish.

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.’ 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

* 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.
* ‘Focusing Intensive Development programmes onto issues of strategic importance’, June 2013 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.
* ‘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.
* ‘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

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




Innovation: three new directions


* The latest of to-day’s co-working spaces take the Incubator to new dimensions (item 1 below).


* Experiments in longitudinal innovation in Nottingham add a Bootcamp to an Accelerator to an Incubator – in three different fields (item 2 below).


* The Cabinet Office’s three-year contracts to run Accelerators for social enterprises bring Accelerators in that field up to the scale of those of leading corporate innovators (item 3 below).

* And more below.


Applied Creativity

Briefings from

John Whatmore at

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity

May 2013


Join the discussions at



The latest co-working spaces: what makes them work?

Never has co-working been more popular: new style facilities are taking the incubator to new dimensions: they provide spaces, support and inspiration for the many aspiring entrepreneurs who are frantically seeking to fill emerging niches in a fast-changing world. (

 Join a Seminar at London South Bank University on 21 May about

        ‘Business Incubation and Universities: the latest trends’, where I shall

       be talking about Accelerators and their impact on innovation in academia.



Three different Nottingham Incubators to run snappy Bootcamps

Three-day Bootcamps to kick off Accelerators – one in IT, another in Cleantech and the third in Life Sciences will aim to help participants to develop their ideas for a business into a fundable proposal that might enable them to take space in an Incubator for developing their business.


       I shall be holding a Workshop for a small number of Leaders of

        Accelerators – to exchange experience (under Chatham House Rules)

       about  problems and opportunities – on Tuesday 9 July in Central London.

       If you would like to be a participant, please make contact with me now.

See also ‘Mini Accelerators go global. Tasters but all just a bit different’

(; EntrepreneurFirst, with its preliminaries to its Accelerator (; and Biocity – an incubator in Life Sciences in Nottingham ( See sequel Wednesday 15 May ‘Accelerators getting more choosy and more targeted’ at


In a Cabinet Office initiative, a charitable foundation collaborates with a major Corporate Accelerator in the development of social enterprises

One of the winners of a £10mn Cabinet Office initiative to support the next generation of social ventures, UnLtd, which has had considerable experience through its Big Venture Challenge of incubating such ventures, is collaborating with Telefonica’s Wayra Lab, which has the most experience of Accelerators of any corporate in the world, to work together to start up and grow new businesses to meet social needs. (

See also Bethnal Green Ventures, an Accelerator in social enterprises ( and The Young Foundation – with its programmes of support for SMEs in social enterprise (


The Royal College of Art’s Incubator wrestles with its own development         InnovationRCA, the RCA’s incubator, has ploughed a leading furrow among higher education establishments; and is contending with the issues that are raised by an incubator programme that runs in parallel to its academic programme, (which is a post-graduate programme), and that is also a part of the educational process. (

Business Learning in development programmes 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. ( 


Financing start-ups: some current hiccoughs

* How do you structure funding for projects with very uncertain prospects?

* Early-stage investors not taking a long enough perspective?

* How do you manage the processes of funding more effectively?

* Grants as an alternative; but they have their strings.

* What is the logic of some recent very fancy prices for IT start-ups

(Instagram, Summly)



A Crowdfunding Platform for Emerging Social Entrepreneurs

A new crowdfunding initiative is set to help emerging social entrepreneurs quickly attract seed capital, build a supporter base and raise the profile of their social ventures internationally. (


The Centre for Leadership in Creativity (a ‘virus for creativity’) carries out research and provides con-

sultancy and peer-to-peer learning for organisations looking to enhance their creativity and innovation.


Copyright John Whatmore 2013

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity       138 Iffley Road,London W6 OPE           

Tel: 020 8748 2553                                                 E-mail: