To Accelerate or not to Accelerate: that is the question

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While it will be impossible for some time yet to prove that Accelerators are effective, the likes of Google and Microsoft are busily betting on their future.

Nothing better illustrates the dilemma that innovators face than the fact that it will be impossible for several years yet to prove the value of Accelerators – short periods of intensive development for selected cohorts of teams, working closely together, along with a host of supporters – yet it is a model being rolled out by leading companies.

Engagement, enthusiasm, funding, alumni and followers all give a rosy feeling to the Accelerator concept; and in spite of their rapid proliferation in the UK and Nesta’s admirable financial support of early adopters, Nesta’s experts are deeply cautious about its future.

Yet September saw Google announcing that it is building a network of tech entrepreneurs in seven North American Cities. A spokesperson commented that they have been incredibly impressed with the catalyzing impact that tech hubs have had – helping startups to grow, and creating jobs in local communities in the process. The aim is to ‘create a strong network, providing each hub with financial support alongside access to Google technology, platforms and mentors, and ensuring that entrepreneurs at these hubs have access to an even larger network of startups.’

September also saw Microsoft offering technology startups in the B2B, consumer and gaming sectors the chance to apply for its Accelerator programme in London. The chosen entrepreneurs will take part in a 12-week programme to help grow their businesses through mentorship, access to resources and technical assistance. The Accelerator is looking for 10-15 startups developing technologies in financial services, electronic retail and commerce, gaming, big data or enterprise software. Microsoft will not be taking any equity in the companies, but will maintain relationships with startups through an alumni programme after they “graduate” the Accelerator. During its pilot the Accelerator will be based at Central Working in Shoreditch.

Microsoft also feels that startups are suffering due to a severe skills shortage. The companies are struggling to find talented developers to work with in the UK, which is preventing business growth. This developer shortage can be blamed on the increase in B2C companies that have ventured into the software business taking the talent with them. Microsoft actively tries to solve these problems by running roundtables and workshops to introduce developers to new Microsoft technologies.

Despite the skills shortage there does not seem to be a shortage of energy in the developer ecosystem. “There’s still plenty of buzz and excitement around it.” And that is the dilemma.

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‘Village Capital’s’ different perspective on social enterprise

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US non-profit ‘Village Capital’ has a different perspective on social enterprise: objectives first, resources next

Village Capital sees capital as a resource in the service of its mission rather than as a determinant of new businesses; and puts projects and  teams together on the basis of what will best achieve the social objectives it espouses.

Village Capital (‘VC’) is a US based non-profit organisation whose business is social enterprise. Founded in 2009, it has raised $1mn, now almost all invested* – in 350 ventures through 22 programmes in 7 different countries, in what is probably best described as mission-oriented projects, as opposed to product- or business-focused projects (eg enhancing private educational facilities in Indian schools).

Concerned that the relationship between investors and entrepreneurs was too strong a determinant of the kinds of things that new enterprises could achieve, VC has sought to put the achievement of objectives as the over-riding determinant of the processes of innovation in which it invests.

Entrepreneurs cannot exist without funding – from angels or venture capital organisations, so entrepreneurs’ projects have tended to focus on the particular areas that are of interest to those funders and on the returns which they require. In practice most of these have been IT based and ‘quick wins’. VC seeks to combat this destructive relationship by sourcing its own funding, and so having funds readily available – on an unconditional basis – for the projects it chooses (though still subject to due diligence).

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.

VC describes itself as peer-driven and transparent. Investments are decided upon by investment committees made up of peers – committees whose composition reflects the project in question

(if it is about women in India, it needs to have some among its investment committee); and its members tend to look for real evidence of customer acceptability and demand. VC claims that the selection of projects by peers tends to make them less ready to invest, but to make for more successful investments.

Projects tend to be niche rather than general, and to be framed in terms of the problem in question rather than the obstacles or the specific approaches to the problem eg enabling home workers in India and the US to earn a living wage. And this means that broader approaches to the problem, like forming a consortium or bidding for contracts or grants are not excluded; and the duration of projects may be significantly longer that to-day’s accelerators.

VC spends an unusual amount of time in searching for its entrepreneurs. It looks for entrepreneurial talent in people who are already working in the field in question who are likely to be acquainted already with the problems and the people concerned; and it seeks to form the leanest possible core teams – that will not be disrupted or diverted.

Candidates are evaluated primarily on their ability to deliver solutions, and the criteria for deliverability will be different for different kinds of projects. But liquidity is of the essence – reputation and progress are vital for VC, so the mitigation of risk is also a very important consideration.

Each programme is 12 weeks long, and cohorts in each programme tend to be of 10-15 teams, and made up of teams with different but relateable issues – building the necessary community is important.

VC’s investments may take various forms including grants, loans and equity, and on returns that are appropriate to the project, which may take the form of royalties, revenue sharing, dividends or sale of equity.

What is traditionally termed mentoring often takes the form of enlisting deep expertise in the issue in question – as it is needed and as it is relevant. (The project mentioned above – in India – opened with a workshop on pedagogy led by people from Pearson – educational book publishers.)

In all aspects of its operation, Village Capital’s focus (see http://www.vilcap.com/) is on making a difference – on issues that can transform lives (like Kickboard – which aims to catalyse education reform with its web-based software that enables teachers to collect and analyze classroom data in realtime) rather than on creating businesses that will return profits to investors.

* VC is currently raising a further $15mn.

John Whatmore The Centre for Leadership in Creativity London, November 2013

http://johnwhatmore.com

Small, elite university incubator launches into new space

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Focusing on a small number of technologies that are ripe for commercialisation, and a small number of students or alumni with an interest in entrepreneurialism whose careers it seeks to advance, the Incubator of Cass University Business School has a new home which is unique in having alongside it a co-working space where students and alumni have the opportunity to be matched up with Tech City entrepreneurs.

On 21 August, Cass University’s Business School Incubator launched its new space in Tech City. ‘The Hangout’ is a start-up space for City students and alumni, providing an interactive environment where ‘talent meets tech’ ie where students and alumni from City University have the opportunity to be matched up with Tech City entrepreneurs. Sharing space with The Bakery, a small, private 8-week brand and marketing Accelerator, each has about 20 places, with a mixture of desk spaces, conversation area, small meeting rooms, a table tennis table and a kitchen area.

The founder of Cass’s Incubator, Leo Castellanos, then working for one of the big four ‘accounting’ firms, happened four years ago to be interested in some of the work of the Technology Transfer offices, and was induced to run a pilot. It had an enviable early success rate, and now the resulting Incubator has no difficulty in recruiting some twenty interns in a new programme every six months.

The Incubator has three strands: it seeks to work with a small number of technologies from its related University Technology Transfer Offices that appear to be ripe for commercialisation and so accelerate the launch of innovative products and services; it seeks to provide internships in entrepreneurship for a small number of students and alumni who have the necessary technical and commercial skills and the potential to become the managers and directors of the future; and its third strand is the provision of consultancy to high growth companies – for whom it also offers meeting space.

Every six months, the programme starts with a six-day business learning programme; and the interns are put to work on the task of commercialising specific technologies drawn from the parent universities – in the fields of journalism, informatics, design, and finance. Run by Leo, whose passion is the development of new businesses, with the help of four or five other people, and the occasional introduction of a mentor, its interns move on at the end of their time, with some 70% going into existing SMEs, and the others into their own startups.