‘Supporters’ becoming more integral to Accelerators


Advisors, Speakers, Mentors and other specialists are getting more and more involved in Accelerators; but generalists, polymaths or iconoclasts should not be excluded

Discussions at the Accelerator Exchange Forum that we held recently in London showed how ‘supporters’ were becoming increasingly involved in Accelerators (see http://wp.me/p3beJt-5W), so it was no great surprise to read in a recent e-mail how Wayra Lab was defining these different roles.

“The role of the Board Advisor is to act as in an advisory capacity for a specific team or project. We ask Board Advisors to be active participants in the acceleration of the specific team; being available on an ad-hoc basis, attending Board Meetings and facilitating network opportunities.

The role of the Masterclass Speaker is to provide inspiration, expert knowledge and opinion on a specific subject matter.

The role of the Mentor is to be available to act as a sounding board for the start-ups, pitches and new ideas.

The role of the Surgery Mentor will be to run at least one half-day open surgery per year on a specific theme/topic to which the project teams can book face-to-face consultations.”

Among the most popular speakers are those who tell the story of their adventure in their own early-stage business – whether it was a miserable disaster or a grand success.

The analysis above omits one role that is capable of lifting the whole process, of breaking the mould, of creating genuinely disruptive innovations: that of presenting ways of looking at similar problems in different contexts, epitomised in EPSRC’s Sandpits – by sessions with poets, ethicists, IT experts et al, but also for example by people who simply work in different fields such as theatre, sport or art (‘Ideas via Intermediaries’ is a collection of nineteen brief stories about breakthroughs of this kind – available on request).

Moreover, some would say that there are several different roles for mentors: one is to provide regular ‘supervisions’; another is to act as confidante; a third is to be available for his/her particular knowledge and skills; and the fourth is to be able to provide contacts and introductions. And different roles have different places in the course of Accelerator programmes as the business concept reaches different stages of evolution.

Another correspondent tells me that he became concerned that as a mentor he was simply being used by a certain Accelerator. There clearly has to be some give-and-take, and the ‘take’ must consist of opportunities to invest (or for paid work/ advice).

So it also comes as no surprise that providing just the right support from moment to moment to entrepreneurs with their ever-changing needs is a sophisticated management role: detecting their needs and organising to meet them is like tending the growth of a very fragile plant.

Jw/October 2013

Focusing Intensive Development programmes onto issues of strategic importance


In selecting candidates largely on the basis of their ideas for generating a new business, Accelerators have focused more on quick-wins than on major social, economic or cultural issues. How could aspiring entrepreneurs be encouraged to work with issues of major strategic importance? EPSRC’s week-long ‘Sandpits’ are about identifying important areas for research, and Watershed, Bristol’s Sandboxes have aimed to identify problems or opportunities and to develop ways forward. Tom Inns work with AHRC takes such issues a step further forward – by building the specification for a programme and eliciting ideas. Several individuals and several organisations have used the internet with some success to encourage people first to identify ‘good’ issues – among them IBM’s UK Laboratories. And Future Centers have tended to focus on more complex and longer term problems. What can we learn from them?


EPSRC’s Sandpits – a process for identifying important issues

For ten years, EPSRC has run ‘Sandpits’ – week-long residential workshops, as part of their Ideas Factory. The objective of these is to bring together people from different disciplines, to work on significant problems, and by breaking down barriers and building new relationships to find new approaches and solutions and identify new areas for research.

Sandpits are distinctive in that they start with relatively large groups (20-30) of scientists, who do not know each other, selected from their own submissions – to achieve  diversity in the group, and for their suitability for the process (‘arranged marriages’). They know that they will have to work on a significant ‘real world’ problem and that there is a considerable pot of funds immediately available – for those projects that will be decided upon by agreement at the end of the week.

The ethos is one of self-management, but the process is shaped by a Director, Mentors and Facilitators – leading participants through and on to an understanding of the opportunities and problems, and arriving at a Problem Statement; and thence to the formation of ideas, around which smaller groups begin to form. Finally proposals are short-listed and ranked before a final funding decision is made. Pre-work, speed-dating, site visits, games, challenges, visitors from alien fields (poets, ethicists, IT experts) are all designed to help with the process. They are run in various locations (including once at Royal Mail’s Creativity Laboratory at Rugby).

Originally designed to bring scientists out of their silos and to help them to think creatively together, the programme ‘has resulted in ambitious, innovative research without boundaries, and lasting legacies of new relationships and new ways of thinking’.

Watershed, Bristol – innovation in media and the arts

Watershed’s iShed takes aspects of the Sandpit concept and gives them a new and fuller life. It does this by:

– providing a much longer development period – of three months

– often (but not always) by extending the inter-disciplinary nature of the arena by

virtue of housing together and in the same big room a (carefully selected) number of

complimentary projects

– by providing support that is relevant to the particular moment of each and

every project

– by ‘curating’ a space and an ambience that includes happenings designed to

stimulate creativity, openness, sharing and development

– by requiring everyone to identify their learnings, which are then e-disseminated to

a wider audience.

Tom Inns and Theatres of Thinking at Dundee University

Tom tends to run big workshops eg of fifty academics, mainly in the world of academia and quasi R&D (he has run a number of workshops for AHRC), where his aim is to build future platforms, interests and collaborations.

His work is in the field of inter-disciplinary initiatives, where benefits are likely

*            to be different from those that are expected;

*        not to be expressible in terms of the discipline that originated the initiative;

*            to involve new questions, or reformulation of objectives;

*        to be in the form of capacity to respond to future events, not past ones;

*        to arise after a long time – perhaps long after the initiative has formally ended (‘Creating Value across Boundaries’, Nesta, 2010).

He talks about exploring a potential project; about building a specification for a programme; about eliciting responses and ideas about a possible project. He will often explore drivers of change and trends; and he sees the workshops he runs as themselves drivers of change; and as providing an opportunity for exchanges that would not otherwise happen eg people from different disciplines (arts and humanities), from different sectors (academics and industrialists), and around particular strategic issues that cross domains (eg climate change); and with people who are often notorious for working in silos.

Focusing innovations with the help of e-workshops

IBM’s UK Laboratories have a culture in which people work independently of one another, but they do use the net for what they call ‘jams’ – periods of time during which ideas are sought (on the intranet) – on any subject. Open for a limited period of time, they are said to capture thousands of ideas and to be used to fund sizeable innovation activity; and they are often used by very senior level managers.

Future Centers have focused on business, societal and organisational issues

The core business of Future Centers is developing innovative solutions to challenging business, societal and organisational problems – and especially solutions involving the active, intelligent cooperation of diverse stakeholders. There are more than 30 Future Centers in Europe and Asia, (of which two are in the UK: the Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab in Rugby, and BIS’s Future Focus in London) They are operating in government (in some cases they are embedded in government departments), in the private sector, and in the academic world. They deal with real issues relevant to organisations, projects and people; working in the area of economic affairs, transportation, public works, nature and environment, social affairs, education, and employment, pensions and welfare – to develop new products, services and work processes that enhance the innovation capacity of business, government and society.