France’s new Incubator

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France opens a giant new Incubator Aiming to attract in the next month a thousand young ventures to its halls, France’s vast new incubator (a refurbished train depot in Paris called Station F), has just been opened by President Macron (‘preaching to the choir’ as one correspondent called his speech’). It provides all sorts of spaces for young businesses that ‘have a business prototype and a path to growth’, together with other related organisations.

Station F is the brainchild of a French billionaire from the tech startup world and his project manager, a lady with a serious background in a variety of startups – who has focused on health, finance, education, and even fashion. It is supported by France’s increasing efforts to become second only to the UK in startups in Europe; and it is backed by Facebook and Amazon.

Its young ventures still face likely problems – in attracting talent, and around French attitudes to risk. Questions hang over the incubator itself and its sheer size, and the extent of the necessary eco-system in Paris. And later in their life they face France’s tough labour laws.

In 2014 the French government started a sprawling programme to support tech, in which 13 cities were designated hi-tech hubs; and it supports the growth of French startups in dozens of foreign cities. The French government has created numerous investment vehicles and offers loans and grants to fund startups and accelerators on easy terms. France has created a special tax status for innovative new companies; and Macron has pledged to do more about exemption form wealth tax and liability to capital gains taxes. ‘While more venture capital is flowing into France, the levels still lag Britain, Germany and Israel’; but France’s angel network is only a quarter the size of the UK’s, reports the New York Times.

The rationale for housing startups in incubators is that they have great opportunities to learn from their fellow travelers, and increasingly so from those in the same field as themselves. Claimed to be the largest incubator in Europe (and more than four times the size of Imperial’s new incubator at its White City campus – just completed, which is likely to take months to fill; see link below), making Station F into an effective growth community will itself be an innovative task for those who run it (like ENTIQ – see below.)

What makes Silicon Valleys’ eco-system so effective is perhaps the intimacy of interactions between early stage ventures and those with related expertise and experience. In Accelerators (and in some UK incubators), mentor cohorts are large and their management is proactive. But they take time to set up and are difficult to manage effectively (see link below – BioHub).

Facebook set up an artificial intelligence hub in Paris several years ago to recruit talented engineers at France’s elite universities; and is now anchoring a programme in Station F called Startup Garage, which will mentor every six months 12 budding tech entrepreneurs in health, education and other fields. In exchange for coaching, Facebook will observe how the startups approach issues like privacy, and identify cutting-edge tech trends.

Despite the gross hype around the grand Station F, one French citizen is reported as commenting: ‘France can definitely become a startup nation: the potential is there’.

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See on my website: johnwhatmore.com:

 Imperial White City to house vastly more space for young businesses With four times more startups and scaleups than on its South Kensington site and on ten floors, managing collaboration among a wide spectrum of parties and across big spaces will be a new and hugely challenging task. May, 2017. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-k0)

Making science deliver: BioHub – an outstanding new Incubator BioHub has been assiduously building programmes of support and development for research based businesses.  June, 2017 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-k4)

 New support for startups and scaleups in East London ENTIQ’s new innovation centre in the old Olympic Park will be a great new signpost but the peloton needs more than that: a new network is needed to spur incubators and co-working spaces to develop support services like this one – for the growing number of young businesses. Sept, 2016. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-gu)

John Whatmore, July 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Big bets on big ideas

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Big bets on big ideas – by philanthropists ‘Problem first, tool second’ is a maxim that is common among philanthropists, but far from common in the startup world.

We celebrate the fast growing entrepreneurial culture, but too many startups are ‘noddy projects’, built on exploiting little more than convenience or alacrity; often led by people with scant knowledge or experience of management or about the sector which they aim to enter and its customers.

Many fewer are the enterprises that start by identifying major needs or opportunities and building a business to fulfil them. Among these are the Young Foundation in the UK, which has long supported social enterprises, and Village Capital in New York, which has raised funds and then used them to bring experts to bear on major world problems.

But also there are individuals who have made millions and then sought to use their wealth to attack these problems, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Do their approaches tell us anything about how we could address bigger issues and address them better?

What is common to most of them is that they aim to use the high level of their own expertise with which they have achieved their own success, and do so in wider, more beneficial fields where the returns are not necessarily financial.

Soon after Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder, and his wife began their philanthropy five years go, they partnered with a charity research organisation called Give Well, that identifies projects that ‘provide outsize human benefits for the dollars invested’, through which they gave substantial sums, inter alia to a programme for distributing mosquito nets to reduce malaria, and to a programme that gives cash directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda. More recently they have chosen to fund projects that mitigate potential global catastrophes, like an epidemic of a deadly disease, biological warfare and the dangers posed by artificial intelligence.

‘Tech people tend to be more interested in early-stage startups’, said one expert, ‘they typically support disruptive new ideas, get more involved in their giving and show a willingness to move quickly to another approach when one fails.’

Zuckerberg and his wife (who is a doctor) chose to invest funds in efforts to build basic tools to help the whole scientific community to make breakthroughs in research. A substantial sum went to create a new research institute in San Francisco – the ‘Biohub’, whose first project was to map all the cells in the body and set up a rapid strike force to tackle outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola and Zika viruses.

And they aim to advocate for more private money for this purpose, and will ‘likely take ownership stakes in for-profit companies doing promising work.’ Their multipronged approach – gifts, VC investments in businesses with social missions, and policy advocacy is described as ‘giving them maximum flexibility’.

Pierre Omidyar , founder of the eBay online auction and retail site, was an early pioneer of this concept. His philanthropic organisation focused on efforts to bring financial services to underserved populations. It financed a non-profit that makes microloans in Africa, Asia and Haiti; and it has invested in a peer-to-peer lender and in a company that provides insurance to low-income people in emerging markets. He participates in an advocacy group that partners with governments and others to encourage the distribution of money digitally instead of through cash handouts. ‘We have a motto here: problem first, tool second’, said the managing partner of his Foundation – an approach ‘widely adopted by the region’s philanthropists’.

The Omidyar Foundation which focuses on early-stage projects, also takes board seats and provides networking opportunities and training to the organisations it finances. ‘Half of the organisations report that our non-monetary assistance is as valuable as our monetary assistance’, says the managing partner.

Measuring success ‘is a bit of a fool’s errand’, he has said; but proactive, they are. At all events, principles like that of focusing on underfunded yet highly effective charities seem to remain paramount. So far we have rarely seen comparable individuals or organisations in the for-profit field.

Source: New York Times, 8.11.2016

John Whatmore, January, 2017

Innovation Managers visit Maker Lab

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US Innovation Managers visit a brand new Maker Lab

While Maker Labs are becoming more common in the UK, they have not attracted the same interest as this group of innovation managers showed.

The Maker Lab movement has attracted interest alongside the startup frenzy as enabling entrepreneurs to make a model or prototype very quickly – so as to be able to show it off, and to prove that it works.

The US Association of Managers of Innovation (AMI), a by-invitation network of innovation practitioners – started in 1981, brings together managers who often have to work with leaders of enduring businesses when the latters’ primary interest is in their established components. It meets twice yearly in different locations in the US – for members to wrestle with their issues and exchange experience, and to use the opportunity to visit or learn about some topical aspect of innovation. The UK seriously lacks organisations and collaborations of this kind.

At this Autumn’s meeting for example, a visit will build on the theme of the Maker Movement. “We will be joined in Ann Arbor by Will Brick, General Manager of TechShop Detroit and we will visit the TechShop on Thursday late afternoon.
TechShop is a community-based workshop and prototyping studio on a mission to democratize access to the tools of innovation. The facility is packed with cutting-edge tools, equipment, and computers loaded with design software featuring the Autodesk Design Suite. Most importantly, TechShop offers space to make, and the support and camaraderie of a community of makers.
TechShop Detroit is a unique collaboration with Ford Global Technologies and occupies 38,000 square feet adjacent to Ford’s Dearborn Product Development campus.  Ford employees enjoy access to TechShop as a reward for contributing to Ford’s Employee Patent Incentive Award program.  At TechShop, Ford employees invent alongside members of the local community. Everyone has one thing in common, they are working to bring their ideas to life! …We will tour the facility and will share the story of how this unique collaboration with Ford began and the success they’ve had since opening their doors in 2012. Read more about TechShop in Forbes.”

Facebook has apparently just spent a considerable sum to open a brand new hardware lab of state-of-the-art machinery – to provide engineers from a wide variety of the company’s teams with a place to come together to share expertise, and work quickly on projects; and to save the time that would otherwise be necessary if third parties did the prototyping and testing work. Though people think of the company as a software company, says the article in Fast Company, its long-range plans are very much tied to hardware.

Richard Feynman, scientist and author, once opined of the US National Institutes of Health that any scientist who wanted to achieve a Nobel Prize should get apprenticed to an existing Laureate; and the same probably applies in Cambridge’s MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology – home to a series of Nobel Prize Winners. If incubators and their ilk are likely to harbour some of the best prospects among young businesses, it is surprising that since the demise of UK Business Incubator, the incubator association, there is no similar set-up (like the US Association of Managers of Innovation) under which the leaders of innovation communities can meet to learn together.

John Whatmore, October 2016.

Co-working spaces in Silicon Valley

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Co-working spaces are designed to promote change and action in Silicon Valley’s megaliths

Silicon Valley’s megaliths are passionate about change and about providing working environments that will echo their mission – to challenge the present and to develop the future. Nothing is exempt: projects, teams, spaces, furnishings, messages, are all designed to provide relentless pressure to try something new. 

Co-working spaces are one of the distinguishing features of to-day’s new-fangled Accelerators (short periods of intensive development for a limited number of carefully chosen small teams working alongside one another, aiming to develop an idea for a new business into a marketable proposition with the support of facilitators and an army of mentors). In imitation of Silicon Valley, London has been seeing a wave of new such spaces in the last two years. So what do the new buildings of Facebook, Twitter and Google have to tell us about the design of these spaces?*

Change is seen as high technology’s most valuable commodity. The cubicle has given way to the long tables and broad whiteboards of open-plan offices, where everyone taps into a common Wi-fi signal. Office teams grow or shrink in these open rooms, moving work and information as quickly as possible.

Facebooks’ headquarters encloses a pedestrian square and a two-way promenade. The complex has a cup-cake store and a barbeque joint, a wood working shop, a print shop and an arcade. It also includes two cafeterias, several special food shops, and three small restaurants, and shortly a noodle shop. Everything is free or subsidised.

Facebooks’ unofficial slogan is “hack”, which has come to mean remaking something with an amateur’s passionate disregard for the usual rules. Their Hackathons are efforts to keep experimenting, to try something new before some scrappy start-up does so.

There are posters everywhere, that exhort change, hacking and fearlessness – like ‘Taking risks give me energy’ and ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ Facebook moves around as many as 1,000 out of its 6,000 employees every month, re-assigning them to new short-term projects. Walkways double as spaces for ambulatory meetings, held on the go so that they are short and decisive.

The print and wood working shops are intended to keep employees grounded in offline experiences, including personal projects and the printing of many of the wall posters, which the company hopes will help them create more consumer-friendly software. Bike repair shops, along with a bank and the free food, help keep people close to campus.

Couches in the casual areas are often replaced with no advance warning, and design changes to Facebook’s home page are known as ‘moving the furniture around’, something that initially annoys consumers but pays off over the long haul – people get used to change when change is expected.

At Twitter’s headquarters, irregular soft cubes serve as impromptu meeting areas – the company encourages informal meetings in this low-stress setting, hoping that it will help foster new ideas. Back in the business areas, there are open-plan work spaces, along with individual file cabinets on rollers that can be moved to wherever an employee will next be working. Here there is a sense that nothing is permanent, that any product can be dislodged from greatness by something newer. It’s the aesthetic of disruption: we must all change, all the time.

Information sharing has become the hallmark of Silicon Valley companies, particularly when things are going well. It is another way of fostering the idea, borne in the programming world, that hidden data is actually more valuable when shared.

Google’s new headquarters has its dinosaur and cupcake sculptures and multi-coloured bicycles for intracampus transport. But what seems like whimsy is a result of careful, data-driven decision-making. A team-leader in Google’s Real Estate Department cites studies of ‘biophilia’ – love of nature and its effects on easing stress levels. He is after the Holy Grail of the Knowledge Industry – ‘how to measure productivity, which is not just how quickly you type or how well you make a line of code, but how you feel about it, and whether you had enough energy to play with your kids when you got home’.

Google Real Estate is more lab that furniture department: it tests chairs in order to provide each person with the correct chair; it tests desks, lighting systems, heating systems etc. It has ripped out ceilings and installed skylights in order to provide more natural lighting; and it provides ‘nap pods’ where people can catch a few winks in enclosed silence, with noise reducing cushions. ‘The harder we work the more important it is to have to space to get away from the chaos for a while’.

*Adapted from the `International New York Times’ 3 March 2014