Design your own accelerators – an analytical review for innovationeers

As a process for the development of new ventures what do Accelerators have to tell us about the intensive development of innovations?

Accelerators as such are characterised by having an application process that is open to all, but is usually competitive; by the provision of pre-seed investment, usually in exchange for equity; by a focus on small teams, not on individual founders; on time delimited support, with intensive mentoring; and cohorts or classes rather than individual businesses. Innovation Workshops have comparable characteristics, though dealing generally with more mature problems and opportunities.

So what are the elements with which different accelerators and innovation workshops play; and how are they put together differently for different purposes? (1)

1. Time
Accelerators of one kind or another vary in length – from a day to 13 weeks, sometimes even more or even less. The BBC’s Creativity Labs – derived from Stanford Research Institute’s practice – lasted for a week, as do the Royal Mail’s programmes, Seedcamp’s and Sandpits. Those of the Inferno in Silicon Valley are 6 weeks long; some of Watershed, Bristol’s programmes are three months long, others 12 months long; and more recently ‘Accelerators’ as such have developed around a 13-week format, in which the first month is about finding a viable idea, the second about developing and testing it, and the third about finding ways of taking it forward. Seedcamps include their winners in the Seedcamp fold for a period after ‘Pitching Day’ and Springboard is looking to have a further three months period for follow-on work together. Telefonica has opted for a 6-month period, with possible extensions. GSK runs what are more or less accelerators – of three years duration.

2. Space
To see things differently, it helps to be in a different place (and certainly out of the office.) While spaces provide a context that stimulates the imagination (eg theatres), artefacts can help to provide context (sculptor Henry Moore used to collect pebbles, twigs etc that appealed to him; staff at consultancy IDEO collect gizmos that appeal to them); and the internet can be used to provide contexts of every imaginable kind.

Accommodation specially adapted for the purpose enables up to even a dozen small teams to work both competitively and collaboratively – competing to win but also providing to the teams every opportunity to beg, borrow or steal from each other. As places where incumbents meet and talk, kitchens are an important part of the architecture.

Examples are numerous: there are some thirty Future Centers in Europe; The Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab was a model for many others, the Government’s Future Focus in London is another, as are Watershed Bristol and the Automatic at John Moores University, Liverpool. And the smaller iLabs, like that at the Universities of Essex, East Anglia and Coventry provide accommodation for a single small team to work with a variety of stimulants to help them to develop new ideas. BT’s R&D Labs have two specially adapted locations; and in Finland a public complex has been specially constructed with a variety of different spaces, that can be hired for short periods.

As an ongoing incubator that uses the accelerator format, Telefonica’s London Lab combines spaces for individual teams with various sizes of meeting rooms, together with recreational facilities. Level 39 in Canary Wharf is a combination of small spaces for start-ups, small offices for SMEs, meeting spaces – of various sizes, including large enough to hold Hackathons, and a conference space; and is thus ideal for ventures all the way from conception up to even medium size (as an Incubator.)

Google Campus in Shoreditch, The Hubs, the Tramperies, the Tubs and Central Working are other examples of co-working spaces providing various combinations of support.

3. Learning/Discovery
While many intensive development projects often include an element of general instruction (often about finance, marketing and intellectual property), almost invariably they adopt an action learning or an action research approach to learning or discovery (‘do it, reflect on how it went and share it, then try again’). The immediacy and relevance of the work makes for a powerful learning experience. Among the resources they espouse are: their own experience, those of others who are with them,
those of their mentors, and what can be obtained from elsewhere.

The cycle time may be a week, a month, or more; and the general instruction and the learning or research review are often combined into a single session – often conducted individually (as at Bethnal Green Ventures and Fintech), sometimes communally (as at YCombinator in the US and Watershed, Bristol). Problem clinics, group discussions and social meetups are also common.

Some accelerators have adopted a more formal approach to identifying and sharing learning, such as Accelerator Academy (business), Bethnal Green Ventures (social enterprise), iShed/Watershed Bristol (the arts), YCombinator and Birmingham University’s Enterprise Training programme; but for participants, general learning steals time from the development of their project. A 2-year programme called Plato, conceived in Belgium several years ago and run widely in a number of countries holds monthly evening meetings for senior people in SMEs, designed as an open source for learning and development. (Stanford University has a 5-month Intensive Entrepreneurship programme.)

4. Pressure
Pressure is evident from the outset: entry to many Accelerators is by competition, and entry to the best is regarded as a significant validator. Pressure is maintained partly through the time constraint imposed on a project or on sections of it (one hour/day/week/month), and through the ‘deadlines’ and regular sessions with mentors.

The uniqueness of the opportunity is a significant motivator; as are the potential benefits and rewards: the recognition of seeing your project chosen for its potential; the opportunity to tackle your issue with renewed determination; funding for its continued development; seeing its value enhanced (or even seeing some or all of it turned into cash); and of course the possibility that you may fail at the next hurdle – all of these create a high degree of motivation, and in turn pressure.

The effect is to force participants:
• to focus on achieving the final desired outcome
• to prioritise meticulously, and
• to work to identify and meet expectations in the desired outcome.

5. Support
In such atmospheres of close contact (and growing intimacy) support is everywhere around: from other participants, from mentors and others in the vicinity; including the process director(s). The wide and rapidly changing variety of needs for support as the project develops has led to various approaches to mentoring – from, at one extreme and only in early progammes, no provision at all (Bethnal Green Ventures), to several mentors (The Belgian Plato programme for SMEs), critiquers (Stanford Research Institute), experts in the development of similar products/ projects (BBC Watering Holes/Google/Harwell), to, at the other extreme, the provision of large numbers (EPSRC’s Sandpits – with Directors, Facilitators and Mentors,) or even very large numbers of mentors (Springboard and Seedcamps – where a useful encounter or relationship can be a matter of organised chance. At Bethnal Green Ventures mentors present what they have to offer; and the incubatees list their ‘needs’ every week.)

Support may be about identifying the need – the problem or opportunity itself (the proposal, the plan, the product), the context (the team, the business, the organisation), or about those involved (self, others etc), the developing product, its marketing and its funding. It may take all sorts of forms: feed-back, information, advice, contacts, training, recognition, emotional and physical support; and it may be conveyed in all sorts of different ways. Its essential objective is either about shaping the vision (to make it more real) or about how to achieve it (ways forward, new resources or other support.)

Realising the full potential of mentoring seems to be very difficult, if only because some Accelerators give up on it (and turn to coaches). It evidently requires a very close relationship between the supervisory facilitator (who is in regular touch with the teams and their progress) and a captain of the mentors (who is closely acquainted with the background, knowledge, experience and character of the mentors). In the early days of Accelerators, and often still, these two are the same person.

Many Accelerator programmes also provide a basic level of financial support for the duration of the programme; and some provide financial support for technical advice and mentoring.

6. Inspiration/ideas
Intermediaries (such as Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing with their Open Innovation Forum, and Nottingham’s BioCity Incubator) are identifying for potential innovators issues in particular fields that are rich, ripe, and rewarding – ready for tackling, rather than simply have individuals with bright ideas seek to build businesses based on their ideas.

With increasing frequency, potential solutions and innovations come from parallel fields and other disciplines, notable among them physics and engineering, and more recently biology and electronics. Among useful sources of inspiration are experts in remotely related fields (EPSRC’s Sandpits), visits to or from their laboratories or other comparable units, and exchanges between disciplines, (IBM’s Hursley Laboratory).

Many incubators have frequent visitors coming in to make presentations – Tech City’s ‘Campus’ in Shoreditch will have as many as a couple every evening, as well as those arranged by individual incubators on the site. Most popular are people who have ‘done it before’ and especially those among the pantheon of heroic entrepreneurs. Visionaries, inventers and reformers, even eccentrics are often invited (Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio) – in the hope that they may offer an idea that transfers, a technology that works in a different context or with a different effect, much as TRIZ does (Siemens). Experts who carry out similar (or sometimes different) operations in other fields are a source of useful ideas (eg the changing or the maintaining of conditions/objectives /standards/ processes etc) (2)

The National Theatre’s Studio invites people for ‘residencies’ and seeks to generate unexpected collaborations (exactly as do the Rolex Awards in the arts and the website Innocentive for technological problems). The National Theatre’s Studio sees a part of its role as that of a designer of experiences.

7. Focus
The uniqueness of the opportunity and the potential benefits and rewards create a high degree of motivation. Some programmes are structured so as to intensify competition, others to encourage collaboration. And they are located so as to isolate the participants from outside concerns and interactions – away from the office, and with no connections allowed to other interests (IDEO’s Deep Dives; Royal Mail’s Creativity Labs; BT’s Hothouses); and distractions are removed – board and lodging provided (EPSRC Sandpits and others). The overall aim is to generate intensive interactions with the subjects and the members of the programme.

8. Groups/teams
While ideas come to individuals, complementary pairs are common in business, and complementary teams are almost essential, some of whom may be more concerned with future delivery or growth. Most accelerator programmes work not with individuals but with small groups or teams; and most have often elaborate processes for selecting the best from large numbers of applicants.

In the field of Innovation Workshops, EPSRC’s Sandpits (of 20-30 people) invite applications from 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’); BT Laboratories forms its teams from among people who may not have been involved in the process before, by means of a computerised auction – thus relying on the leader’s skill in putting together a team appropriate to its purpose; the BBC’s Creativity Lab’s work on developing ideas for new programmes using a carefully chosen group of ‘downstream’ skills, such as producers, commissioning agents, audience research people etc; and Idea Connection Systems (US) has devised a system for profiling personality types to form groups that are appropriate for different kinds of tasks (adaptation/innovation/revolution) and for different stages of the task.

Most Accelerators seek to build cohorts mostly from similarities, but with a small number of wild cards.

If these eight elements are set out in a table, the impact of each element upon every other element can be considered in turn, either singly or in combinations. For instance; shortage of time can be the enemy of learning or discovery, but can be compensated to some extent by carefully crafted support. And if expertise (the outcome of learning and discovery) is the pre-requisite for creativity (the outcome of inspiration and ideas), this may have something to say about the timing of external contributions designed to provide inspiration.

(1) For fuller information about examples, see
(2) See ‘Ideas via Intermediaries’ – stories about the benefits of different perspectives, available from the Centre for Leadership in Creativity (see below). See also ‘Releasing Creativity: how leaders develop creative potential in their teams’ John Whatmore, Kogan Page, 1999.

Copyright John Whatmore 2014
John Whatmore (
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity, London