I visit the first bioscience Accelerator in the UK


A high pressure late-stage Accelerator for young businesses in bioscience that have been carefully selected – for their progress and potential, built around meeting up with experienced advisers.

RebelBio is what it says on the can: a leading-edge bioscience Accelerator – at a moment when biology is more about discovery than it is about engineering. Located at the new Imperial College Incubator in West London is its new 90-day Accelerator for ten young businesses in bioscience, currently at the end of its fourth week.

It transferred from Cork because of the sheer quality of London’s eco-system. RebelBio’s three Bioscience Accelerators, the third in San Francisco, are one of a number of such ventures of SOSV, Sean O’Sullivan’s venture capital world. He is described as a ‘visionary entrepreneur and investor’ – since 1985, with a series of seminal new ventures in business, humanitarian and educational fields – in economic and social development; first in the US and also in Iraq, and in Ireland.

The key aspects of RebelBio are three: they trawl worldwide for young businesses in bioscience that have a solid scientific basis and are close to market; second, they provide an accelerator of very intensive pressure, heavily oriented to experienced advisers; and third, their generous offer of cash (though their recruits have to relocate to London for the programme).

Their offer is to provide to each business $100,000 of support in return for 8% of equity – $50,000 in cash and $50,000 in the form of participation in the accelerator, mentoring, legal support, lab space etc., an investment of a million dollars – in return for their 8% stake in each, and of course the opportunity for SOSV to make investments in the next round of their funding.

There were 350 applicants for this programme – from a number of countries, of whom 40 were subjected to analysis of their business based on information supplied, and then by three rounds of extensive telephone interviews, and where possible personal interviews, out of whom 10 were finally offered a place in the accelerator. Selection criteria had been based first on the team, next on the problem, then on their solution and finally on the market.

(RebelBio makes opportunities to present itself to universities all over the world in order to get itself and its programmes known, and thus encourage applicants.) Present at to-day’s pitching session (learning to pitch as an iterative process) were seven RebelBio staff with considerable experience of young businesses (upon which their business model depends)

By dint of hard grind and the pursuit of contacts, the programme has now mustered some twenty mentors – founders or leaders of successful startups, mostly in biology – willing to come in and help the participants. And RebelBio has been surprised (and delighted) at the number of funders interested in the programme.

The week’s programme starts with mentor visits (whose initial focus is the market and marketing; and will move on to funding); in mid-week, there are one-to-one meetings with staff to talk through progress, problems and plans, and a mini ‘board meeting’; all day Thursday is pitching practice; and Friday is general meetup day.

All of the participants have received previous funding, usually of several rounds. All of them presented with the help of excellent graphics; all of them have existing teams of officers and non-execs; and all showed clear time lines to full commercialisation.

One whom I met, had before joining this programme won the BioStars Prize in Oxford (presented by an anonymous donor) which consisted of £30k plus a year at the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst (which is located beside GSK’s research laboratories). Her product was a contact lens for helping with animal cataracts, which would sell to veterinary markets.

Another whom I met had come over from an Indian company. He had synthesized a sweetener that mimicked a rare fruit found only in a small area in West Africa, which had none of the damaging qualities of sugar. He was looking for international food brands (like Danone) that would want to make use of it. He told me that the mentors came and made a presentation; and you select those to whom you want talk. In the four weeks of the accelerator so far, he had met seven.

While I watched the presentations, I invented a game: how much could you tell about the product from the way its presenter felt, dressed, spoke etc. This was prompted by a lady who had a scientific button for getting you ‘into the flow’, which I had guessed was more like a cosmetic. Maybe it was!

The director of the programme likened it all to a kindergdarten – painful for the startups, he said, but diamonds are made by pressure.

John Whatmore, February 2018


A lab head and product developer


A lab head and product developer

She encouraged her students to tackle issues that could have commercial appeal as much as scientific value, and helped them to realise their commercial capabilities as well as produce great science. (Science 12 June 2015)

Jackie Ying was eager to push her already productive lab at MIT into the life sciences. Todd Zion was first attracted to her lab because of her fanatical work ethic, and her business-minded approach appealed to his nascent interest in becoming an entrepreneur – she says that every graduate student should tackle a project not only of tremendous scientific interest, but also of great commercial potential.

He was asked by Ying to see if the same technology her lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines could create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes. He spent two years trying to find a material that prevented the insulin from leaking out before he realised that the secret lay in chemically modifying the insulin itself. The discovery led to SmartCells, a company he and Ying co-founded in 2003, which was later sold to Merck for an undisclosed sum.

His business savvy drew the attention of Lita Nelsen, the longtime director of MIT’s technology licensing office because of the way he had run the company as a tight operation, and he was soon back starting another company with his former colleagues.

Ying says that roughly a quarter of her MIT students have founded companies or gone to work for a startup, but she has chosen not to take that path. ‘What interests me’, she says ‘is bringing the technology to a certain level where you can spin it off and then playing an advisory role to make sure that things are running smoothly.’

Andrey Zarur, one of Ying’s first graduate students who developed the technology that Zion later modified to create SmartCells says Ying ‘would take me with her on visits to companies to get funding for the lab. And I would make the presentation. People thought she was taking advantage of me because she made me do three PhD projects, but this was preparing me for the life I want’.

Ying went on to become the founding director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore (‘IBN’) – to spread the twin gospels of top-flight research and entrepreneurship that she had learned at MIT. Her record over the past 12 years suggests that she has done exactly that. IBN has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences, and eight startup companies.

Sometimes, she suggests, faculty members need help in finding a project with commercial promise, and sometimes she needs to find partners in industry to help with a project. Overall she hopes to find a way for IBN to help nurture new companies without losing all the scientists who did the technology’s foundational work. ‘We will continue to help the firms with research’, Ying says, ‘and maybe they will give us not just royalties but some shares to the people involved.’

John Whatmore, February 2016

Related news:

* It is rumoured that Telefonica’s Wayra Lab is in discussions with Isis, Oxford University’s technology transfer organisation, to set up a unit in Oxford like that of the former’s Accelerator in London.

* Imperial College now has at least four accelerators, each in a different field, each designed to encourage an entrepreneurial environment alongside high quality academic research and teaching. (A full description of these will appear shortly in my blog series.)

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