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





Business Learning to become more personalised


Business Learning in Accelerators and their ilk will become increasingly personalised

Business learning provisions are increasingly migrating to online, and for very good reasons; so business learning and business development programmes will need to include learning coaches/mentors.

With the rise of the net, learning is being transformed: the President of MIT said when he spoke recently at Davos that his institution had started putting courses online a decade ago, and that MIT open coursework has accumulated 100 million individual learners, and this is increasing by one million a month. Stanford has been following suit.

A number of Accelerators give over a regular fixed time to learning – about business, usually consisting of lectures, presentations and discussions with experts, and about key topics such as IP, marketing and finance (among them Bethnal Green Ventures, Accelerator Academy, Entrepreneurfirst and the Young Foundation). Accelerator programmes, as short periods of intensive development for up to a dozen small groups of people who have ideas for innovations  (commercial, technical or social), have such an intensity that the participants focus strongly on the present needs of their developing venture. A standard syllabus (delivered in sessions of this kind) is increasingly seen as wasteful of valuable time – by those who already know or can do what they need to, and by those for whom it is not immediately relevant.

Learning from each other is another characteristic feature of co-working environments like Accelerators; and learning from each other’s learning experiences is part of that, and at least as important a source of learning as any other in this field. Every Friday, Watershed, Bristol invites its participants to meet and talk about their recent learnings; and an edited version is then put up on the intranet (

We can expect general business learning sessions to be replaced by the Learning Coach/Mentor ( – among other specialist mentors,) who will keep in close contact with the evolving learning needs of programme participants, and perhaps on hand by Skype, helping individuals to make effective use of material that is readily available on the internet and relevant to their issues of the moment; and helping them to learn from each other’s learning. The special value of such a person is that in an Accelerator, the help that participants need is in meeting their immediate learning needs – as those change from day to day.





Buddies, Coaches and Mentors




Buddies, Coaches and Mentors

*    Buddies help you to find your way around

*   Coaches help you to develop your skills and abilities

*   Mentors help you to achieve your dreams


University College London’s Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme

For some years, UCL has had a buddying scheme whose origins lay in the idea of helping students new to UCL to find their way around. From being able to find physical facilities, to knowing who to ask for what, to making use of UCL’s systems, someone in their second year was appointed to provide help to those who had just joined. One can imagine that the skilful player soon found more ways of using their buddy, for instance to suss out opportunities, to learn about the strengths and foibles of individual members of staff, to discovering how to break the rules with impunity. Others discovered that advantages accrued to those who were in the same School or even better who were reading the same subject. They could make use of their buddies to learn about what individual professors valued or required, what topics they would need to work on, even what essays they might have to write. With even more skill they might get access to comparable essays written by their buddy or his/her colleagues, especially perhaps those that had been well received by the Professor.


Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?

In a recent edition of the New Yorker, a top-notch surgeon tells about how he came to make use of a coach and what it did for him.

He gives three reasons why he gave thought to the idea of having a coach: first, by his own metrics he felt that until recently he had been steadily improving; but not lately. And he had wondered whether steady decline was his future, inevitable lot. Secondly, he was impressed that other people at the top of their tree used coaches: he read about famous football coach Walter Camp, famous Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins and Juilliard violin teacher DeLay; he spoke to singer Renee Fleming (‘vocalists have voice coaches throughout their careers’) and to violinist Itzak Perlman (whose coach is his wife) and he was impressed by the role of coaches as ‘outside ears and eyes’ (‘what [performers] perceive is often quite different to what audiences perceive’. [Tim Gallwey in ‘The Inner Game of Music’ talks about the primary importance of raising awareness]). And he spoke to Jim Knight, the Director of the Kansas University’s Kansas Coaching Project with its record of enhancing learning through training coaches about the roles that coaches play.

Jim Knight had talked to him about how coaches help people to identify weaknesses – by showing what respected colleagues do, by reviewing videos, or by simple conversation.  He watched coaches ‘working through the fine points of the observation’ – what went well and what went less well, ‘parcelling out their observations carefully’; and ‘formulating plans for what [a teacher] could practice next’, for example, breaking down contents more, engaging individuals, helping pairs of students to have a useful conversation.

He decided to try a coach. He called a retired surgeon whom we knew well and respected highly. After the first operation his new coach offered some observations about details, but important details, such as positioning in the operating theatre, about where and how he stood, and about things that he, as pre-occupied by the processes of the surgery, had not been aware of (the operating light drifting out of the wound). He takes the observations of his coach, works on them for a few weeks then gets together with him again. The scope of their work together now extends to the planning of the operation; and he watches other surgeons (and videos of them at work) – some-times surgeons using leading-edge techniques in other fields, in order to gather ideas about what he could do.

He suggests that the benefits of the three or four hours he has spent each month with his coach added more to his capabilities than all of the expenditure that his hospital has made on upgrading surgical equipment. He adds that they could be significantly greater than the costs that result from lower success rates; and he asks why it is that there are so many fields where coaching is unimaginable.

A crucial test of the relationship was one discussion about an operation that did not go well. They started by discussing what had gone well, and then went on to what had not gone so well. They identified a difficulty he had had, what he did about it and what he might have done differently. He is forced to recognise that the price of making smarter decisions is: exposure; [though there was a recent report of a heart surgeon, who, recognising that only good results were published in medical journals, founded his own group of surgeons (‘Pete’s Club’) who met annually to impart to each other lessons learned from their failures].  But to discover that your surgeon has a coach, suggests the author of this article, might not seem to reassure your patients!

A radical mentoring scheme that matches up master with younger talent and acts as a seed-bed of innovation

This new and unusual mentoring scheme has several radical elements:

*  it matches up young and old;

*  it crosses all sorts of boundaries;

*  it works in several genres all at the same time; and

*  it’s field is the arts.

Now in its fourth year, this programme appoints senior artists in six genres, music, literature, visual arts, theatre, dance and film – and matches them up with a younger practitioner, often from far across continents and cultural divides. It allows the pairs to work together in any way they choose: there is nor requirement for an end-product or performance and no prescribed schedule or methodology. The brief is very loose, and the pairs find their own ways of working together. No specific output is required during the mentoring year but the sponsor does provide funding for the protégés to continue their work together after the programme is over.

Clearly inspiration travels in both directions. “I was getting tired of myself” said the brilliant and controversial director Peter Sellars. “Meeting this lady” – he gestures affectionately towards his protégé, Maya Zbib from Beirut – “has been so important to me”. Zbib took Sellars on an eye-opening trip to Lebanon, to experience work by her six-person collective Zoukak, which makes politically fuelled theatre in refugee camps, in private homes and in other spaces. He took her to watch him work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (“I wanted to make Beirut seem peaceful!”) and in Chicago, where he was staging Handel’s opera Hercules. In this version, the conquering hero is transformed into a US general returning from Iraq, to the battleground of a home in which he can’t speak of what he has seen.

Over the past decade, the Mentor and Protégé initiative has also yielded some unexpected results, particularly in creating a broad informal network of professional personal and artistic contacts through keeping in touch with past participants, and via the many panels of advisers and selectors around the world.

An arts week-end marks the culmination of this biennial Mentoring and Protégé programme, where unlikely combinations of artists crossed over into new fields, spoke with new tongues and improvised together – a collection of ‘impossible’ scenes.

(FT: 19.11.11, and www.rolexmentor-protégé.com)

Afterword; how to get a Nobel Prize It was once reckoned that more than half of all American Nobel Prize winners had worked as graduate students, postdocs, or junior colleagues of other Nobel laureates. (Apprentice to Genius, Robert Kanigel, John Hopkins University Press, 1993.)