Accelerators attacking bigger issues?


If Accelerators can support hi-growth SMEs as well as startups, can they also be adapted to focus on tough problems and emerging opportunities in all sorts of fields?
While Accelerators have been ‘big news’, they have tended to focus on apps or websites. But initiatives are afoot to focus them onto bigger issues. As twelve-week curated programmes of intensive development for a dozen carefully selected startups – with a lot of support from mentors, Accelerators have spread rapidly and attracted a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs with ideas for new businesses, though many of them have been no more than new apps or websites. Now attempts are afoot to focus the interest of aspiring entrepreneurs onto bigger problems and opportunities. The first two below – Cambridge’s Open Innovation Forum and Harvard’s Healthcare Challenge – are essentially introductions to emerging opportunities for new businesses; the next three – BioCity’s new Accelerator, FinTech Accelerators and Village Capital – are about tackling bigger issues – a longer pathway. All are providing the links between talent, knowledge and experience that are the essence of clusters.
If you are interested in this and would like to be put in touch with others who have similar interests, e-mail me at

A group of corporates in the food industry in Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing’s Open Innovation Forum, is about to run its third event (…/open-innovation-practitioner-forum/‎) – a veritable market place for serious entrepreneurs with adaptable technologies – at which pitches are invited for propositions for new products – from SMEs, B2B companies, startups, entrepreneurs or university-based researchers and organisations. Among innovation needs listed on this occasion are for sustainable packaging, reclosing systems for metal cans, sugar reduction solutions and anti-counterfeit technology.
Harvard Business School together with the Harvard Medical Centre has announced the Harvard Healthcare Challenge whose aim (see is to find healthcare innovations that will disseminate faster – a recognition of the need for speed in healthcare developments – innovations that are credible, can show demonstrated evidence of their value; have a compelling dissemination plan; and are at the cusp of scaling. Finalists will gain access to 150 senior health care leaders at an invitation-only conference where they will discuss their scale-up plans and have an opportunity for one-on-one discussions with health care leaders at networking events.
With support from Nottingham City Council, BioCity ( is breaking new ground in creating an Accelerator whose projects are generated by identifying and bringing together a technology, an articulated unmet need, a key user/expert insight and/or an entrepreneur – of each of which ‘there are many, but mostly found in isolation’. It starts with a series of themed events, of which two such have been ‘wearable technologies’ and ‘the gamification of healthcare’. It then offers a series of one-to-many events and ad hoc coaching to test the viability of early-stage ideas through a process of customer discovery and evidence based business model design. This is followed by a rolling 3-month Accelerator programme with intensive coaching to help opportunities build their business and, if necessary develop an investment proposition.
In a tough but dramatic call, consortia of banks have recently sponsored three Accelerators for SMEs in the financial services sector. Accenture’s two FinTech London Labs ( at Canary Wharf’s Level39 and Startupbootcamp’s FinTech ( at the Rainmaking Loft have brought SMEs together from all over the world with the aim of creating new products which will be of interest to the banks, who are seeing their market attacked by the arrival of mobile payments systems that leave them out of account.
Village Capital (, a US-based charity brings aid and innovation together: it has sought to put the achievement of social objectives as the over-riding determinant of the various processes of innovation in which it invests its aid funds. Projects tend to start with a vision – a vision of how things might be, and then move on to issues about how realistic and how realisable such a vision might be. It then looks for entrepreneurial talent in people who are already working in the field in question who are likely to be acquainted with the problems and the people concerned. Village Capital has sought to have funds readily available – on an unconditional basis – for its 12-week programmes, each of 10-15 teams with different but relateable issues.
Innovationeering of this kind may be riskier, take longer, and be more expensive, as is suggested by the Royal College of Art’s 2-year Accelerator programme ( which is confined to projects which involve engineering or design: its teams do not always endure, and it is financially difficult to maintain.
But clusters are not necessarily closely located, though they do all have points of intensive interaction: of experience – as in the fortnightly races of Formula 1; of knowledge – as at universities and related industries; and of talent – as in commutable regions. But they are not simply about connectivity, but collaboration – bringing people with different backgrounds to work together to create something new – what conductors, impresarios and directors do in the arts (as at the National Theatre’s Studio, where we hope to hold a small workshop in the near future – see below (1)).
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in partnership with the Shell Foundation has been exploring methods to transform the markets surrounding an innovation – a significantly more all-embracing task –
which I will follow with interest.

(1)The NT Studio brings together writers, designers, performers and directors for short periods in the hope that they will spark off one another (see
(We are planning to hold a small workshop there in the near future – for incubator leaders and leading mentors to see this ‘sparking off one another’ in action. If you are interested, e-mail me.)

John Whatmore
October 2014


The latest co-working spaces: what makes them work?


Flexible work spaces, motivational atmosphere, ideas-two-a-penny, bewildering variety of expertise, learning regimes, compelling visions, inspiring visitors: all of them pressure cookers for hot ingredients.

You might think that internet connectedness was the antithesis of co-working, yet co-working spaces have never been more popular. Above all their users are about enterprise and innovation; and all the co-working spaces – whether corporate, geekish, get-up-and-go, dedicated or whacky – exude a culture of passion and determination.

Below are descriptions of Level39 in Canary Wharf, of Google Campus in Tech City, of Telefonica’s Wayra Lab, of Watershed in Bristol, of The Royal College of Art’s Incubator, and of a co-working space at London University; and Nesta is building one of its own. And there are Creativity Labs in several universities and other locations. And now ‘Hubs’ – large co-working facilities along with specially adapted meeting spaces – have arrived in London, as they have all over the world; and of course in Silicon Valley there are co-living spaces.

What are they designed to do and what makes them work?


The latest co-working space is ‘Level39’, half way up one of the towers at Canary Wharf, and in the middle of a cluster of the offices of a number of international banks – host to a recent Accelerator backed by the Mayor and Accenture aimed at helping some SMEs to market new products to big banks ( Unlike any other, it is more like a boutique hotel than a sandpit – laid out with a sitting area supplied with the latest iPad controlled coffee-making machine, an area of small meeting/ working rooms, an area of larger meeting rooms and a big event space. Level39 is focusing on accelerating young businesses in financial, retail and future cities technology areas. The space has been provided by the Canary Wharf Group – in the hope of attracting new businesses to the area; and it is overseen by Eric van der Kleij, previously Head of Tech City.

Tech City’s co-working spaces like TechHub, Central Working, Innovation Warehouse and Google Campus are a long way from the Common Room – if that was an early version of the co-working space; and a long way from most incubators, one of the more recent versions of co-working spaces, which were essentially small flexible spaces on short tenancies, with services on tap – for growing SMEs.

In its basement, Google Campus in Shoreditch has a large area of desks and soft seating – regularly packed, mainly with individuals working away on their laptops, alongside a café; it has a medium size presentation space on the ground floor, where there are presentations of all sorts at least once a day; and its upper floors are used for the cohorts of longer-term development programmes, each with their own regime – like Seedcamps, Springboard and Bethnal Green Ventures, the latter two being 13-week Accelerator programmes.

With desks close to one another, Bethnal Green Ventures was ‘accelerating’ six teams, developing ideas for social ventures which they would eventually pitch to investors. At the entrance was a large kitchen, where much discussion took place. ( (Uden Films once converted some small premises in West London so that there were large kitchens at the end of each corridor, where staff not only made tea and coffee, but also cooked their meals, thus ensuring that they spent more off-beat time together, from which ideas might spring.)

Telefonica’s Wayra Lab in central London, its tenth Accelerator world-wide, has spaces for 20 teams (of 2-5 members), each one partitioned off from the others, around the outside of an enormous single-floor area; and in the middle of this area are recreation facilities (eg table tennis, darts etc), informal meeting and sitting areas, and an ‘Agora’ – a large open space where meetings of all kinds can be held. Each cohort has six months in the Accelerator, with the possibility of a short extension. (     And it is in the process of duplicating this on a lower floor – for its collaboration with UnLtd for accelerating social ventures under a contract with the Cabinet Office. The Royal College of Art’s  modern Incubator in Battersea (for 2-year residencies) has a similar lay-out – on a smaller scale.

Nesta is in the process of fitting out a state-of-the-art area to accommodate the ten teams it is in the process of selecting for its first cohort in its Accelerator for social enterprises under the same contract.

Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol has a similar physical lay-out, though of fully open-plan space – recently expanded from 30 to 42 places – each in residence for 3 to 12 months; and contrives its own regime for getting the participants to use each other’s knowledge and experience, and for introducing them to experts from parallel fields in which ideas can soar. (  London University’s Centre for Creative Collaboration at King’s Cross, has a similar space for a few small businesses, with no limits on duration of tenure, and ‘no rules’!

Then there are spaces that are designed and equipped for specialised meetings such as Creativity Labs and Future Centres (for brainstorms and concentrated thinking – especially about strategy) such as Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab, BT’s Hothouses, and their equivalent at Essex University, Norwich University, Coventry, Liverpool et al.

Our burgeoning entrepreneurial world has given birth to myriad small businesses frantically seeking to fill emerging niches, for which The Hubs are purposed – as ‘spaces created for peer-collaboration where inventions and innovation are taken from idea to impact’. They ‘are designed to foster a unique culture of learning-by-doing – a workshop cum laboratory cum headquarters – a Superstudio for pioneers’. A very recent creation, there are now over forty all round the world, all owned and funded locally, of which three are in London.

Westminster’s (partly funded by Westminster City Council as well as  private funding) positively throbs with enterprise: there are 160 places at hotdesks or reserved spaces, available on all sort of flexible terms, with access to meeting rooms – of various sizes, with break-out rooms, a ‘greenhouse’, ‘collaboration booths’, an event space and a circular-style ‘strategy theatre’, plus a café/lounge, and of course fast internet connections. Every day there are inspiring, practical or creative events of different kinds including Hub Network lunches, with leaders, experts, gurus who have ‘done it before’ or seen it before (or else done something strikingly similar.)

There is a Founders’ Camp, which introduces founders to one another; there is ‘Academy at the Hub’ – a drop-in education programme for entrepreneurs; there are hosts and facilitators, and there are plans to set up a mentoring regime. The Hub both hosts and runs Accelerators (curated 13-week programmes of intensive development for new businesses); and it runs a Summer School. When it comes to ongoing funding, there is a network of investors; there is a Social Enterprise Investment Fund and a Crowdfunding platform. Seemingly every element available on hand for those seeking to develop ideas into innovations, and an ideal location for those many laptop workers currently to be found in Starbucks, Café Neros and Costas.

At the other extreme from Level 39, are co-living spaces – which have become popular in Silicon Valley. Designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and their ilk having found that their motives, their aspirations and their lifestyles were sufficiently co-incidental for them to come together and pool their money to take one of the large and less popular houses in the area. They claim to ‘gain an instant circle of fellow technological thinkers, brainstormers and tinkerers with whom they can dream and invent’ (See Over the Rainbow –, published 30.6.12).

‘Theoretical debates take place on the staircases, around the dinner table and by the grand piano. Whiteboards are scattered through the house with one covering the wall in the living room – floor-to-ceiling, where people do maths problems in different-coloured markers and scribble ideas for start-up companies. The residents host salon discussions once a month, inviting experts in politics, oceans or rocket launchers to lead conversations. A couple of times a year, they have a ‘hackathon’ when scores of computer geeks bring their laptops over and share some beers.’


Common to all of these spaces, especially those that take in cohorts for development programmes of fixed length, is that the participants are learning together and from each other. The extent to which each such space encourages divergent thinking may depend on how different their projects are, and on how radically participants are being encouraged to think.


If you run co-working spaces or are planning or developing a co-working space, contribute to the discussion here. (And if you manage co-working space, tell us who you are your most popular visiting speakers – experts from parallel fields, such as architects, theatre producers, chefs, artists, composers, designers or inventers.)



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




The RCA’s incubator wrestles with its own development



The Royal College of Art’s Incubator wrestles with its own development

InnovationRCA, the RCA’s incubator, has ploughed a leading furrow among higher education establishments; and is contending with the issues that are raised by an incubator programme that runs in parallel to its academic programme, (which is a post-graduate programme), and that is also a part of the educational process.

The RCA’s incubator now takes in four or five new business teams each year – its sixth cohort (it started with just two per annum in 2008); and it is a two-year programme. While many start-ups involve little more than taking a recently created way of doing something and simply applying it to a new field, often with a tweak or two, the kinds of businesses that are brought to this incubator entail substantial design or engineering/IT development (the essence of the RCA) as well of course as market and business model testing. (There are other groups whose products seem to lend themselves more readily to licencing; and these are also housed alongside, but under a different regime.)

Evaluation of early-stage development processes is notoriously difficult, partly because they are all so different from one another, and partly because, as one expert observed, you cannot do so until years after (but how many?!) The statistics are that about 40% of the teams in the incubator have received ongoing funding; and just under half have developed products and are trading.

There is a bootcamp in the summer and networking events to help candidates to understand their own personal aims and objectives and to match up with appropriate team members; and the deal is that those selected for the incubator receive loans of £30-£70k, partly convertible into equity, plus compulsory support. The RCA has established a fund in order to support these businesses (it was originally supported by a substantial grant from Nesta), but needs to be able to recycle the proceeds of sales of or repayments from its businesses in order to sustain the incubator.

The incubator is housed in the recently completed Dyson Building in Battersea which can house around fifteen businesses, with flexible accommodation and meeting spaces, and excellent kitchen/eating space.

The learning programme seems to be very sophisticated, and comprehensive; and each team is assigned a pair of coaches, whom the participants meet every two weeks. Every six weeks they have a review with a larger group of mentors; and they are required to pitch their business every three months to another group of mentors. The RCA has a group of eight ‘coaches’ (mentors), plus half as many more ‘occasionals’; and would like to have a larger and more diverse range of mentors available

Teams sometimes find that one or more of their members are less wholeheartedly committed to their project than others, that other

career interests attract them more than entrepreneurialism, or that their interests in the future of the business do not co-incide with those of  potential investors. And any of these circumstances impede the progress of the business and necessitate the reforming of the team and their re-energising and redirection – often a difficult management task.

Demo Day takes place once a year with around half-a-dozen investors, mainly angels, and InnovationRCA would like to have more such potential investors; but the two-year term of the incubator and the potentially divergent interests of the participants make investing in their businesses more uncertain than some other start-ups. Moreover, the RCA needs to hold its investments under some kind of fund that would handle all the legal and contractual arrangements – which are not within its normal capabilities.

There is evidently a number of issues associated with incubators that run in parallel with academic programmes, not least when they are part of the educational process; and as a leading incubator in higher education, InnovationRCA is wrestling with these.

For descriptions of other aspects of DesignLondon’s work – especially the development of its pedagogical programme, see:


Copyright 2013

John Whatmore                                                                   February, 2013

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity