Support that needs to be proactive

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Support that needs to be proactive Founders sometimes know little about the fields which they are aiming to enter – or about business. Those who manage any kind of co-working arena need to be able to link their young businesses with people whose experience and expertise meet their often fast-changing needs.

Brent Hoberman once described life in a startup as like throwing yourself off a cliff and learning how to build an airplane on the way down. ‘Every week a new issue about which you had never thought before’, said one founder. So how can young businesses be supported to help them identify and find solutions to problems they have never encountered before?

The Director of incubator Sussex Innovation Centre – an experienced expert in young businesses, makes himself available in the café every morning for an hour or so – for anyone to come and discuss a problem.

YCombinator, Watershed Bristol and Entrepreneur First all require their young businesses to meet weekly where a member of each team has to talk to other members of their cohort about their problems, their progress and their plans (notes are circulated afterwards at Watershed to the entire cohort).

The mentor manager of one recent cohort at Startupbootcamp’s Fintech accelerator made it his business to meet each team in the cohort once a week, and ask about progress and problems – each week with a different member of the team.

Wayra Lab, an accelerator (for scaleups) requires its young businesses to have regular monthly meetings with their shadow board, that includes two outside ‘directors’ – a schedule that is being adopted by most growth programmes – for their peer-to-peer meeting groups with advisers.

At BioHub, (last year’s Biotech Incubator of the Year) – home to 200 young businesses, the Incubator Manager aims to meet every team once a month; at the Tramperies, proximity to existing trade businesses makes access easy to experts on many topics. At Cockpit Arts’ incubator – home to 140 young businesses, many of them avail themselves of peer-to-peer ‘action learning’ meetings, regular discussions with the team of business coaches, and referral to specialist advisers. But I know of some incubators that do not have mentors with whom you might be put in touch.

The essence of informal meetings like these is that they are different to Board Meetings in that they are not so much about policies, organisation and management as about current obstacles and how to get over them (why is progress slow; what makes the product fail occasionally; who are the best customers for this product) issues that frequently occur in young businesses, and where appropriate experience and expertise can make a timely and vital contribution.

The problems for the accelarator or the incubator are how to stay abreast of each business’s current problems and how to bring the best help to bear onto each problem.

Paul Miller at Bethnal Green Ventures simply asks weekly of each startup in his accelerator programmes:

  • What have you achieved last week
  • What will you achieve next week
  • What is stopping you, and
  • What have you learned.

Thibaut Rouquette, Mentor Manager at Startupbootcamp could find someone with the necessary experience from among the large cohort of its mentors to whom he had close access; and if he could not find an appropriate expert, he would use Google to search recently held conferences in order to find the name of an expert, and then e-mail to ask him or her to have a conference call with the startup – from which other help might follow.

Priscila Bala of Octopus Ventures commends finding and nurturing relationships with individual advisory board members; but for startups and their ilk, it is someone in the accelerator or the incubator who has to provide the necessary nexus.

John Whatmore, July 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is Level39 at Canary Wharf the future of Innovation

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Eric van der Kleij suggests that innovation centres are a valuable way of providing comprehensive support for new hi-growth businesses – in their best markets; and every city should have one.

 

Who better to ask about the future of innovation, than Eric van der Kleij, formerly Head of Tech City at Shoreditch, and now Head of Level39, Canary Wharf’s innovation space. Accelerators, he responded will specialise; they will spawn natural pre-cursors and after-care, they will proliferate and they will be more about revenue than about investment – more about growth than about funding. And innovation spaces will be a natural feature of cities and clusters.

He believes that Accelerators will become more thematic, citing The Bakery in London, with its Adtech focus, and the Tramperies, whose progenitor Charles Armstrong, has just opened the ‘Fashion Pub’ – a workspace for fashion designers and startups in Hackney. Other new specialist programmes include Ravensbourne College of Art’s incubator programme in Media Technology and Design, and UCL’s IDEALondon space with its focus on future media, healthcare and mobile.

And Eric sees a future for the Technology Strategy Board funded Catapults, designed to propel forward specific areas where technologies promise innovation. Hack Days, of which Level39 has run many in the past year, can help to identify commercialisable IP, and the Catapults need good leaders who can manage the tech transfer process, and help them to get allied with authentic startups.

He sees innovation spaces not only running Accelerators, but also running Hackathons, whose prize winners will enter Accelerators; and as at Level39, innovation spaces will offer tailored accommodation in co-working areas to hi-growth companies coming out of Accelerators (some of which can grow at twice the rate of their less curated entrepreneurs.) The future that he sees is of thriving, self-sustaining and independent clusters, consisting of startups/young businesses, users and funders.

And he thinks that every city will have an innovation centre; and he reels off the names of innumerable cities the world over that have beaten a path to his door to learn about how Level39 does what it does – cities with whom he has made Friendship Agreements.

He is quick to add that every such innovation space has to work with its own context; and he cites one city in a country with few roads, where the prize for winners of a competition to enter the Accelerator included an SUV – inscribed with banner details of that person’s new business – which would enable the participants all to reach the Accelerator daily.

So what is Level39? At first it was one complete floor of One Canada Square, the tallest building at Canary Wharf, which provided desk spaces for early-stage businesses (in retail and financial technology) because of its unique ‘connectious’ environment (with mentors and more experienced entrepreneurs), most of them already post-revenue – some desks in communal rows, some in small glass-fronted offices, some in larger spaces, with an attractive central area (with its 3pm Cookie Bell for getting people to meet up, and its infamous electronically controlled coffee machine!) In addition there are three Sandboxes – areas which organisations take in order to wrestle with particular issues, each of slightly different proportions and lay-outs; and there are Board Rooms, and a handsome auditorium and beside it a large restaurant area. (For a fuller description, see http://wp.me/p3beJt-65)

Now a second floor of One Canada Square has been added. Two successful Accelerator programmes have prompted the equipping of a tailor-made space for such programmes. Last year’s Fintech Lab London, a 12-week Accelerator programme designed to help up to a dozen small businesses introduce new products to the big banks located at Canary Wharf is about to be repeated (see http://wp.me/p3beJt-3); and Dassault Systemes, Europe’s second largest software company, invited startups to come and develop customer solutions in one special area of its expertise – both these programmes run by teams separate to the incubator space. The new space has rows of bench-type desking, all with essential IT, and a couple of small meeting rooms. In addition, this new floor has a number of rooms set aside for hi-growth companies emerging from Accelerators, along with a kitchen/rest room (with its Subbuteo table.) And more space on this floor is about to be equipped similarly.

Established with the imaginative support of Canary Wharf’s landlord  (who was concerned about the future of the area), Level39 has proved that Incubators and Accelerators have closely complementary roles and that a comprehensive innovation space is a viable concept. But insiders cannot turn the taps on; it needs influential outsiders to help nudge into being the policies that can bring them into existence. And any city can adapt the concept to its advantage.

 

John Whatmore                                                                  January 2014

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity, London