A purposed accelerator – in public services

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Making use of external expertise to deliver innovations in public services. Innovationeers in the public sector have not shared the same raw enthusiasm for startups and scaleups as the private sector: they have come much later to the game.

I wrote last about Village Capital in New York, whose modus operandi is upside down, in that it starts with the identification of major issues and only then builds teams and finds resources to tackle those issues. In the UK, CivTech’s young programme is now doing likewise.

CivTech’s mission is simple: it is to support innovation in the public sector by creating an environment in which issues can be identified and new products and services developed – thus contributing to more effective and efficient public services.

Its second programme, just launching, aims to offer opportunities for entrepreneurs to ‘solve a challenge, build a product, develop a relationship and build a business with public sector benefits’, by engaging with a major public sector organisation.

This year’s programme has identified nine challenges provided by their public sector sponsors, of which seven will be tackled by the seven teams that have been selected for the programme. These include:

  • how to create a better booking system for outpatient appointments
  • how better to understand citizen data
  • how to provide better [internet] access to public services.

Applicants could be existing companies with relevant material, graduates, a digital team or just someone with insight or a good idea.

 Three potential solutions to each sponsor’s challenge go through to a 3-week Exploration Stage – to develop their idea further, to engage with the CivTech team and the Challenge Sponsor, to participate in some workshops, and then to make a final pitch – for which each team receives £3,000.

The CivTech Accelerator that follows is three months long (for which teams are required to relocate to Edinburgh) – of innovation, experiment, development and production; with workshops, talks and mentors; of team and business building; of product building; of developing real and lasting relationships with public sector organisations – for which each team will receive £17,000 (CivTech takes no equity nor IP).

The CivTech team provides specific advice about its approach to service design, product development, government standards and system integration needs.

 Sponsors are expected to set aside £106k for each challenge, of which £27k goes to the solution provider (as above), and the remaining £81k is for ongoing development of the solution. The Challenge Sponsor receives an in-perpetuity royalty free licence to enable the successful participant to further develop and test their work with a view to its exploitation in the sponsor’s services.

The website inviting applications is couched in very full and clear, and charmingly optimistic terms, though the exploitability of the proposals is uncertain.

Of the nine teams that had participated in Round 1, two had worked with the NHS and were confident of new business; two had worked with Transport Scotland, one with sales already and both with more to follow; and two of the nine reported that they were still working on future business. New businesses, a new platform, a new product and a new client were among the mentions in their final reports.

The small team that has conceived and evolved this programme sits in the Digital Directorate of the Scottish Government, which has not only backed and endorsed the programme but has recently doubled the amount of money behind it. And this work has attracted widespread interest.

John Whatmore, November 2017

For more see https://civtech.atlassian.net

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Re-shaping support for SMEs

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Making the most out of young businesses Lessons are arriving from all sides about early-stage businesses (Village Capital, Nesta, Scaleup Institute, Growth Builder, IDEO). What do they tell us? Shouldn’t Innovate UK be taking a bigger role in the support of innovation practice?

 Most striking is the extent to which Accelerators – a fast growing phenomenon – have become the province of corporates. They force new businesses to focus not just on good ideas but on important (commercial) issues; they know their own field – its problems and opportunities; they provide invaluable support; and they are willing and capable investors (Wayra Lab, Cisco, John Lewis, and many others.)

However, this does leave great swathes of the population and of the economy untouched by support for innovation eg the public sector, several industries, large parts of the country and the everyday lives of most people. The Nesta report identifies some; and Geoff Mulgan, its Chief Executive, has focused on others, not least in the public sector.

The main sources of funding for Accelerators are now Corporates, the Public sector and Philanthropics. Venture Capital is a source for only 8% of Accelerators (and 2% of Incubators). The Nesta Report reveals that in the UK both Incubators and Accelerators rely heavily on public funds – from a variety of sources (in many areas and sectors for a substantial proportion of funding and in some, completely.)

It is now well recognised that the greatest opportunity for the development of entrepreneurial eco-systems is in ‘sectors that have a deep and local focus’; and the Scaleup Institute is busily working with LEPs to help them to do so.

However, innovation strategy and practice are evolving; and there is still little experienced management of proactive support.

Recent research by IDEO revealed something surprising: neither a more traditional approach to product development – coming up with three good options, analyzing them, and choosing one to move forward with, nor the lean startup approach – taking a best guess, piloting it, and then pivoting based on what works – is the most effective way to launch a new product. Instead, when teams iterate on five or more different solutions, they are 50% more likely to launch a product successfully.

‘Entrepreneurial support organisations are critical infrastructure for cities, communities and for corporates; and they too need clearly articulated support’ says Village Capital, a major US philanthropic business. The most common form of support is mentoring, but the promotion and management of mentoring (and of support in general) is a role that is extremely rare, but much needed, and rarer in Incubators than in Accelerators. Moreover a different format of support programme is also emerging – in the form of regular monthly meetings – especially of hi-growth businesses – based round collaborative learning.

There is at present no body that adequately encompasses Incubators and Accelerators – to help steer policy, identify best practice, and foster training and development in innovationeering. Innovate UK should take urgent steps to create an appropriate KTN.

John Whatmore, May 2017

Big bets on big ideas

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Big bets on big ideas – by philanthropists ‘Problem first, tool second’ is a maxim that is common among philanthropists, but far from common in the startup world.

We celebrate the fast growing entrepreneurial culture, but too many startups are ‘noddy projects’, built on exploiting little more than convenience or alacrity; often led by people with scant knowledge or experience of management or about the sector which they aim to enter and its customers.

Many fewer are the enterprises that start by identifying major needs or opportunities and building a business to fulfil them. Among these are the Young Foundation in the UK, which has long supported social enterprises, and Village Capital in New York, which has raised funds and then used them to bring experts to bear on major world problems.

But also there are individuals who have made millions and then sought to use their wealth to attack these problems, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Do their approaches tell us anything about how we could address bigger issues and address them better?

What is common to most of them is that they aim to use the high level of their own expertise with which they have achieved their own success, and do so in wider, more beneficial fields where the returns are not necessarily financial.

Soon after Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder, and his wife began their philanthropy five years go, they partnered with a charity research organisation called Give Well, that identifies projects that ‘provide outsize human benefits for the dollars invested’, through which they gave substantial sums, inter alia to a programme for distributing mosquito nets to reduce malaria, and to a programme that gives cash directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda. More recently they have chosen to fund projects that mitigate potential global catastrophes, like an epidemic of a deadly disease, biological warfare and the dangers posed by artificial intelligence.

‘Tech people tend to be more interested in early-stage startups’, said one expert, ‘they typically support disruptive new ideas, get more involved in their giving and show a willingness to move quickly to another approach when one fails.’

Zuckerberg and his wife (who is a doctor) chose to invest funds in efforts to build basic tools to help the whole scientific community to make breakthroughs in research. A substantial sum went to create a new research institute in San Francisco – the ‘Biohub’, whose first project was to map all the cells in the body and set up a rapid strike force to tackle outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola and Zika viruses.

And they aim to advocate for more private money for this purpose, and will ‘likely take ownership stakes in for-profit companies doing promising work.’ Their multipronged approach – gifts, VC investments in businesses with social missions, and policy advocacy is described as ‘giving them maximum flexibility’.

Pierre Omidyar , founder of the eBay online auction and retail site, was an early pioneer of this concept. His philanthropic organisation focused on efforts to bring financial services to underserved populations. It financed a non-profit that makes microloans in Africa, Asia and Haiti; and it has invested in a peer-to-peer lender and in a company that provides insurance to low-income people in emerging markets. He participates in an advocacy group that partners with governments and others to encourage the distribution of money digitally instead of through cash handouts. ‘We have a motto here: problem first, tool second’, said the managing partner of his Foundation – an approach ‘widely adopted by the region’s philanthropists’.

The Omidyar Foundation which focuses on early-stage projects, also takes board seats and provides networking opportunities and training to the organisations it finances. ‘Half of the organisations report that our non-monetary assistance is as valuable as our monetary assistance’, says the managing partner.

Measuring success ‘is a bit of a fool’s errand’, he has said; but proactive, they are. At all events, principles like that of focusing on underfunded yet highly effective charities seem to remain paramount. So far we have rarely seen comparable individuals or organisations in the for-profit field.

Source: New York Times, 8.11.2016

John Whatmore, January, 2017

Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world?

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Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world

Focusing on major issues rather than relying on people with good ideas is likely to be a good source for the 6% of businesses with hi-growth potential (- and Unicorns)

 Next: the Business Growth Service’s coaches, mentors and advisers are having a real impact for SMEs; it must be exploited.

Following: Five Ace Mentors – you may need all of them

Most of the commercial supporters of hi-growth businesses depend on who turns up with a good idea – for which they search keenly; yet many of those ideas are often limited, ephemeral and even trivial, and many of their protoganists far from suited to the heavy sweat of growing a business. Few focus on issues of strategic, technical or sociological importance – like basic needs, lifestyles or communities.

Among those that have done so are:

Village Capital in New York – which seeks to identify large scale needs in any country throughout the world, and then to match them with experts and funds designed to find and implement solutions.

Syncona Partners, a subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust, which identifies potential solutions to major healthcare issues that are of technical or strategic importance and matches experts (or sets up the necessary management) and funds for delivering their benefits.

BioCity Nottingham which runs a programme whose starting point is identifying major issues of organisations in its area, and then finds experts who may be able to help solve those issues; and goes on to provide them with intensive support for the development of solutions.

The provision by Innovate UK’s for its grant winners of free access to The Business Growth Service is a welcome focus on technological opportunities that have been identified in competition, and thus a well-directed initiative for supporting young businesses that have the potential for high growth.

Innovate UK’s Business Growth Workshops bring these grant holders together and illustrate the analysis that the service’s Growth Development Managers put together, and which they use to offer a choice of three coaches, mentors or advisers to the business involved.

The success of this service must be exploited by making sure that it is adopted for example in clusters and in innovation centres everywhere.

John Whatmore

October 2015

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? (http://wp.me/p3beJt-9e)

Shorter, not longer, Accelerators: BT’s Hothouses

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Shorter, not longer, Accelerators
How do you come up with an idea for a business that meets a big need, will be desired by customers and is readily fundable. BT’s Hothouses, quicker though more complex and involving, suggest a counter-cultural model: do it as one problem, not as a series of problems.

Next week: A major programme for new hi-flyers that includes an Accelerator – so why doesn’t UKTI do the same for the UK?

The problem: one of the dangers in the conceptualisation stage of a new business is that what meets a need may not be marketable; and what is marketable may not be fundable; and the process of meeting all three requirements may go backwards and forwards interminably.

BT recognised long ago that the danger of the waterfall approach exemplified in the three phases of the Accelerator (the project handed on down the line to its next stage – to the product managers or the marketers and thence to the accountants before eventually being signed off) is that unforeseen problems may arise late in the development process and can involve expensive iterations and missed opportunities. BT’s solution (‘tangible outcomes are essential’) was to bring together into the early stage of the process authoritative representatives of all the parties concerned.

BT’s solution – the Hothouse is perhaps better described as a small problem-solving conference (or even as a Hackathon) rather than a workshop. Between three and eight teams (each of 6-8 people – they can involve lots of people during the Hothouse itself, though less both before and after) compete for small but significant prizes in the presence of the problem owner, his boss (and often his boss) and other stakeholders.

Participants are chosen to fulfill a specific mix in a team and while fully briefed beforehand, they may or may not have had previous experience of Hothouses. Teams are composed through an electronic auction; the facilitator will regularly call very brief ‘stand-up’ meetings to ask about progress, obstacles, needs, and resources that might be made available; and the 3-day process is marked by presentations at the end of each day, and a carefully chosen panel of judges is on hand throughout the proceedings.

Each team’s space in the large communal break-out area has its plasma screen and white board; and Microsoft’s Sharepoint Online software is used for enabling each team to share material, with two other programs for sharing software in development.

Some 70 Hothouses a year are now run, each focused on a significant business problem or opportunity – identified by a Business Unit of BT, for which suites of rooms have been built in two locations. The ‘conference’ space is institutional and Spartan (no toys – what would their bosses think!); and the process is intensive and full of energy. There are no signs of any input – either of people or materials – from outside BT, (though that will apparently depend on the business problem, and customers will often form part of the process); and the technical members of the teams ensure that use is made of relevant existing BT platforms.

The main uses are currently for bringing new products and services to market, many of which are opportunities offered by new technology, where the objective is to overcome obstacles in the development process. Formalised methods more than experience or expertise in this type of activity distinguish BT’s Hothouses; and they are very process-driven.

The lesson: BT’s method suggests that a more comprehensive problem-solving approach might have a useful place in developing new businesses – intensive, shorter, but with more supporting resources.

See also: US non-profit ‘Village Capital’ has a different perspective on social enterprise: objectives first, resources next Oct 2013, http://wp.e/p3beJt-6K

John Whatmore
July 2015

A non-residential Accelerator – in Education

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Innovators in education: The Young Foundation’s third education/ incubation cohort
A programme of intensive learning sessions, the teams supported by staff, mentors and coaches and the Foundation’s network, with access to up to £150k of social investment – a model for non-residential Accelerators.

Most Accelerators have so far been residential, but the more these programmes move up the value chain, the more widely spread are the established businesses likely to be in any cohort. This is a model for such programmes in the way it brings the teams together for repeated periods of intensive development work, and with the option of using a communal space; and in the way it attaches to each team mentors in key roles.

The ‘Young Academy’ is an initiative by the Young Foundation (‘YF’) which has a long and enviable record in supporting social ventures, this one in pioneering the development of innovations in education under the aegis of Round 2 of the Cabinet Office’s Social Incubator Fund.

Its third cohort of the programme about to launch – for around ten to fifteen early-stage ventures all of whose projects are focused on reducing inequality in education. The previous two cohorts have worked with 17 projects, including one working to better enable access to employment and another to reinvigorate the careers advice available in schools. All but one of the ventures from the two earlier cohorts are surviving and thus contributing in various degrees to this objective – in terms of impact, extent and reach. The objective is to get these ventures up to a level where they are reliably revenue-generating; with a strong emphasis on rapid proto-typing and testing eg in a school.

Like YF’s earlier programmes, this one – a 6-month programme starting in late May – brings participants together regularly for (mostly) two days every two weeks at the Young Foundation offices in Bethnal Green, London – for two day-long learning sessions at a time. Of the 12 learning sessions (through May, June and July), the first 6 include the mapping of the target audience and understanding the winning of work (with commissioners, buyers and funders). The second 6 are more about turning things into reality. August is expected to be for refining and testing, including project management, future finance and pitching; and the teams will come together for Demo Day in September.

The programme provides monthly ‘Check-ins’ (progress meetings with two YF staff), a ‘strategic mentor’ (in loco chair of trustees) whom they will meet on average for half-an-hour a week, and a ‘coach’, (in loco chief financial officer, and hands on supporter of financial skills) whom they will meet on average for 2 hours a week, and access to YF’s invaluable array of contacts (and there is a mentor pool of 30 or 40 people). Like other YF programmes, it is non-residential, but unlike other programmes, though like many other Accelerators, there is now a common working space available to participants.

YF expect most of the 50 or so candidate teams will be around 1-2 years old, perhaps already have a small turn-over and have couple of members in the team, but there will be a wide range.

This ongoing YF programme is funded by £1.5mn from the Cabinet Office’s Social Incubator Fund, formally evaluated by New Philanthropy Capital, and match funded by UBS, by Bank of America, and by the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Foundation.

Other similar YF venture support projects include The People’s Accelerator – which aims to support campaigns for social justice to become sustainable (the recent pilot was funded by Citizens UK and The Centre for Justice Innovation), ‘Transition’ – a series of workshops for a wide range of social innovation projects funded by EU; and a project to develop socially sustainable cities.

See also

US non-profit ‘Village Capital’ has a different perspective on social enterprise: objectives first, resources next
Village Capital sees capital as a resource in the service of its mission rather than as a determinant of new businesses; and puts projects and teams together on the basis of what will best achieve the social objectives it espouses. November 2013 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-6K)

Three pieces of Pixie Dust: Bethnal Green Ventures ‘accelerates’ six new social enterprises
Intensive support, lots of interaction (‘the kitchen a vital place’), and pressure to deliver make up the Pixie Dust. October 2012 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-2i)

Accelerators attacking bigger issues?

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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 john.whatmore@btinternet.com

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 (www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/…/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 forumonhealthcareinnovation.org/) 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 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-8A) 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 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-3) at Canary Wharf’s Level39 and Startupbootcamp’s FinTech (http://wp.me/p3eJt-8W) 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 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-6K), 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 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-4u) 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 http://wp.me/p3beJt-f).
(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
john.whatmore@btinternet.com