SETsquared tops Trumps


SETsquared tops Trumps 

The top Incubator illustrates the range of support that can be offered to young businesses.

Karen Brooks of SETsquared, a partnership of five universities centred on Bristol, recently rated ‘Global Number 1 University Business Incubator’, spoke at a recent ‘Knowledge London’ meeting of leaders of university incubators about the six programmes – at a variety of levels in the innovation pipeline and in various sectors – that SETsquared runs; and added that it was all about a mutual relationship with industry – understanding what business wants; and she commented that SETsquared had no academics on its staff.

The most striking contrast, I suggested at that meeting, between Accelerators most of which are branded ‘pop-ups’ (as c.12 week programmes) and Incubators many of which are in universities, is that the former:

  • are more involved with their businesses
  • provide more input and support,
  • have many more contacts with the business world.

But SETsquared is a leader in all of these respects.

At the Pervasive Media Studio at Wastershed, Bristol – a twelve month home to a dozen young businesses, over lunch together on a Friday everyone has to talk about their progress, about which notes are immediately circulated so that teams can meet up to learn from one another’s experience. Jim Milby, until recently a Director of Barclays Bank, who mentors at Startupbootcamp, insists on a weekly review with his team wherever he is a mentor. Paul Miller, one of the authors of Nesta’s The Startup Factories, and founder of Bethnal Green Ventures – a winner of a major grant from the Cabinet Office’s Social Enterprise Startups programme – holds a review once a week with every team in the Accelerator. At ‘Office Hours’, he asks the same questions of each team “What did you achieve last week, what will you do next week, what is stopping you; and what have you learned”.

Accelerators provide more input and support, especially in the form of mentors, notably with specific advice eg on design, potential customers, fundability etc – often in a ratio of four or five to every team. Techstars, Startupbootcamp and Wayra Lab all have around 150 mentors for each programme, (as does SETsquared,) among whom two or three are regularly attached to each team; and Seedcamp has even more.

As does SETsquared, they have many more external contacts with local practitioners, experts and entrepreneurs in businesses in the sectors in which their young businesses are involved, upon whom they can call for specific help. Moreover their leaders are often entrepreneurs themselves.

Incubators are still essentially providers of office space more than they are facilitators of business development, but it takes little (often only a canteen) to encourage their occupants, who are all on the same growth path, to draw from others’ experience and find the essential help that they often did not know they needed!

John Whatmore, November 2016


Ideas from across boundaries


Ideas from across boundaries
Ideas that inspire radical innovations often come from quite different fields.
A meeting at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory will bring together innovators in Healthcare and Motor Sports – to explore their use of real-time data.

Health monitoring and motor sport currently have a common interest – in making use of real-time data from multiple sources. A novel cross-industry partnering and innovation event will take place at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory on 24 March with the help of experience in F1 (see below for details). The focus will be on remote monitoring, data acquisition, better analytics and ease of use. Keynote speakers Include Magna, Leica Biosystems, Siemens Healthcare and the Williams F1 racing team.

With the never-ending segmentation of technologies, the need for cross-boundary links is becoming ever more vital. The Innocentive website is a classic approach – in which problems are posted, and it is from other fields that solutions commonly arrive. Open Innovation (P&G) is one source of such links, art and business another (Watershed, Bristol), innovation workshops a third (BT Labs) and partnerships between designers and technologists (Dyson) another.

Increasing life spans and longer independent living mean that holistic health-monitoring can be a valuable asset to health services; but making effective use of the data is, at least at present, more of an art than a science.

Events like this one at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory with leading-edge practitioners in motor sport and healthcare can help to inspire enduring cross-boundary links. (Maclaren once helped cardiac surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital to reduce the risks involved with changing the feed-lines when patients were handed over from Surgery to Intensive Care – by virtue of their expertise in the pit stop. See also ‘ideas via Intermediaries’ – below)

What is needed to encourage the use of real-time data, whether for domestic or public applications, is examples of systems management that are not merely intriguing, but have got real sex appeal; energy management or traffic management don’t have the appeal that F1 does!

If you are wrestling with a difficult problem, join me in this opportunity for thinking up sources that might inspire you with innovative ideas.

For full details of the event, contact

Ideas via Intermediaries – stories of different perspectives
Including how British Airways used a specialist operating theatre design company to enhance cleanliness in its planes; and another airline used the pit stop as a model for its baggage handling systems

The Internet of Thingummies – my worst Christmas dream
I assembled all my devices and told them that I was giving them all the boot! (

John Whatmore
February 2015

Focusing Intensive Development programmes onto issues of strategic importance


In selecting candidates largely on the basis of their ideas for generating a new business, Accelerators have focused more on quick-wins than on major social, economic or cultural issues. How could aspiring entrepreneurs be encouraged to work with issues of major strategic importance? EPSRC’s week-long ‘Sandpits’ are about identifying important areas for research, and Watershed, Bristol’s Sandboxes have aimed to identify problems or opportunities and to develop ways forward. Tom Inns work with AHRC takes such issues a step further forward – by building the specification for a programme and eliciting ideas. Several individuals and several organisations have used the internet with some success to encourage people first to identify ‘good’ issues – among them IBM’s UK Laboratories. And Future Centers have tended to focus on more complex and longer term problems. What can we learn from them?


EPSRC’s Sandpits – a process for identifying important issues

For ten years, EPSRC has run ‘Sandpits’ – week-long residential workshops, as part of their Ideas Factory. The objective of these is to bring together people from different disciplines, to work on significant problems, and by breaking down barriers and building new relationships to find new approaches and solutions and identify new areas for research.

Sandpits are distinctive in that they start with relatively large groups (20-30) of scientists, who do not know each other, selected from their own submissions – to achieve  diversity in the group, and for their suitability for the process (‘arranged marriages’). They know that they will have to work on a significant ‘real world’ problem and that there is a considerable pot of funds immediately available – for those projects that will be decided upon by agreement at the end of the week.

The ethos is one of self-management, but the process is shaped by a Director, Mentors and Facilitators – leading participants through and on to an understanding of the opportunities and problems, and arriving at a Problem Statement; and thence to the formation of ideas, around which smaller groups begin to form. Finally proposals are short-listed and ranked before a final funding decision is made. Pre-work, speed-dating, site visits, games, challenges, visitors from alien fields (poets, ethicists, IT experts) are all designed to help with the process. They are run in various locations (including once at Royal Mail’s Creativity Laboratory at Rugby).

Originally designed to bring scientists out of their silos and to help them to think creatively together, the programme ‘has resulted in ambitious, innovative research without boundaries, and lasting legacies of new relationships and new ways of thinking’.

Watershed, Bristol – innovation in media and the arts

Watershed’s iShed takes aspects of the Sandpit concept and gives them a new and fuller life. It does this by:

– providing a much longer development period – of three months

– often (but not always) by extending the inter-disciplinary nature of the arena by

virtue of housing together and in the same big room a (carefully selected) number of

complimentary projects

– by providing support that is relevant to the particular moment of each and

every project

– by ‘curating’ a space and an ambience that includes happenings designed to

stimulate creativity, openness, sharing and development

– by requiring everyone to identify their learnings, which are then e-disseminated to

a wider audience.

Tom Inns and Theatres of Thinking at Dundee University

Tom tends to run big workshops eg of fifty academics, mainly in the world of academia and quasi R&D (he has run a number of workshops for AHRC), where his aim is to build future platforms, interests and collaborations.

His work is in the field of inter-disciplinary initiatives, where benefits are likely

*            to be different from those that are expected;

*        not to be expressible in terms of the discipline that originated the initiative;

*            to involve new questions, or reformulation of objectives;

*        to be in the form of capacity to respond to future events, not past ones;

*        to arise after a long time – perhaps long after the initiative has formally ended (‘Creating Value across Boundaries’, Nesta, 2010).

He talks about exploring a potential project; about building a specification for a programme; about eliciting responses and ideas about a possible project. He will often explore drivers of change and trends; and he sees the workshops he runs as themselves drivers of change; and as providing an opportunity for exchanges that would not otherwise happen eg people from different disciplines (arts and humanities), from different sectors (academics and industrialists), and around particular strategic issues that cross domains (eg climate change); and with people who are often notorious for working in silos.

Focusing innovations with the help of e-workshops

IBM’s UK Laboratories have a culture in which people work independently of one another, but they do use the net for what they call ‘jams’ – periods of time during which ideas are sought (on the intranet) – on any subject. Open for a limited period of time, they are said to capture thousands of ideas and to be used to fund sizeable innovation activity; and they are often used by very senior level managers.

Future Centers have focused on business, societal and organisational issues

The core business of Future Centers is developing innovative solutions to challenging business, societal and organisational problems – and especially solutions involving the active, intelligent cooperation of diverse stakeholders. There are more than 30 Future Centers in Europe and Asia, (of which two are in the UK: the Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab in Rugby, and BIS’s Future Focus in London) They are operating in government (in some cases they are embedded in government departments), in the private sector, and in the academic world. They deal with real issues relevant to organisations, projects and people; working in the area of economic affairs, transportation, public works, nature and environment, social affairs, education, and employment, pensions and welfare – to develop new products, services and work processes that enhance the innovation capacity of business, government and society.