Support that needs to be proactive


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











Re-shaping support for SMEs


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

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

SMEs need someone to act as ‘chair’


SMEs need someone to play the chairman role even more than do bigger businesses Lead mentors have the ability to ask the right questions and to turn up with someone who has just the expertise you are about to need.

Wayra Lab, Startupbootcamp and Techstars all attach mentors to their young businesses so as to provide feed-back and advice at the moment it is needed – on a proactive basis, not just when it is sought. This is in sharp contrast to Incubators such as those at Sussex Innovation Centre, Imperial College and UCL’s IdeaLondon and others, where advice or help is provided when it is sought – on a reactive basis.

There are topics that early-stage businesses know little about (eg development grants, intellectual property); there are things they don’t know how to do (eg 3D printing, ‘chatbot’ publicity); there are tasks of which they have little experience (eg strategy and management), where someone who has ‘done it before’ is invaluable. And in a world of disruptive advantage, time is not their ally.

Jim Milby who mentors several small businesses, recently retired as a Director of Barclays Bank, where he has ‘seen a few businesses’ and ‘knows a lot of people’. It is his extensive experience, his connections and importantly his independent voice that make him highly valued by the SMEs he works with. He has always insisted on having a regular review of progress – once a week ‘because you don’t want to go pitching for funding before you’ve got some customers.’ While the team, he says, are preoccupied with driving towards their current objectives, he might be asking questions about whether it is time to change something – in the product, or the target market segment, the key customer benefits, the strategy for getting there, or even the team itself.

John Whatmore, April 2016

A lab head and product developer


A lab head and product developer

She encouraged her students to tackle issues that could have commercial appeal as much as scientific value, and helped them to realise their commercial capabilities as well as produce great science. (Science 12 June 2015)

Jackie Ying was eager to push her already productive lab at MIT into the life sciences. Todd Zion was first attracted to her lab because of her fanatical work ethic, and her business-minded approach appealed to his nascent interest in becoming an entrepreneur – she says that every graduate student should tackle a project not only of tremendous scientific interest, but also of great commercial potential.

He was asked by Ying to see if the same technology her lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines could create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes. He spent two years trying to find a material that prevented the insulin from leaking out before he realised that the secret lay in chemically modifying the insulin itself. The discovery led to SmartCells, a company he and Ying co-founded in 2003, which was later sold to Merck for an undisclosed sum.

His business savvy drew the attention of Lita Nelsen, the longtime director of MIT’s technology licensing office because of the way he had run the company as a tight operation, and he was soon back starting another company with his former colleagues.

Ying says that roughly a quarter of her MIT students have founded companies or gone to work for a startup, but she has chosen not to take that path. ‘What interests me’, she says ‘is bringing the technology to a certain level where you can spin it off and then playing an advisory role to make sure that things are running smoothly.’

Andrey Zarur, one of Ying’s first graduate students who developed the technology that Zion later modified to create SmartCells says Ying ‘would take me with her on visits to companies to get funding for the lab. And I would make the presentation. People thought she was taking advantage of me because she made me do three PhD projects, but this was preparing me for the life I want’.

Ying went on to become the founding director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore (‘IBN’) – to spread the twin gospels of top-flight research and entrepreneurship that she had learned at MIT. Her record over the past 12 years suggests that she has done exactly that. IBN has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences, and eight startup companies.

Sometimes, she suggests, faculty members need help in finding a project with commercial promise, and sometimes she needs to find partners in industry to help with a project. Overall she hopes to find a way for IBN to help nurture new companies without losing all the scientists who did the technology’s foundational work. ‘We will continue to help the firms with research’, Ying says, ‘and maybe they will give us not just royalties but some shares to the people involved.’

John Whatmore, February 2016

Related news:

* It is rumoured that Telefonica’s Wayra Lab is in discussions with Isis, Oxford University’s technology transfer organisation, to set up a unit in Oxford like that of the former’s Accelerator in London.

* Imperial College now has at least four accelerators, each in a different field, each designed to encourage an entrepreneurial environment alongside high quality academic research and teaching. (A full description of these will appear shortly in my blog series.)


Accelerators or Incubators – or combinations?

Flexible and adaptive development, challenge and support are what is required for hi-growth young businesses.

 IT is revolutionizing or disrupting many sectors of the economy and providing opportunities for endless innovations. And as it does so, first-mover advantage has been an important asset, and speed of development has become an increasingly vital element. While Incubators provide valuable spaces and an umbrella for SMEs, Accelerators (12-week managed programmes of intensive development for a small number of early-stage businesses, all working beside one another, and with fulsome support) aim to provide injections of development.

 Incubators provide flexible accommodation and basic services for SMEs, while Accelerators aim to provide 18 months of development for dynamic young businesses in the 3 months or so of their programmes; and they differ in two main respects: pressure and support.

While Incubators have no time limits on their occupants, Accelerators calibrate their progress and provide at the end of the period an opportunity to present their case to investors – for further funding. And while Incubators are reactive – they may have access to a range of advisers, available on request, Accelerators are proactive – they work with their young businesses to help them identify the advice or support they need, and then find it for them.

The reality is that different things are important at different moments and for different stages of growth. Most valuable is to have access (and not just the one-shot injection that the Business Growth Service provides to its adherents) to people with a depth of experience in the long-term growth of young businesses – a changing quorum of experts in a non-executive role. The big new co-working spaces like the 3,000-seater new WeWork building in Moorgate London (or for that matter the new Crick Institute at Kings Cross, and even the Harwell Campus), would benefit from having a number of such experts on tap, and ready to take up that role.

They can also mediate access to specialist mentors and advisers, and they are also in a position to bring together from time to time those businesses with similar growth issues and in similar sectors – to learn from each other’s progress and experience (like the Belgian Plato programme, and like Wayra Lab – the Telefonica Accelerator And they can run sessions of intensive assessment (like those run by the Sussex Innovation Centre) and short periods of intensive development (like Hackathons

The other crucial difference between Accelerators and Incubators is that you pay for the former in equity, and for the latter in rent.

For an analysis of the several roles that supporters play, see “Managing Creative Groups – how leaders develop creative potential in their teams”, Chapter 9, How leaders provide support. John Whatmore, Kogan Page, 1999.

 John Whatmore

December 2015

Mentoring: great benefits, but considerable problems


Mentoring: great benefits, but considerable problems
The benefits and the problems are well recognised. Several different routes are evolving, and four distinct approaches to the managing of mentors have different benefits and different problems.

Among the benefits that mentors are recognised as offering are their contributions from personal experience, their specific knowledge and expertise, and the contacts they can bring about. Among complaints about mentoring are their uncertain availability, the fact that they may offer conflicting advice, and their potential for incompatibility. Above all, confidence and trust are quintessential factors in the equation. Entrepreneurs are on an express train and they don’t want to be held up by being mis-routed down branch lines.

The managing of mentors has been seen as no more than simply putting them in touch with potential mentees. As yet there have been no serious attempts to manage cohorts of mentors in order to overcome the problems mentioned above, though Startupbootcamp has set great store by the quality of its mentoring; Seedcamp and Techstars great store by their ability to find you just the expert you need; Healthbox has set out to offer advice to startups about making effective use of mentors; Wayra Lab encourages its teams to form non-executive boards; and startup eRipple is seeking to facilitate and enhance the matching process.

What kind of mentoring regime do you espouse? There are at least four different approaches, each with different benefits and different disadvantages:
The reactive: if an incubatee wants some specific help, a mentor with the appropriate expertise can be found. This depends on the incubatee’s inclination to use mentors, on his/her perception of needs for help, as well as on the effectiveness of the linking process. (Bethnal Green Ventures, Bathtub 2)
The proactive: helps incubatees to identify the kind of help they need from moment to moment and can wheel up a mentor appropriate to that need. This approach adds in the expertise of the regular supervisory facilitator – to help identify the often rapidly changing mentoring needs of inexperienced entrepreneurs, but it depends on being able to wheel up not just the right expert, but just the right mentor for this team. (Techstars, Seedcamp)
The mentor programme: a regular programme of mentor visits, each with a different expertise. Useful for those incubatees who happen to need that kind of help at that very moment. (Canary Wharf’s Level39)
The mentor attachment: where a single mentor is attached to each incubatee/team for a duration. More a coach than a mentor, there will be few people who can provide effectively for all of the rapidly changing needs of entrepreneurial teams eg for experience, expertise and contacts. (Birmingham Innovation Campus, BioCity, Wayra Lab – encourages its teams to form non-executive boards; but how are they managed?)

With eRipple I am working with a number of mentees to understand how effective was the mentoring that they experienced and what made it so.

(1) ‘Getting advice in early-stage ventures’ describes the different sources of support and advice that entrepreneurs find valuable – in Accelerators.
(2) ‘I am a fly-on-the-wall at an Accelerator’s Mentor Day’ includes descriptions of different roles that Mentors play.

John Whatmore
December 2014

A Spanish bank has started to run its own Accelerator


A Spanish bank has started to run its own Accelerator – as a training ground for its own staff, and as a means of shifting its culture towards greater innovation; but startups will have reasons to be wary of corporate Accelerators which can limit their possible outcomes.
Banco Sabadell in Barcelona is among the first banks to run its own Accelerator. It has so far run two cohorts of startups through its 6-month programme, each cohort of five small businesses; and it plans to continue to run two cohorts per annum.
The bank believes that like Barcelona’s Football Club, it will be better if it has its own junior academy rather than have to buy in stars later – at a much higher price! An important motive behind the programme is that of shifting the culture of the bank towards greater innovation.
Candidates can be a one-person business, but the business must have at least one full-time employee, or it or it may already be a team; it must have a minimum viable product; it will very probably already have some sales; and it must be capable of rapid development. The first call elicited 400 responses, of which some 40 were shortlisted, and 5 selected.
The bank provides no funding, so candidates will already have a viable business – on a small scale; but it takes an equity stake from participants of between 6 and 10% depending on the valuation of the business.
The bank works with a partner organisation, and has a close relationship with Telefonica’s Wayra Lab, whose Accelerator in Barcelona works with earlier-stage businesses, but runs to a similar timetable.
Participants may either stay where they are already located or they may come to Barcelona, where they would receive closer mentoring. The partner organisation provides five professional mentors, and some twenty are made available by the bank, involving all sections of the bank. The bank is aiming to increase the number of workshops it provides itself, and to involve more of its own employees in the Accelerator programme; and to involve its entrepreneurs increasingly in internal conferences and similar activities of the bank.
From these first two cohorts, two of the businesses have come into the bank; one has successfully gone its own way; the bank is helping some others to find further funding; and about half have failed.

Jon Bradford of Springboard and Techstars pointed out in a recent note that corporate Accelerators may well be less attractive to startups (unless of course the corporate represents a unique market for startup’s product, or else is simply an investor) than independent Accelerators for several reasons: the programme director may have less experience; corporates will have a narrower range of mentors; they will have little interest or experience in introducing the SMEs to the VC community; and their equity stake and rights may muddy other funding opportunities and limit the SMEs market for future funding.

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