A local authority aims to be a beacon of innovation and growth


Innovation in a local authority: a London borough develops partnerships for growth Hammersmith and Fulham Council begins to see its strategy taking shape for becoming ‘a beacon of innovation and growth’.

The Council aims to turn the borough into ‘West Tech’, a leading place for technical and creative businesses, education and research.

At present the Borough is a mixed bag: it has many small businesses, a number of educational establishments, a thriving arts scene, several large hospitals, and the headquarters of several large national/international companies – for all of which it has conceived a vision: to transform the borough into ‘a global beacon of innovation and growth’.

It has set out a daunting list of objectives – under three heads:

  1.  Make White City and Imperial’s new campus a ‘destination’ and a world class innovation district
  2. Make the borough a top choice to attract businesses from the UK and internationally
  3. Ensure residents benefit from the changes they see.

Economic opportunities are anchored in the growth of Imperial’s new campus at White City, which will become a centre of discovery and innovation by virtue of its excellence in research and education in science, medicine and social enterprise. There is an accompanying arts strategy, though it is based not on funds but on facilitating innovation; and an accompanying strategy relating to the substantial presence of the education sector in the borough.

In Autumn 2018 Chemistry became the first of Imperial’s departments to move from South Kensington to White City, taking up residence at the Molecular Science Research Hub, which brings together nearly 800 scientists, clinicians, engineers and business partners and houses the latest equipment and infrastructure. A Deep Tech network is launched this May encouraging interaction with the aim of addressing common challenges such as in energy, healthcare and sustainability.

The campus’s iHub will house corporate partners, fast growth companies and startups. Hammersmith Hospital is to become a hub round which businesses can be co-located based on multi-disciplinary research in health and well-being.

The growth of clusters of technology, media and telecoms businesses will be supported with new land development policies, among them for affordable workspaces, and venture capital funding.

A number of parties including Imperial have enabled the creation of a low-cost ‘park’ for bio startups – in the Old Laundry Yard alongside Shepherds Bush Market, where a property company has been persuaded to locate 45 shipping containers, into each of which a smart little office has been constructed. Since completion about six months ago, four bio businesses have moved in, occupying about a quarter of these containers.

For the last 18 months, a joint venture between Hammersmith and Fulham and Imperial called Upstream – effectively a mini speed-dating agency –has run increasingly compelling events to bring sparkling people together, to picture the possibilities of the Innovation Hub, and identify the problems (recruitment, training, communications etc)

Among it successes has been working with a local organisation whose focus is venture building, and which is now partnering Imperial in constructing a building called ScaleSpace – for hi-growth young businesses.

These huge and all-embracing plans will be led by a new business growth team, whose head, recently appointed, brings experience of the Kings Cross development in Camden. ‘He will need to stimulate enthusiasm for enterprise… in a borough that has high birth and death rates for new businesses.’

While the overall objectives sound grandiose, encouragingly the Council and Imperial have both endorsed strategies that embrace each other.

John Whatmore, July 2019





Does Puerto Rico’s success with an Accelerator have a message for us?


The worse the economic circumstances, the greater the opportunity for startups – maybe. Does this story about Puerto Rico point to a way for helping disadvantaged areas in the UK ?In Puerto Rico’s deepening recession, two small startup generators, funded by a local trust, have begun to make an impact on its dire economy.

 Puerto Rico has suffered from continuing problems for a number of years, losing 10% of it population over the last 10 years as workers left the island in search of better jobs elsewhere; and since the Hurricane in 2017, another 4% have followed. Garment factories closed in the 1980s and 90s, changes in the US tax code caused large corporations and their factories to leave the island, and it fell into a long recession from which it is yet to recover. Puerto Rico used to import 85% of everything it consumed; and after the Hurricane that figure rose to 95%.

Brainhi was conceived in the immediate aftermath of the Hurricane. Two individuals found connectivity in a small strip of the island and worked from the street to create a company that automated communication with doctor’s offices. If a human receptionist did not pick up the phone, Brainhi’s artificial chatbot would step in to answer questions, helping the offices that were severely understaffed after the hurricane.

It got its start as one of the companies in a startup accelerator programme in San Juan organised by Parallel18. For a little over three years, Parallel18 has worked with 168 startup, each of which receives $40,000 in equity-free funding, co-working space and coaching. It also started a pre-accelerator programme after Hurricane Maria, to foster local startups in earlier stages of development. The aim is to power a new wave of locally owned businesses that are resilient enough to weather future turmoil; and the numbers suggest that this may be working.

A resource hub for people trying to start new businesses in Puerto Rico called Colmen66 and Parallel18 have offices next door to one another; and both receive funding from the non-profit Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust.

Brainhi’s founder graduated in Puerto Rico but was one of the few in his class and among his friends who stayed in the island. Now he is attempting to reverse the tide. Helping people to come back to Puerto Rico and rejoin their families has been a heart-warming experience, he says.

Parellel18’s Outreach Manager hopes that by building a startup system across the Caribbean, they will be better prepared to deploy regional solutions in response to future hurricanes. Together with Facebook, Parallel18 is making plans to begin Startup Hub Caribbean, which will be the first accelerator that Facebook has set up in the Caribbean. [Facebook Accelerators generally relate to startups that support Facebook’s core business eg the development of apps.]

Maybe disasters are indeed an opportunity for startups. Shouldn’t the UK’s Department of Business be getting Nesta to commission say Startupbootcamp or Techstars to set up organisations like Parallel18 in areas of high unemployment in the UK?

(Excerpted from the New York Times)  

 John Whatmore, May 2019





Mentoring: fitting Empathy in


Mentoring; fitting Empathy in Why is effective mentoring so difficult to deliver?

There are many well known examples, Einstein, Ghandi and Martha Graham among them. Oprah Winfrey cites author and poet Maya Angelou; Bill Gates names Warren Buffet; Bob Dylon’s was Woody Guthrie; Mark Zuckerberg’s was Steve Jobs. So what makes it work?

Until and unless you know someone well, it is more than difficult to figure out what kind of support would be most valuable – whether it is their ambitions, their objectives, their interests, their interactions or what. And it takes empathy to appreciate what kind of influence might be of value.

Mentors can help startups at specific stages – in concept development, production, marketing, finance and management; but mentoring needs are of all sorts and kinds, and that is the focus of the mentor manager (and where speed-dating is more like pot luck). I particularly recall being encouraged by my mentor when she said: “If you have come up against a problem, you are about to make a break-through.”

Enrico Fermi has been described as one of the most productive of scientists ever; a Nobel Laureate, but also, and intriguingly, as mentor to six other Nobel Laureates, he must have been able to be a different person to each of those different people. So what was he like?

‘As a person, Fermi seemed simplicity itself. He was extraordinarily vigorous; and in sport his ambitious nature became apparent. He was something of a benevolent dictator. This leadership and self-assurance gave Fermi the name of “The Pope” whose pronouncements were infallible in physics; and he preferred quick and dirty answers to time spent on consumingly accurate solutions – that came to be known as ‘the Fermi Method’. But all this did not offend at all, but rather charmed everybody into liking him.’

John Whatmore, April 2019

Imperial takes the lead in mentoring – from MIT


Imperial takes its lead in mentoring from MIT Imperial has appointed an outstanding head to manage its mentoring service, with clear plans for how it shall work and for growing it to meet a fast growing need.

The President of Imperial, seeking to surf to-day’s wave of entrepreneurialism, recently appointed Paul Atherton, an outstandingly successful serial technology entrepreneur who focuses on startup companies from UK universities, to direct the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service, which he accepted only on the basis that it would have top level support.

Imperial has based its programme on MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service (see yesterday’s post for details of that service).

Imperial’s first initiative (after induction and training at MIT in Boston) was in late 2017 and it has now recruited around 40 mentors. It expects to reach 50 by this summer; and will need to recruit many more; the Director is currently interviewing around a couple of candidates a week, sourced from existing mentors, the development office and other contacts.

The aim is to provide to selected startups a pair of mentors, each with specific qualities. One of them will have been through the process and got all the scars of creating and developing at least one startup, experiencing its traumas and successes. And the other will be someone with extensive current knowledge of the specific field and market in which their startup is working. They are senior people with impressive records, and experienced in this kind of interaction.

The Director is responsible for making matches – which are based on the mutual accord of the proposed mentors and the team. They meet as a group about every six weeks; and may continue working together until the first/next funding round. Feed-back about each meeting is sent to the programme office (which also makes the arrangements for all the meetings.) The full cohort of mentors meets up once a year and talk together about their experiences.

Avoiding any possible conflicts of interest is a serious concern. If a mentor seeks to become more involved in the company of which they are a mentor, they may only do so on the basis of non-conflicted advice to the parties involved.

Imperial’s annual Venture Catalyst Challenge which this year attracted more than 350 applicants and in the final stage has provided intense support for 35 of them, provides a continuing stream of young businesses that can benefit from its mentoring services, as does the faculty and the Business School. Paul Atherton is looking to provide mentors for around 60 new young businesses per annum, and is pleased with progress so far.

Mentoring is sometimes regarded as a Golden Goose, whose magic is unfathomable, but we need to be able to understand how to get it to lay golden eggs. Managing the mentoring process should be as integral to incubators as management is to their businesses.

[I would be very interested to hear about where you are with mentoring, and especially your future plans. john.whatmore@btinternet.com]

John Whatmore, March 2019



The managing of mentoring


What is wrong with our mentoring? Mentoring is not making the contribution of which it is capable. It is time for new initiatives. MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service is a managed process, which has been adopted widely, and now by Imperial.

Nearly 60% of startup failures are because they do not meet a real customer need, says recent research by CBInsights; and a third of all startup failures blame team problems. Yet research on mentoring (reported in ‘Accelerators’ 2018, by Wright and Drori) asserts that marketing opportunities and lack of managerial experience are two of the top fields in which mentors help startups. So what is going wrong with mentoring?

From 2011 a UK government scheme enabled hi-growth small businesses to work with a mentor; and mentoring was a key part of the government’s 2012 Growth Builder programme, but alas, despite its record of success, for some strange reason it was withdrawn in 2016.

Seedcamp, Y Combinator, Techstars, Wayra Lab and Startupbootcamp – leaders in the field of Accelerators, all hold tenaciously to the importance of mentors and mentoring. With their regular re-evaluation of progress, problems and plans (‘Office Hours’), and with their many connections, they aim to link startups to people with specialised expertise or experience, often using variants of speed-dating.

Where mentoring has been made available in Incubators in the UK, it often amounts to no more than an introduction to someone with vaguely related experience, and the process left to find its own way.

MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) has taken a more systematic approach. It is not simply a service of introductions: it is a managed programme.

“ * First establish a local cohort of volunteer mentors (carefully interviewed and screened) who warrant that they will have no financial interest in this work, whose ethos is one of giving back and who confirm their commitment to giving one to two days equivalent in a month and will come to a monthly meeting of mentors (they will value its prestige, its networking and its sociability).

* Mentors always work and meet together in teams of 3-5, one of whom is the lead mentor.  They are from different business backgrounds and will share their different business experiences.

* The entrepreneur they are serving determines the agenda for each meeting and MIT makes all the meeting arrangements.”

MIT VMS has applications from 20-30 new ventures a month (from students, faculty, staff and importantly from Alumni).

For the last 13 years, MIT VMS has also run an intensive Outreach Training Program (for details, see 1 below) which has trained 91 sister programs from 23 countries (in universities, economic development organizations, accelerators, incubators and in hybrid organizations) to help them establish their own formal mentoring program based on the MIT VMS Model.

MIT VMS has been in discussions with a number of other parties in the UK, but the only adopter has been Imperial College. [To-morrow, yes, to-morrow I review Imperial’s approach and progress with mentoring.]

John Whatmore, March 2019


(1) In the Outreach Program, under an agreement with MIT, an organisation sends a team of up to 5 people to MIT for the Immersion Training Program of 2 1/2 days which includes:

-comprehensive curriculum with sessions on the concept of team mentoring,  who makes a good mentor, where to find such people and criteria for entrepreneurs for successful mentoring.

-observing an actual team mentoring session being conducted

-attending a MIT VMS Monthly Mentor Meeting

-meeting mentors, entrepreneurs and management informally.

MIT VMS staff will mentor the visiting organisation as though they were a start up and will hold a strategy mentoring session with them as mentees.  As an additional and optional program, MIT VMS will send an instructor/mentor to their location to train their first group of new mentors.


John Whatmore, March 2019


Learning from fellow startups


Learning from fellow startups I have regularly asked participants what they have found of greatest value in their incubator or accelerator. By far the most common response is what you learn from your fellow startups.

Most of to-day’s communications are by the internet, where every e-mail is tersely headed ‘Subject’ and labeled ‘data’. But you never know where a good conversation might go: it might prompt a connection, a revelation, or even an inspiration, and then lead you who knows where. So how do Startup communities harvest the benefits of being together?

Proximity. Bethnal Green Ventures (and many others) make use of pint-sized rooms in which their small teams work intimately with one another. Desks are often butted up to each other or in clusters (also Watershed, Bristol; and IdeaLondon.)

Regular meetings of groups whose members have issues in common, such as workshops, discussion groups etc. They encourage participants to articulate and wrestle with their issues (Plato Belgium, Cockpit Arts, Learning Marathons RCA.)

Regular meetings of whole cohorts – Y Combinator brings its participants together regularly for a meal, at which they are required to report on their progress, their problems and their plans (as does Bethnal Green Ventures and many others). At Watershed Bristol, the programme leader then circulated notes to everyone so that anyone could pick up and pursue another’s lead.(See also the UCL/RBS hi-growth programme for Scaleups.)

Breaks – café areas can be arranged to encourage conversations (Costa’s Chatty Café scheme proposes a long communal table); the Tramperies have coffee Fridays, IdeaLondon drinks evenings; and Loughborough University has an incubator kitchen where you can both cook and eat. The Ping pong table is emblematic of the games area – common to many accelerators and incubators.

Outings – trips to suppliers, customers, conferences, related experts etc provide opportunities for all sorts of conversations (Central Research Laboratory’s visit to China; ‘Entrepreneurial Scotland’s’ visits to Silicon Valley; I-Corp’s extensive programmes of enquiry.)

Online groups – some cohorts have also established their own internet groups (a London South Bank University group uses Slack.)

John Whatmore, March 2019










An ‘Innovation Hub’ in top sport


An Innovation Hub in the world of top sport Barcelona, the greatest football club in the world, quietly launched its ‘Innovation Hub’ in 2017, which Maria Bartomeu, its president, now regards as its most important project. What can we learn from it?

A few people have extraordinary skills (such as reading the game, facilitating others) suggests a piece in the FT, skills that can be identified, nurtured, sustained and put to good use, but are difficult to emulate (but not impossible – see footnote).

The Hub’s 16 staff are about spreading the best innovations around the club, but also more than an internal tool: ‘helping to invent the football of the future’. They search for incremental gains both on and off the field.

The club’s reputation has been made on the field – with its outstanding record of success. The team’s basic playing style and match tactics are ‘only a crutch’, though derived from intense analysis of their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and their likely tactics for this game. But football belongs to the players – ‘they take their own decisions’ says Valverde, the Head Coach. ‘The great players analyse the game better than I do’.

The great Lionel Messi ‘reserves the first minutes of each match for interpretation’…’ignoring the ball and taking a reconnaissance walk around the opposition defense, fixing each man’s position in his head. Then as the game advances, he gets in little by little. But he knows perfectly well where the rival’s weaknesses are.’

Barcelona’s data analysts spend their lives looking for an edge for their team; and players like advice that is specific. The analysts’ focus used to be on passes, tackles, shots etc, but the question may now be how a player positions himself: is he controlling crucial spaces and creating space for teammates?

The club now uses a new tracking system, developed with Spanish startup RealTrackSystems, which relies on wearable sensors to track players’ positions, speeds, accelerations, recovery distance, heartbeat, force of collisions etc. The club hopes that this information will help players to create ‘superiorities’ – that are numerical (two players against one), positional (your player controls a space) or qualitative (Messi dribbling against an inferior opponent).

But, says Velverde, ‘for now, the club’s analysts can barely help the players do that. On the contrary, the analysts learn about football by observing the club’s most intelligent players.’ (‘Midfielder Sergio Basquets, knows just how to draw an opponent towards him and then release a team mate into the space the man has left.’)

So how do you identify the most intelligent players? One long-standing theory is that they are those who almost always face the right way on the field. Some would say that Barcelona simply attracts great players (it pays them each more than £10mn pa), but Valverde say ‘nobody comes here for the money; they come here because they like playing football’; and grumbles that the club cannot attract all of those whom it would like to. When we are buying a player, says Valverde, ‘we look at his speed, his number of ball recoveries, the attacks he has interrupted, but above all the club asks people around the player about his psychology…he may come with amazing data, but is he ‘[psychologically]’ a satellite….?’

Those words suggest another (perhaps vital) touchstone: that Barcelona may now be focusing on how its players help each other to make use of their special talents – as much as their own (like Basquets).

And then there are issues about fitness. All players now wear a chip that monitors the training sessions, with the aim of trying to predict stress or injury. ‘But the club will need to build up a knowledge base largely by themselves [as] medicine has little to say about football injuries.’ So the club is now partnering about 40 studies of such injuries. It is also focusing on a player’s external load: how many games of what intensity has he played recently; and how is he reacting internally – with the overall aim of individualising each player’s care, (although as much as the club may want to ensure that they have the very best that is available, players have their own regimes and lives.)

The Board member who oversees the Hub talks about Barcelona as becoming the Silicon Valley of sport. The club plans to launch investment funds to invest in tech and sports projects worldwide; and it exchanges ideas less with their football rivals than with American sports franchises – from San Francisco’s 49ers of gridiron football to basketballs Golden State Warriors.

And Barcelona also has plans to build ‘the best sporting complex in the world in the centre of a great city’ – that will set the tone in global sport. Social impact is part of the Club’s mission, and it informs the work of the Innovation Hub as it does everything else – as a society, to perform at your very best.

Footnote: My book ‘Releasing Creativity’ has eighteen stories of leaders (in a variety of fields) who have this talent. One is of an Olympic Athletics coach; another was an Olympic Kayak coach – out of a total of 40 in a research project for the then Department of Trade and Industry. (Available from Amazon.)

From ‘How FC Barcelona are preparing for the future of football’, Simon Kuper; FT Weekend Magazine, March 2/3, 2019

 John Whatmore, March 2019