Making Innovation flourish


3. I visit a uniquely successful Open Innovation incubator – in the Arts If innovation is of the essence to the performing arts, the ’Studio’ of the National Theatre – which has a unique reputation as a powerhouse of creativity and innovation – seems to be a playground of collaborative experimentation – like no other. Seemingly best described as a semi-curated space for creative collaboration, by artfully managing to bring together those who might in some way contribute to one another, it readily attracts people who can benefit from the simple safe spaces that it offers in which to experiment, ‘to dream, to work, to sweat over ideas that aren’t ready and to hone stuff that is nearly there’ – a vibrant, active, welcoming place for unexpected and interesting things to happen for a wide range of artists in the nation’s performing arts.

The National Theatre’s Studio is a building beside the Old Vic that used to be the latter’s paintframe, but is now a unique powerhouse for original work in the performing arts in the UK. It was described to me as a ‘development house’, like a semi-curated playground for people whose ideas look to the curators as if they might burgeon there, whose essential ingredients are ideas, potential and space.

Nicholas Hytner describes it thus: ‘The Studio is the National Theatre’s engine room. It’s also an irreplaceable resource for the whole of British theatre. Actors, directors, theatre-makers of all sorts – and above all writers – use it to dream, to work, to sweat over ideas that aren’t ready and to hone stuff that is nearly there’; and it does so ‘under the radar’, where there is no explicit objective or goal, thus allowing them ‘to fail’ – from which further development, the next idea, or the next project might emerge.

About a third of its work is for the NT, a third for the wider theatre sector across the UK, and the remaining third on ideas that seem to have a future but have not yet found it. And its work encompasses people who play most if not all of the roles in theatre, from actors to writers, composers, designers, directors and producers and even including researchers and historians.

Primarily it is about creativity via collaboration and collaborative experience. Some of what happens in the Studio takes the form of semi-curated collaborations (eg writer with composer, chef with actor, established writer with abstract performance artists).

The core staff – of under ten people, each with dramatically different backgrounds and experience are above all else interacters and matchmakers, ‘playfully curious’, and lateral thinkers with associative minds. They are very active in going out and seeing work, to learn about everything that is new in the arts world, that seems to have potential and that might succumb to collaborative development.

And from the knowledge that they acquire and from their considerable experience, they invite people to get in touch and pitch their needs – individuals, groups, even organisations that have open minds and collaborative cultures, with a view to their spending time in the studio – often in unlikely and unpredictable pairings – just to see what happens from their workings together, or to develop some work-in-progress.

These opportunities for experimentation are much sought after and the pressure for space is considerable, putting heavy responsibility on the expertise and experience of the staff for making decisions about the allocation of spaces. Directors, designers and actors are readily attracted the 500 yards from the NT itself often just to draw inspiration from or to contribute to the playful atmosphere that the Studio exudes (everyone gets the same daily fee.)

The Studio contains two separate performance studios, the smaller of which is furnished with digital technology and comprehensive rig, and for movement, but without the prospect of much scenery; and is more suited to working on ideas and concepts. The second is larger and more like a theatre space where ideas for theatre are experimented with in terms of how they might be portrayed and how they come over. The third space is generally used for reading scripts aloud (although the room was used as the ‘War Horse’ production office, a ground-breaking production that was substantially developed at the Studio.) These spaces are used primarily by writers, directors and producers trying out their ideas about something, simply to see what happens if you do it this way or that – without any particular goal; and thus, the failure to make it work is neither here nor there, except as perhaps representing a milestone in progress, from which a new problem or opportunity emerges.

There are other spaces – of various sizes: a smaller room, currently being used for two weeks by a small young group with a new idea but no home base in which to work it out together; and yet smaller ones (with no ornamentation – Peter Brooke’s The Empty Space being a universally pervasive theme) – one currently occupied for several weeks by a writer, and another by an historian writing a treatise on Gender in the Theatre. And then a further section of the building houses the Archive of the National Theatre. There is a small and carefully tended roof garden, described as a ‘thinking space’. And there are office-type rooms, meeting rooms, break-out rooms, dressing rooms and music rooms.

On the ground floor, there is a kitchen and a Green Room, and an area where every Thursday sees a significant but totally informal joining together – to eat lunch and to talk, when some group will show a performance-in–progress, which will be followed by lively discussion and comment, (and which will often spark new projects).

The Studio also has an educational role. It runs a programme for Staff Directors (one of whom is attached to one of the three NT theatres) to provide them with the opportunity to learn craft from an NT director, as well as occasionally to develop a project of their own. And there is an annual two-week course for some twenty emerging directors, chosen on the basis of recent work that the staff members have seen, in which specific experts contribute to their development, and which helps them to benefit from meeting their peers. And the Studio works in this context with the individual departments at the NT (Literary/Casting/Music etc)

The closure for six months of the Cottesloe Theatre, the smallest of the NTs three spaces, has led to an opportunity to use the Square – the space formed by the L-shape of the National Theatre – for performances of a different kind. In temporary buildings, they were smaller, shorter runs, and less dependent on scenery and technology, and hence simpler and more experimental, and it was hoped that this might carry over into the Cottesloe itself. As such, they take a place in the current fashion for performance art that pervades many genres, inspired in part perhaps by the overbearing developments in personal communication.

With many champions, the Studio has a unique position among a small number of discreet organisations that play a similar role, but none so comprehensively or so egregiously.

John Whatmore, October 2019

Making Innovation flourish


2. Artists as disrupters: an incubator where artists and technology meet A New York Incubator takes a realistic look at the future of work in cities through the perspective of innovation in the arts

Forty full-time fee-paying members have been selected from over 400 applicants to have two years of full-time access to the 8,000 square foot co-working space in New York at the New Museum’s then four-week-old art and technology co-working incubator. The space includes amenities typical of both business incubators and maker spaces, such as meeting spaces and technical equipment including 3D printers. Aside from access to the space, membership also includes business classes and mentorships.

The values people bring to the incubator are different to the values at a conventional business incubator because “they are not necessarily devoted to profit, scale or attracting investors.”

Its goal is to support and diversify creative industries in New York City. A study by the New York Center for an Urban Future indicates that although New York turns out many art and design graduates who would like to stay in the city, unfortunately most don’t have resources to do so. Another study conducted by software company Intuit indicated that by 2020, more than 40 percent of the American workforce, or 60 million people, will be freelancers, contractors and temp workers. The hope is that it will become part of a vibrant New York City cultural and economic ecosystem as co-creators of a community that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Rafaël Rozendaal is an artist who creates unique URLs and websites in order to sell them to people who agree to be stewards; artist Lisa Park uses technology to detect her brain activity and then displays it in real-time as waves on pools of water; and Carlo Van de Roer has created novel techniques for manipulating light in images and is working on patenting his inventions. NEW INC tries to help its members leverage the intellectual property they are creating without taking a financial interest.

‘When people describe themselves as an artist, they get less money for a job than when they describe themselves as technologists or engineers’, so there is a desire to confront semantic issues and traditional boundaries in art, technology, business and society.

The focus is on artists who are starting their own tech-oriented businesses or adding a “missing ingredient” to entrepreneur teams; and there is a desire to leverage this interdisciplinary community for social impact.

One commentator added that ‘…the creation of a business and the best businesses are motivated by the pursuit of an idea – the pursuit of a disruption, not by the money; usually the sustainability is due to the founder finding a way to turn a small failure into another disruption.’

John Whatmore, October, 2019




Making Innovation flourish


Are Incubators and accelerators becoming ossified in their formats? If so, the arts suggest a more varied landscape, and a less prescriptive approach – from which business could draw.

Paul Miller of Bethnal Green Ventures once said, ‘we won’t know how successful our Accelerator has been for five years!’ But Accelerators and Incubators continue to proliferate – Accelerators with the same basic model and well-established phases.

The arts continue to be one of the UK’s most vibrant sectors, with creativity and innovation their foundation. So what do the engine rooms of the arts suggest that could transfer to business?

Stageplays go through processes very similar to any business startup; from conception, through development, staging and rehearsal to commercialisation; and they are highly collaborative. The parallels are too close to ignore. What do their incubators have to tell us?

Over the next three days, I offer three contributions: a review of some incubators in the arts; a glimpse of an art and technology co-working incubator in New York; and an intimate picture of the National Theatre’s outstanding Studio workshop in London.

1. ‘Incubators’ in the arts: some examples

Studios are designed as incubators for people who have ideas for innovations – with the aim of helping to turn those ideas into commercial artworks. Often they are no more than premises, available on highly flexible terms, with common services, usually with the support of mentoring and visiting experts – like Cockpit Arts, home to some 170 small businesses in arts and crafts in London.

Watershed Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio is a variant of this in that it is a ‘convivium’, in which some thirty people work in close proximity in a single hall, hotdesking in a pressure cooker regime which encourages interaction. In another variant of Watershed’s approach (an applications search) bursaries were awarded to a small number of people for a common fixed period, for them to investigate a particular technological development in a given field (pervasive media – in the performing arts).

Another variant is the ‘ideas nursery’: Metal Art in north London is a studio space where writers in the performing arts can take time out to develop an idea they have for a play. The National Theatre’s Studio Workshop acts as a concept development lab for helping playwrites to develop existing material – by providing facilities to ‘see how it works’(see below.)

The Battersea Arts Centre (mission: developing the future of theatre) acts as a drop-in incubator by being willing to host for one night or more plays which are in various stages of development, to enable the authors to get immediate feed-back from their audiences. (It has also built accommodation to enable playwrites to live together for short periods.)

Desh Deshpande, guru of the Rolex Awards for Innovation and Enterprise, talked simply about putting students into groups of four and asking them to solve a practical problem – a nice way to help the hordes of students who currently aspire to become entrepreneurs and test their capabilities.

To-morrow: 2. Artists as disrupters: an incubator where artists and technology meet A New York Incubator takes a realistic look at the future of work in cities through the perspective of innovation in the arts











To-day’s needs for startups – from Fast Company


Fast Company’s recent ‘quick read’ on ‘risk modifications’ (though US oriented) only goes to underline the need in the UK for regimes of support for mature people to take up entrepreneurship.‘The startup world sees its participants as either potential unicorns or drab losers, and rarely focuses on the ups and downs of building experience in enterprise. ‘

‘We can provide risk modifications’ says Fast Company ‘that will increase the propensity to take smart, calculated risks and build the small businesses and startups that are necessary across the country today!

  •  We should emphasize experience as a major asset to starting a business. Yes, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were college dropouts. But most successful entrepreneurs hit 30 before unleashing their big idea. Maturity matters.
  • Access to early-stage funding should be much more available and transparent. We need more awareness and better access to community venture funds, foundation grants, small business loans, and CDFIs, among others.
  • Entrepreneurs need portable benefits – health care, retirement savings, and other basics. This might be from one of the many portable benefit startups that existnow, or the programs that big insurers are launching, or might eventually be government funded at the state or federal level.
  • We need more accessible programs that offer non-cash capital–training around launching, regulatory burdens, payroll and HR, branding and marketing, recruiting, and all the other crucial determinants of success and failure.’

In the UK we are a long way from most of this. It emphasises how very much we need an organisation to represent the world of startups.

John Whatmore, October 2019




What makes for effective nurseries for young businesses


A US-based charity is funded by the UK government to explore how well they are working in Africa – a project which touches all sorts of issues and contains advice for all Entrepreneur Programme managers.

Funded by the UK Department for International Development’s Impact Programme, Village Capital’s research aimed to convene leading African Entrepreneur Support Organisations (as accelerators, incubators et al ‘ESOs’) and share best practices. What does this project tell us and why do we not have the benefit of a similar study of the UK?

‘We learned’ says the ‘VilCap Communities’ report ‘that the entrepreneur support sector in Africa has an opportunity for better communication and collaboration. ESOs are growing businesses – much like the startups they serve. We need to focus on resourcing and strengthening existing hubs, rather than creating new ones.’ The same conclusion might well apply to the UK, so I abstract below the key findings from this report.

Building cohorts of entrepreneurs

1.Consider running programmes with a narrow focus. ESOs that run sector-specific programmes reported that they were able to attract higher-quality mentors and raise more funding later on.

2. Don’t treat a livelihood-sustaining business as though it was a high-growth startup.        It’s tempting to group micro, small and medium-sized enterprises        (MSMEs) together  under the category of “entrepreneur” or “small business”. But these businesses can have incredibly diverse business models.

3. Peer collaboration matters. According to a 2018 study, accelerators that place a heavy importance on peer collaboration between startups tend to outperform. Avoid bringing direct competitors into the same cohort; otherwise, try to bake in as many opportunities for interaction and collaboration as possible.

Designing a strong curriculum

1. Be smart about selecting programme partners who will roll up their sleeves. A study found that partners who are perceived as “adding brand value” because of their famous names do not play a major role in delivering positive programme outcomes. On the other hand, partners who contribute to the curriculum and play a meaningful role in programming tend to yield better outcomes – even if they are not as well-known. If your accelerator is going to partner with a corporation or a large institution, it is a good idea to educate these partners on how to add tangible value to the entrepreneurs.

2. Spend time on 1-1 interaction, not lectures. Avoid building your entire programme around guest speakers or formal classroom-style sessions. Research shows that one-on-one mentoring is more effective than lectures, and our highest-rated curriculum modules – stakeholder advisory sessions, mock board meetings, investor forums, and milestone planning – all involve identifying and matching startups with external stakeholders, customers, strategic partners, investors or advisors. If a mentor is well matched, they tend to enjoy the session and come back when invited again.

3. Build in time for reflection and repeat mentor interactions. Investors at the early stage are often taking a bet on the founder and their ability to execute. It can be very valuable to facilitate repeat interactions between entrepreneurs and the mentors or investors they meet at a programme, so that the entrepreneurs can demonstrate how they respond to feedback and report on their progress over time. Traditionally, Village Capital programmes have a one-month gap between each four-day workshop.

Building a sustainable business model

1. Diversify your revenue streams. Several of the most successful ESOs in Africa have sought funding beyond philanthropic capital and subsidies – for instance through consulting and research fees, co-working space rental fees, sponsored data and impact research, or in some cases commission on capital raised for their startups.

2. A fund is not a business model – at least not in the short term. Several ESOs we have spoken with are looking to set up their own micro-VC funds. This can be an effective strategy for supporting entrepreneurs, and may deliver returns in the long run. But the most common types of funds have minimal management fees (2-4% of fund value) and are unlikely to deliver payouts in the first eight years.

3. Develop (and track) relevant impact metrics. Many ESOs [commented] that they struggle to measure and evaluate data on their programme’s impact. The good news: this is not a problem exclusively felt by your organisation. The bad news: if ESOs as a sector do not get better at measuring impact, donors will stop funding the sector. Valuable metrics include venture growth, job growth, positive social and environmental impact etc.

4. Build templates for systems and repeat processes. The VilCap Communities Toolkit harnesses learnings from more than sixty programmes. It includes templates, guides, and programme management tools, including a template that guides ESOs through the process of performing due diligence on applicants to accelerators.

Developing your team

1. Petition partners for unrestricted funding to support team capacity. Grantmakers often provide constraints and restrictions on how funding can be dispersed. Restricted funding often leads to scope creep, distracting ESOs from their core work, which should be to support entrepreneurs.

2. Hire for the stage you want to reach, not the stage you are at. Early-stage CEOs tend to treat hiring as an administrative function rather than a strategic one. Hiring for the future involves thinking strategically about where your company is going, identifying areas where you need help, and making a plan for how you will fill those critical skill sets, even if it is down the road.

3.Entrepreneurial experience should be non-negotiable. ESO programming that is managed by people with no entrepreneurial experience can actually have a negative impact on entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, “Knowledge, mentorship, or investment coming from an entrepreneur who has led a company to scale was associated with approximately two times greater prevalence of top performance.”

Thinking regional

1. Consider coordinating on regional programming. We have found that ESOs that run regional programmes, or facilitate cross-ecosystem connections, have been more successful in raising operating and investment capital. We share insights on how to implement incubation programmes, provide seed investment, conduct research on growing sectors, and advocate for startup-friendly policies.

2. Consider collective advocacy. Organisations like i4Policy are leading the charge on lobbying governments for startup-friendly policy – both on a country-by-country basis and by creating collaborative links across ecosystems. Contributing to this kind of collective advocacy can feel off-mission, but will yield returns in the long run.

[‘Many accelerators end their programmes with an on-stage pitch competition, where investors in the audience will pick a winner. When we surveyed our companies and asked them where they met investors, it was rarely at an actual pitch event. The format privileges the ones who pitch well, rather than the ones who have the highest potential. At Village Capital we have replaced demo days with 1-1 investor meetings.’]

The report also has insights for Grant makers and Funders, about embracing additional forms of support and working longer term.

Vilcap, an Impact Invester par excellence, is a US-based charity that identifies significant regional needs, raises funds, and builds and runs teams to deliver solutions to those needs.

See Unlocking-Pipeline-Playbook-Village-Capital-1.pdf

John Whatmore, September 2019

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