Conference Report 2015: Incubators and Accelerators - a major distraction or a perfect tool for technology transfer?

Sean Fielding RTTP, Director of Research and Knowledge Transfer at the University of Exeter and PraxisUnico Board member, reports from the session he chaired featuring speakers Amy Neale of NDRC, Simon Bond of SETsquared, and Jon Bradford of Techstars London.

This session was a provocative look at whether knowledge transfer professionals are taking full advantage of business incubation and science parks. Each speaker described their approach to making ventures happen, with a contrasting range of opinions discussed. 

Amy Neale described NDRC's approach which has collectively raised 88m Euro of investment with a total market cap of 220m Euro. She described its Venturelab programme, which aims to commercialise science and technology by providing a 6 month acceleration programme alongside 100k Euro of investment. It was partly aimed at academic entrepreneurs and is very successful with 58% of its portfolio surviving and growing.

Simon Bond discussed the SETSquared partnership of 5 research-intensive universities in the south of England, including Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey. There are 5 physical incubators and a number of joint acceleration programmes. The focus of SETSquared is principally on the entrepreneur, who may start from different places (including the Universities) with differing goals and journeys. SETSquared de-risks the process through a menu of programmes – open innovation, researcher to innovator (to determine whether the individual has the appetite to progress), iCURe (rapid market validation through small team engagement with customers), entrepreneurship, and mentoring. The system was not originally well connected back into the knowledge exchange teams but is now a key part of the process for driving deal flow.

Jon Bradford expressed the view that universities are too focused on IP and research and not enough on teaching students the skills needed to unleash their entrepreneurial capability. Jon proposed that capital is becoming less important for technology (IT) start-ups, and the barriers to start-up have decreased. The value of his original Springboard programme was in support, connections and guidance, rather than money. He believes that people are learning to set up eco-systems faster, and this is eroding the dominance of Silicon Valley on the technology scene. Jon's five criteria for new entrants to Techstars are "team, team, team, opportunity and team", and he believes that University spin outs often do not thrive in this environment. He prefers to work with 'sneak outs' - people with an idea who are entrepreneurial enough to find support wherever it is.

In the discussion that followed, there were suggestions that more entrepreneurs should be in professorial roles, and that university business plan competitions should be banned. It was noted that space remains important, as it forces people to engage, to collaborate, to share and create value. "People incubators" are emerging which help people with product or ideas to build teams, e.g. Entrepreneur First, which aims to take the top 10% of UK graduates and help them figure out how to work for themselves.

Ultimately, universities need to focus more on making their students succeed rather than generating IP income. Jon Bradford highlighted that he is an advocate of the ‘golden share’ model. There was a discussion about the merits of growing technology transfer teams, populating them with experienced business people and moving them off campus, leaving the academics to continue their academic pursuits. However, it was recognised how difficult it is to transplant or advance ideas without the originator. It was felt we shouldn't be trying to turn academics into entrepreneurs but entrepreneurial academics should be supported.