A note from Nick Sturge, Engine Shed Director: one size does not fit all – especially when it comes to incubators

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In cities around the world, there is a perception, especially by politicians, that buildings full of 20-somethings looking busy, with free beer on tap and funky music, are hotbeds of new businesses. The spaces are attractive and beneficial to many, but unlikely to be the source of stellar companies.We often hear the word ‘incubator’ used as a catch-all for spaces housing start-up businesses. But what does it really mean?

The word incubator is used in lots of different scenarios – some are just offices (some with labs) for companies in the same sector to co-locate, some are simply shared desk-spaces (aka “co-working”).

What defines an incubator, really, is the entry and exit criteria – who can come in, and how long can they stay? – and the level of value-add, over and above the implicit value of the community.

There is no wrong composition of an incubator, but it’s critical to have common expectations.

The co-location of like-minded businesses is an important element of an ecosystem, and it’s not wrong to call such spaces incubators. But if they are simply space, then companies looking to move in, or investors judging the value of the support environment, need to be clear as to what is actually going on, and what they will get.

Our city-region is extremely rich in the depth and breadth of support available. We now have two incubators with high-specification lab facilities – Future Space and Unit DX; we have an incubator designed specifically for fresh graduates of all our universities – LaunchSpace; an incubator designed for more artisan businesses – Spike Design, a virtual incubator programme for the creative industries – Network for Creative Enterprise, an incubator for VR/AR businesses – VR Lab, and two incubators specifically for high-growth technology businesses – the SETsquared Centres in Bath & Bristol.

We also have the NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator the Oracle Startup Cloud Accelerator (OSCA), which, while also a space, is a fixed-term programme. Unlike many accelerators, Entrepreneur Accelerator and OSCA do not take a stake in the businesses it works with – just like all the other incubators listed above. I’m looking forward to supporting the selection of OSCA’s next cohort this week.

What is really valuable, I think, is that these incubators and accelerators all talk to each other and share – it’s not unusual for businesses to be based physically in one incubator and receive support from one of the other incubators. That is powerful, and embeds, I suggest, a positive culture of collaboration within the emergent businesses, that leads them to be more successful, sustainable, and reflective of that ‘special sauce’ that permeates Bristol & Bath.

Engine Shed hosts and facilitates a monthly get together of the incubators, accelerators, and hubs in the West of England, to keep us all abreast of current trends and challenges.

The emergence of new co-working and tech-focused flexible office spaces in the city-region will massively enhance the capability and capacity of our ecosystem, which is long overdue, particularly as providers of exciting, flexible, and fertile grow-on space for scaling business. I look forward to working with them openly and collaboratively. We just need to remember that different environments provide different levels of support.

A crucial thread of business support is a critical culture. SETsquared’s entrepreneurs-in-residence, for example, all with business growth and exits behind them, continually challenge entrepreneurs on their strategy and implementation to make sure that not only they are doing the right thing, but also that they are learning the techniques for being self-critical.

Delivery and effectiveness cannot be measured on the numbers alone. An important impact of incubators and accelerators is the role they play in the “ecosystem” or ecology of an economic area, like a city or city-region. A good incubator provides a target for entrepreneurs at ideation stage and in turn provides a supply of resilient companies back to the ecosystem. Our diverse range of business support environments contribute actively to our cluster, and our experience is that acting in this collaborative way has made us, our peers, and our respective member companies, more commercially successful in the long run. Brad Feld would call that Giving Forward.

Cowgirls and cowboys have more fun, however they are always more effective when they are taught how to ride.

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