Does anyone have a view on the most successful incubators, accelerators & incubation programmes in the UK, Europe & US?

Here is one view, taken from NESTA discussion on startup factories in June 2011.

In my mind there is no question that to help build a pipeline of grown ups, finish ups and speed ups, there needs to be a healthy pipeline of ambitious, healthy, well-connected startups.

Can ’startup factories’ help provide that pipeline of businesses that will be taking the stage at the BLN Growth Forum’s of the future?

First, the bad news. In the nineties there were incubators. On the whole, they were a very bad ting and lots of people have got confused about the difference between incubators and accelerators.

At one point in 1999-2000 there were over 50 incubators active in London alone. I worked for one, (bEurope, which managed to create and fund a single business, Investis, which still runs very successfully today. bEurope, like many others, ran out of money as the business model depended on getting funding for each of the business that it incubated and the investor appetite for early stage investments evaporated in the dot com crash). On the whole, incubators were a bit of a disaster and the ones that had raised the most money had the hardest to fall, even if their founders were somewhat cushioned from the crash as they had managed to raise funds with management fees that provided some succour from the drop – remember Brainspark or Ant Factory anyone? There were a few reasons that they created so little value: many of them didn’t have a clue what they were doing or actually know what incubators should do; investor appetite for any sort of early stage investment disappeared; the best companies didn’t go to an incubator that was taking often significant equity for a range of services and space of variable quality.

So why are ‘startup factories’ or accelerators going to be different?

Reshma Sohoni, Seedcamp, Jon Bradford, Springboard.Startup factory bosses: Reshma Sohoni, Seedcamp. Jon Bradford, Springboard. Running two of the leading European accelerator programmes in Europe

I think the principle reason that the next wave of accelerators have a much higher chance of success is that the market has changed – significantly – and incubators and accelerators use very different models.

It costs far less to start a web business (and most accelerators focus on web or at least digital businesses). The gospel of Saint Eric the Lean has been spread widely. A lot of the old bull shit about startups has gone (arguably replaced with the excrement from different bulls). Very few founders will be beguiled into thinking that the one thing that they need to be successful is to be bought under the wing of an investment banker who has raised a startup fund and set up an incubator. The web has opened up conversations among founders across the globe and young company founders are incredibly aware now of what they need and the type of support available to them. If they are not, they deserve to go to one of the *irony alert* special incubator/accelerator programmes somewhere set up and run, usually at public expense, by an agent of a regional development agency or similar because that will solve all of the problems of the region’s innovation and entrepreneurship.

Let’s consider what some of the best accelerator programmes can do and ignore the fact that when accelerator programmes are seen to be successful, a swathe of copy cat, me-too programmes will spring up. (Anyone want to bet £50 that there will be three times the number of accelerator programmes in Europe within three years?).

For the sake of argument, lets use the examples of top accelerator programmes provided by Tech Cocktail as part of research undertaken for the Kauffman Fellows programme. By their own admission, the methodology applied in the US does not really apply to European accelerators as they simply haven’t been around for long enough but this gives a reasonable view of some of the programmes with the highest potential.


  • Has to be, ‘for profit’
  • Has to be fixed term programme
  • Has to take equity
  • Should not charge start ups for office space or services they don’t want or need

Tech Cocktail European Startup Accelerator Rankings

This is the top 8, in order, according to Tech Cocktail.

1. Seedcamp

2. Startupbootcamp Spain / Tetuan Valley

3. Startupbootcamp Denmark

4. Springboard

5. Openfund

6. NDCR Launchpad

7. Propeller Venture Accelerator Fund

8. Startupbootcamp Ireland

This is a reasonable list of potentially high quality programmes across Europe even though the methodology is essentially indefensible. (Arbitrary weighting of highly qualitative variables applied to early stage programmes is inherently crazy even though the end result means most of the decent programmes appear).

Who benefits from these programmes?

NESTA’s report, ‘The Startup Factories’ identifies a number of beneficiaries:

  • Angel Investors – reduce need for due diligence, reduce cost of discovering new companies, network with other founders and investors.
  • Venture Capital Investors – Improve deal pipeline, get first sight on new technologies, network with investors and company founders.
  • Large Technology Firms – talent scouting for new employees, new customers for platforms and services, brand association with innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • Other startup founders – Talent scouting, supercharging their network, meet customers and later stage investors.
  • Service Providers – New customers.

From what I hear from talking to people in all of these groups, the benefits are a little less well defined. I have italicised the ‘benefits’ that people value least and in bold the ones they value most:

  • Angel Investors – reduce need for due diligence (angels always want to do due diligence even if a programme offers them the opportunity to see momentum in a business), reduce cost of discovering new companies, network with other founders and investors (the best programmes are filled with the kind of people that want to hang out together and do business together).
  • Venture Capital Investors – Improve deal pipeline (the best investors virtually always see the deals they want to see, others, not so much), get first sight on new technologies, network with investors and company founders (See above for angels).
  • Large Technology Firms – talent scouting for new employees (most startup founders are running away from big companies)new customers for platforms and services (most want customers, now or in the future. Microsoft Bizspark, Amazon Web Services and others all run programmes to support startups as the technology decisions made at an early stage of a businesses life tend to stay with them for a long time and this is a low cost way of supporting startups and locking customers in), brand association with innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • Other startup founders – Talent scouting, supercharging their network, meet customers and later stage investors.
  • Service Providers – New customers (this is a longer term goal for most advisors – servicing startups is a very expensive business for the best advisory firms).

Additional set of beneficiaries not mentioned in the report:

  • Management and investors in the programme itself. Benefits here can come from a number of different fronts – investors want to make their money back of course but there are also lots of other things that they get out, from a sense of ‘putting something back’ to having their angel activity managed and supported. Creating and supporting the development of a successful accelerator programme is also one of the few ways that an angel investor can become recognised on a global scale. The Klein family, very well known in London and a few other places before Seedcamp for example, have now unquestionably earned a seat at the global angel high table.

In my view, the biggest beneficiaries of the best accelerator programmes are first time founders are served particularly well by the best accelerators:

  • They bring people together to push each other on at an early stage.
  • They offer a good grounding in the basic fundamental building blocks of business.
  • They supercharge network with connections to outstanding and accomplished entrepreneurs, investors and advisors.
  • They hold founders to account, both via the accelerator, and via their peers in the programme.
  • They can provide access to people who can help specialist founders think about things they don’t know about – a coder needs to understand more about product management for example.
  • They validate the business and the idea.
  • They give founders confidence and profile.
  • They offer founders access to talent that wants to work in startups.

So back to answering the original question:

Can ’startup factories’ help provide that pipeline of businesses that will be taking the stage at the BLN Growth Forum’s of the future?’

My view is that the best ones can do some extraordinarily powerful things, particularly for first time founders and I have no question that a significant proportion of the alumni of such programmes will be the business leaders of the future. The only danger I can see is that the notion becomes so popular that accelerators of variable quality spring up everywhere and confuse the market with crap-ccelerators. In a market where startup founders can share information across continents incredibly easily though, it is likely that the best ones will still be easily identifiable.

Now, any entrepreneur worth anything will appreciate the rule of ‘ABC’ (Always Be Closing).

This would therefore be an entirely appropriate time to point out that we are running our second BLN Growth Forum on 5th July in Cambridge. This is a meeting for the leaders of some of the fastest growing technology driven businesses in the UK. We are also very pleased to be bringing the leaders of the next generation of high growth businesses to the forum through our relationships with Springboard and Seedcamp. We think that the alumni of those programmes represent the best of the new generation.

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Nice one NESTA. A really worthwhile event that took the conversation well beyond expectations.

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I want to write a blog about the reasons successful incubators and acceleration programmes are successful. This is where I am keeping notes so there is really not very much to see but feel free to add any comments you wish. Testing the wisdom of crowds.

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11 responses to “Does anyone have a view on the most successful incubators, accelerators & incubation programmes in the UK, Europe & US?”

  1. Joe Henry • Hi Mark

    Can I suggest that you look at the Innovation Centres in Scotland.

    I cannot comment on performance, growth or success rates as I just don’t know. But the guys there do a lot for their incubated companies and are very proactive in connection to industry. The main thing is that there is an atmosphere which is close to the reality of business- a buzz and an urgency.

    I have been in University based incubator facilities where the atmosphere is very un-business-like.

  2. @technokitten I’ve met several alumni of the pembridge run program who highly rate it. Like a mini personalised MBA + access to finance.

    The good ones are few and far between. Bizspark and g2i/pembridge are worth a mention. Finland seems to do better.

  3. Paul Smyth, techie nerd – now working for E-Synergy/NISPO fund. These opinions are mine and not those of my employer

    @MarkLittlewood take a look at Northern Ireland’s newest incubator @Startvi

  4. Barry Timmins #LI

    • Daresbury Innovation Centre is pretty impressive, and is certainly one we’ve picked some inspiration, ideas and best practice from in developing our Enterprise & Innovation Centre project here.

  5. #LI Joe Henry • Just by way of qualification of my previous remark on some University based facilities – as I wouldn’t want people to think its being critical for the sake of it – there is a serious point here.

    I have seen some facilities with no reception area – but with security entrance – so you can’t get in. No visitor parking – so you pick up a fine for parking in University spaces. I have seen some very shoddy ex-lecture rooms being used as office space – being charged out at higher than normal business rates, no meeting facilities, student flat-esque kitchen facilities. Few other businesses around.

    This is all fine if you are just looking for a place to hole up in the Uni. However, imagine the reaction of a potential customer to this experience. You’ve just knocked one or two zero’s off your price before you’ve even met. Contrast this with company into a place with a professional commercial interface, a buzz of business activity going on.

    Most visitors will understand that a new start company has to take what it can – but there will be a tangible perception effect caused by this alone – just at the point when the business has no other means of establishing credibility through a track record.

  6. #LI Russell Haggar


    SetSquared have done a swell job in the past.

  7. On 11/23/10 10:12 AM, Mark Littlewood wrote:


    Good thought. Thanks. Did you invest in one of their businesses?

    Russell Haggar:

    Two, in fact.

    SiConnect (RIP) out of SetSquared Bath/Swindon and XMOS (going great guns) out of SetSquared Bristol.

    What I liked was SetSquared’s combination of nurture, enthusiasm, quality control and mentoring. The mentoring networks are slightly composed of “those who can, do; those who can’t, mentor” types, but nowhere near as much as around eg the Cambridge scene. SS doesn’t discriminate between spinouts from the uni’s and external startups. They only tout the decent ones to the investor networks. Their enthusiasm for their projects is infectious. And they do a decent job of comparing notes across the SS network, especially between the SS locations.

    As you can tell, I am a fan. If only they had some money to invest in their tenants, it would be perfect.


  8. Ruairi Duffy LI

    As Barry indicated the incubator and setup in Daresbury, outside Manchester is superb. Contact Paul Treloar for more info….

    best regards


  9. Joe Henry LI

    I agree with you on cheap Mark. However, that for me would be in the pricing of the facility – not what it looks and feels like. The key thing for me with a business incubator would be – is there business activity actually going on. Some incubators are just a dormitory for short lived, grant funded episodes in the world of commerce – and they look and feel like it as well.

    I have only been into the Hillington park facility a few times – but what I can tell you about it is that it feels like a business environment – there is an energy and a vibrancy about it. This rubs off.

    I have been in other incubators where it looks like a continuation of life at University. This also rubs off.

    If spin out businesses are serious about growth – which is what all of their business plans will say – they should look and feel as though they have the capability. If you see a business plan with a long line of zero’s in it – it’s a real stretch of the imagination to believe that it’s going to happen if it doesn’t look and feel like it might. Anybody who tells you different is kidding you on for some other reason. Only my opinion – but there you go.

  10. Brian Milnes LI

    If you’re looking for a successful model, St John’s Innovation Centre here in Cambridge would be a good place to start.

    A selection of small and larger offices, all available on one month rental, as well as virtual office facilities are the base point. They have a manned reception, plenty of parking, all day restaurant, serviced IT infrastructure and plenty of general support. (Mentoring, seminars. presentations etc.)

    All in all, companies can pretty much concentrate on doing business rather than setting it up…

  11. LI Ambreen

    Hi Joe, you’ve clearly had some issues with univeristy based incubators but can I just say that not all are like that!

    We have incubator units here at Bradford Uni (West Yorks). We offer companies office plus lab space and they are welcome to use our meeting room facilities (equiped with PCs and projectors for presentations etc) and also have dedicated parking spaces outside the building. We also take great pride in offering business support in terms of IP & commercialisation etc.

    There are also plans to build more incubator units on campus to attract science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) based companies.

    Mark – if you’re interested in coming up north or would like more info please feel free to contact our Incubator Manager – Kevin Adams – or 07821537273.

    Regards, Ambreen