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Incubators and accelerators: Small Business Charter Showcase

by Professor David Devins

 

Professor George Lodorfos, Dean of Leeds Business School (LBS) recently welcomed fifty participants from universities in the UK to a Small Business Charter showcase event exploring University incubators and accelerators held at Cloth Hall Court in Leeds.  

George outlined significant challenges associated with rebalancing the UK economy and the role that small businesses can play.  One of his key messages was that whilst individual universities can make a difference, real potential will only be achieved through collaboration and cooperation in regional economies.  

A packed room listened intently to an opening presentation by Simon Baldwin, Head of Enterprise Services at Leeds Beckett University. Simon outlined the university’s unique approach to business start-up and development support founded on an understanding of local place and smart specialisation.  He highlighted the development of Enterprise Hubs in ‘higher education cold spots’ and the importance of local partnerships with a range of stakeholders including local authorities, professional service companies and representative organisations such as the Chamber of Commerce and Institute of Directors. 

Andreana Drencheva from Sheffield University introduced innovative approaches to co-production of learning and encouraged delegates to consider some of the barriers that may exclude social entrepreneurs from incubator and accelerator spaces.

After lunch a panel including LBS Entrepreneurs in Residence described the development of their businesses and the role that university incubators played in their journeys to business success in a range of sectors.  The opportunities for collaboration and for peer-to peer learning with other entrepreneurs over time were common themes identified by the panel members. 

 Lyn Batchelor and Nick Fanin brought the day to a close, providing insights into approaches used at Napier University to instil confidence in young entrepreneurs and the importance of the digital business card in improving the effectiveness of business networking. 

The event provided an opportunity for delegates to reflect on a wide range of issues associated with university incubators and accelerators.  I was reminded how far we have come since I started evaluating such initiatives in the 1990’s when they were often little more than providers of office space, some parking and a shared receptionist.  The incubator and accelerator proposition has evolved substantially to embrace a range of services which can include mentoring to support businesses, business training, seminars, entry to business networks and in some cases, access to seed or venture capital. 

What became clear during the day is that a range of incubator and accelerator models currently exist – some are open and inclusive, others competitive and selective; some have stringent and short term tenancy limits whilst others welcome entrepreneurs to stay for several years; some provide light touch business support services whilst others provide more intensive support.   Some are seeking financial sustainability through the rent paid by tenant enterprises, others through returns on capital invested in the start-up businesses (or a combination of the two).  

Whilst incubators and accelerators can be seen to make a valuable contribution to the renewal of the economy, what works best and in which circumstances remains unclear.  The What Works Centre for Local Economic Development toolkits suggest that there is there is good evidence that accelerators increase employment for firms that take part compared to similar non-participants although the evidence for incubators, whilst positive is less clear cut.  However there is limited evidence on the effectiveness of different services or models.  Those developing and managing incubators and accelerators are encouraged to think about the existence of market failures and the needs of the local economy and to experiment to see what configuration works best for them.   Sharing the lessons and experiences associated with the different models will be an important step in learning to make a difference to local economies. 

Dr David Devins is Professor of Enterprise at Leeds Business School, Leeds Beckett University.  He has a longstanding interest in the start up and development of small and medium sized enterprises and the role that they play in the economy

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