The number of business accelerators and incubators is increasing, says Ben Jones, Marketing and Partnerships Manager, AberInnovation, adding that programmes of this kind are an excellent way to embed the entrepreneurial skills and mindsets that start-up founders need and bring exciting ideas and business propositions to market
The terms business “incubator” and “accelerator” can sometimes be used interchangeably. However, there does seem to be increasing agreement regarding the difference between the two.
Broadly speaking, accelerators tend to last for a few months and will equip their participants with business skills and knowledge via mentorship, workshops and networking.
Business incubators usually operate on a flexible timeframe, ending when the business in question has a proposition to pitch to investors or potential customers.
Incubation programmes tend to adopt a more flexible approach to their participants’ needs, reacting to and addressing them on a case-by-case basis. The Entrepreneur Handbook lists 153 accelerators and start-ups in the UK alone, so you’re bound to have lots of choice.1
With so many options on offer, let me give some pointers about how to find what will help you most with a nutraceutical product.
Some business incubators are sector agnostic, whereas others are very specific. Some require you to have a solid business idea and a plan, others want growth-stage businesses.
With some, you don’t even need an idea to begin with; they will give you a proposition to develop and hone. So, the first step is to look for an incubator that suits the current stage of your business.
Look for one that works specifically in your sector. Some programmes will specialise in food and drink innovation and a tailored, sector-specific package of support and expertise will bring your idea forward in leaps and bounds.
Working with experts who are well-versed in the emerging trends within a particular industry and networked with the big players in that space could provide a real fillip to your fledgling business.
If your application is less technical or there aren’t any suitable incubators for your sector or niche, then a sector-agnostic incubator can be a good choice as it will give you access to experts within a range of business areas.
If choosing one of these particular incubators, the next few points become even more important when making your final decision.
For example, BioAccelerate at AberInnovation is designed to bring innovations in biotechnology, agri-tech and food and drink to life.2
It offers access to a brand-new Future Food Centre that includes state-of-the-art equipment in meat and dairy processing, as well as a fully equipped R&D kitchen and sensory analysis suite.
These facilities are supported by bespoke compositional analysis for food quality as well as a colocated food-grade pilot-scale biorefinery for the exploration and extraction of novel ingredients.
For a more generalist incubator, London-based Seedcloud supports all ideas in the B2B space whereas the long-established YCombinator is sector agnostic and welcomes two intakes per year.3,4
As you might expect, universities are a hotbed of ideas and innovation. They bring together pre-eminent scholars, world-leading facilities and significant tranches of funding in an attempt to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges and create new knowledge and understanding for the benefit of society as a whole.
Done right, university affiliated business incubators can greatly enhance this knowledge exchange and allow start-ups to capitalise on new findings and insights derived from academia.
In other words, you want to be as close as possible to where research, development and innovation are thriving. This is particularly important if your business or idea is in the fast-moving and highly competitive food and drink space.
If access to experts, research or testing facilities is important, linking with a university or university affiliated incubator can be a major benefit.
Many companies — especially start-ups — can only dream of being able to afford some of the equipment that universities have access to. Innovation does not come cheap … and expensive machinery or specialist kit is often required.
Fortunately, for innovative companies, universities are often happy to collaborate and allow use of such equipment for specific research and development projects.
Some of the better business incubators will have easy access to the requisite equipment and will actively encourage their cohorts to make the most of the facilities on offer to develop their propositions.
Even better, they can provide training, technicians and academic expertise to help you on your way and to make the most of the services available. So, think about the technology you may need or the testing facilities that will help to take you from beta to launch, then look for an incubator that offers access to these.
For example, AberInnovation has a newly built pilot-scale biorefinery connected to its Future Food Centre. Having both capabilities under one roof makes it a unique proposition in the UK and a perfect site for circular economy innovations.
In a similar vein, incubation programmes offered by The Food Foundry connect fledgling food and drink businesses to commercial kitchens while providing access to specialist mentors and a burgeoning network of similarly minded food and drink entrepreneurs.5
Having developed and refined your idea — and no doubt been through several painful iterations — you are very likely to need to bring others into the fold at some stage.
A good incubator will be well networked with key professional services that you can access throughout the programme, such as intellectual property attorneys, human resources experts, finance support and so on. What’s more, you’ll want a programme that has strong links to the venture capital community.
Most incubators offer pitching opportunities, but be mindful of the make-up of those panels. Are you going to be in front of the right people? Having worked on your idea tirelessly, you’re going to want your efforts to be rewarded with a chance to impress those groups or individuals possessing the wherewithal to help you embark upon your next step.
It’s also worth drilling down into exactly what’s on offer at these pitching events. What are you pitching for? Some panels might boast the right organisations, but they may be there in more of a feedback-giving role.
You’ll want to know whether there’s actual “money on the table” at the end of the programme. Moreover, what are the stipulations attached to spending or the drawing down of the money?
Some terms and conditions will be stringent and rather onerous, whereas some programmes are happy to take a more hands-off approach to how you spend it — within reason of course!
The age of dashing around the country to meet prospective collaborators, clients and stakeholders may be broadly behind us. It’s fair to say that recent events have shown us what a credible job video conferencing programmes can do in lieu of actual face-to-face meetings.
With that said, it would be unwise to disregard location completely when it comes to choosing an incubator.
A good programme should be hands-on and, for that, there is no substitute for in-person interaction. For food and drink new product development, this is especially true as you’ll need time in kitchens and labs to progress your proposition.
By incubation stage, you should also be in a position to begin testing, iterating and honing your innovative new product. This means actually making use of all the eminent expertise, great facilities and top-of-the-line equipment on offer.
So, although sector fit, links to relevant knowledge base, facilities on offer and so on are key considerations, you’ll also need somewhere within commuting distance so that you can take advantage of all that the right incubator programme has to offer your start-up or growth business.