Accelerate Cambridge transforms startup blueprint
Cambridge University’s Judge Business School has received €0.5 million from a secret benefactor to fund startups emerging from its innovative Accelerate Cambridge programme for fledgling entrepreneurs.
Unusually in the UK and Europe’s top technology cluster, this is an accelerator happy to motor the first few miles in the slow lane with a finger or two on the handbrake.
Director Hanadi Jabado demands “fire in the belly” from the budding entrepreneurs who engage with the programme but eschews a Dragons’ Den-style scorched earth approach.
She wants to see innovators who prefer hand-holding to handouts. Anyone with a sense of entitlement and a ‘cash at all costs’ starting position is entitled to take the begging bowl and try their luck elsewhere.
Accelerate Cambridge deals in tough love but will go to the nth degree to help entrepreneurs on the programme prepared to listen, learn and stay the course.
Jabado and colleagues, who pour hours of inspirational mentoring and considerable business savvy into the mix, want to ensure that startups are built to last (as much as they ever can be) before Accelerate Cambridge parts with the money available – typically from £5k-£20k depending on the strength of the team, the proposition and the market opportunity.
One thing is certain: The survivors on this journey of opportunity will be battle hardened, well schooled and thoroughly prepared for the inevitable trials ahead.
Judge Business School director Christoph Loch gave Jabado the go-ahead to progress the accelerator idea in May 2012 but the programme only began to take real shape in September of last year.
In the first 12 months, Accelerate Cambridge has had 165 individuals apply, the majority went through the programme’s ‘Ideation@CJBS’ weekends and the first intake was 30 teams. Of those eight have survived.
“We have something of Darwin within the programme,” says Jabado, who has been closely involved with over 100 startups around the globe and across industries over the last three years.
“We have just taken our first baby steps. I determined from the outset that we should get the structure and balance of the programme right even if it took a little longer.
“Our second intake starts this weekend and we have 30 individuals taking part in 11 new teams. In the first intake we saw propositions encompassing algorithms to life sciences to social enterprise and it’s a similar spread in the second intake.”
A condition of participation is that one team member – teams are a minimum of two people – must have Cambridge roots. That could be through residency or as a member of the University – from students to faculty to alumni. They add like-minded individuals to their teams during Ideation weekends where fledgling ventures are created.
There are no geographical boundaries: Already the intake has included entrepreneurs from London and Newcastle – plus one French woman and a man from the United States who both saw the programme online and teamed up with Cambridge partners at an Ideation weekend. One of the current Accelerate Cambridge success stories literally walked in off the street!
Jabado has already seen a pattern emerge among the early candidates. “The quality of propositions vary greatly but typically out of every 10 we see, three are outstanding, three are average and four are rubbish.”
The Ideation weekends continue to sort the wheat from the chaff. This is the crucible where academic alchemists discover whether they are touching gold or base metal. Participants face the challenge of developing, testing and launching a business in 54 hours: Are their ideas viable and, if so, how would they best be developed?
Friday brings public pitches where attendees present their ideas and try to inspire others to join their team. On Saturday and Sunday, teams focus on customer development, validating their ideas and, where appropriate, building a minimal viable product.
Then on the Sunday evening teams demonstrate their prototypes and receive valuable feedback from a panel of experts comprising successful entrepreneurs, leading academics and venture capitalists.
Experienced mentors help participants throughout the process, led by Jabado and Simon Stockley, a teaching Fellow in Entrepreneurship at Cambridge Judge Business School and deputy director of Accelerate Cambridge.
Underlining the long-termism inherent in the Accelerate Cambridge process, the programme supports five stages of nascent entrepreneurship:-
• Assessment – Do the individuals in the team have the attributes that make entrepreneurs? What help do they need? Would they benefit from one of the courses offered by the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning?
• Ideation – Three Ideation Weekends a year bring people with ideas together with successful entrepreneurs, mentors and coaches to assess and progress those propositions.
• Pre-Acceleration – Identifying and understanding the potential markets for the idea/product and deciding what financial support is appropriate and where it may come from (small grants/donations; borrowing etc).
• Acceleration – Decisions are made about which young entrepreneurs to progress. The process of finding customers and selling begins.
• Acceleration Plus – The entrepreneurs receive ongoing support and coaching for up to 18 months.
Jabado said: “While this is the complete Accelerate process, potential entrepreneurs can join the programme at any stage i.e. they may come in at Pre-Acceleration or Acceleration.
“By the time the choice is made of which entrepreneurs to support to the finish line, those who are not chosen will still have had an excellent grounding in entrepreneurship. The programme is about nurturing entrepreneurial skills in people as much as creating entrepreneurs.”
A condition of the new €1/2m funding was that this should go purely to ventures created through the programme and not offset any of Judge’s operating costs. Judge has been bootstrapping the significant overall cost of running the accelerator.
Jabado, ever rooted in realism, easily justifies the programme’s ethos of championing staying power rather than charity. “If you just give these nascent ventures money right away it is a poisoned gift and you are cutting out a lot of the hunger young ventures need to mature and be successful.
“If I was a fairy godmother with a magic wand and granted them three wishes the bidding would probably start at £1/4m, £1/2m. I wouldn’t give that amount and no-one should to a nascent venture learning the ropes.”
Jabado connects a sense of entitlement to cash with mediocrity of innovation, arguing that the best ideas will be successful if they are properly nurtured rather than built on hype and sand.
She recalls attending a programme in Russia three years ago with Dr Shailendra Vyakarnam, director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL) at Judge Business School. “It was like being reborn,” she says.
“Up to that point I’d had my fill of so-called entrepreneurs. On this programme in Moscow the people were so grateful they had been given the chance to participate. They regarded themselves lucky to be chosen.
“They had fire in their belly – some had travelled from Siberia to take part. And the level of innovation was stunning – it was us that should have been grateful.
“Coming back to the UK I was determined that if I was going to stay in entrepreneurship I was going to be extremely selective as to who I worked with. Christoph is a man of vision and the opportunity to create Accelerate Cambridge was exactly what I was seeking.”
Jabado believes Cambridge continues to have a well of “amazing innovation” but communicating ideas is often a weakness. “If you cannot attend a programme like ours and convince at least one other individual that your idea is a good one then it’s not going to fly.”
That is just one of the gaps in the CVs of budding entrepreneurs that Accelerate Cambridge can fill. It can also help participants avoid the familiar mistakes that so often fatally hole startup ventures below the waterline – like becoming sidetracked or unfocused. It connects people and resources that would otherwise be disparate.
Perhaps most important of all, Accelerate Cambridge engenders an environment in which entrepreneurs can dare to dream – as long as they keep their eyes open!
The next Ideation@CJBS weekend is November 22-24 when the judges will be Christoph Loch; Jonathan Barker of the Marshall Group, Cambridge’s largest industrial employer; Andrey Kessel, an entrepreneur and investor in hi-tech startups; and Tony Quested, CEO of Business Weekly.
• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Hanadi Jabado