By Ben Jones
We are in the midst of a marked proliferation of business accelerators and incubators. Consensus appears to be crystallising around the idea that programmes of this kind are the best way to embed entrepreneurial skills and mindsets, discover the brightest talents, and bring the best ideas and business propositions to life in agricultural businesses as well as elsewhere. So if you are growing potatoes or have a downstream business it is worth looking at what is on offer that can help you develop your skills and your business.
The terms business incubator and business accelerator can sometimes be used interchangeably though there does seem to be increasing agreement on 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 time frame, 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.
Entrepreneur Handbook lists 153 accelerators and start-ups in the UK alone, so you’re bound to have lots of choice. (https://entrepreneurhandbook.co.uk/incubation-centres/) With so many programmes to choose from, choosing the right one for you and your business can be daunting. Here are a few things you might want to consider:
Find the Right Fit
Some business incubators are sector agnostic, others are very sector-specific. For example at AberInnovation we have specialist expertise in agri-tech and the Food and Drink sectors. Some require you to have a solid business idea and a plan, others want growth-stage businesses, whereas 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 stage your business is currently at.
Look for one that works specifically for a potato related business. 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 agriculture, food processing etc and networked with the big players in that space could provide a real fillip to your fledgling business.
If have business idea that is less technical then a sector agnostic incubator can be a good choice as it will give you access to experts across a range of businesses areas. If choosing one of these incubators, the next few points become even more important when making your final decision.
The Cardiff Medicentre is a business incubator focussing on health, wellbeing and the life sciences, while BioAccelerate at AberInnovation is designed to bring innovations in biotechnology, agri-tech and food and drink to life.
Plug into the Academic Base
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 to 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 mission and allow startups to capitalise on new findings and insights coming from the academic base emergent at universities. 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 is tech, sciences, health, or climate-related. Where access to experts, research, or testing facilities is important, linking with a University can be a major benefit.
Many companies – especially startups – can only dream of being able to afford some of the equipment that universities have access to. Innovation does not come cheap, and machinery and specialist kit costing millions are often required. Fortunately, for innovative companies, universities are often happy to collaborate and allow use of such equipment via specific R&D 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 in order 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 take you from beta to launch. And then look for an incubator that offers access to these.
For example, AberInnovation has a newly-built pilot scale biorefinery connected to it 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 European Marine Science Park in Scotland have all the equipment and facilities (not to mention the ocean environments!) needed for marine science companies.
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 over the course of 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 drawing down this money? Some terms and conditions will be stringent and rather onerous, while 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. By incubation stage, you should also be in a position to begin prototyping or iterating designs of your innovative product or service as well. This means actually making use of all the eminent expertise, great facilities and top-of-the-line equipment on offer. So, while sector fit, links to relevant knowledge base, facilities 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 new food product ideas.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Jones is from AberInnovation. Aberystwyth Innovation and Enterprise Campus (AberInnovation) provides world-leading facilities and expertise within the biotechnology, agri-tech, and food and drink sectors. Set in stunning scenery between the Cambrian Mountains and the Irish Sea, the £40.5m Campus offers an ideal environment for business and academic collaboration to flourish.