I’ve been helping behind the scenes on a new cleantech incubator recently launched in Vancouver, Canada called the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator. And in the process, I’ve been getting the opportunity to learn what other accelerators and incubators are doing well, and not so well, around the world.
The first incubator launched in the US in 1959, but since then the terms accelerator and incubator have become somewhat synonymous. Both are generally used interchangeably to describe organizations, typically with multitenant facilities, which exist to help foster new innovation—though some characterize accelerators as higher velocity and sometimes contributing cash, as in Y Combinator. Like Foresight in Vancouver, many provide educational programming (in Foresight’s case, a structured curriculum called the Venture Acceleration Program), as well as office space, mentoring, expert clinics and networking with strategic customers and investors. Some even offer capital directly. Still others offer pooled support services such as marketing and accounting.
Incubators are a global phenomenon. In efforts to foster job creation and local economies, they’ve blossomed around the planet. There are some 7,000 such programs around the world, according to a 2011 study by the University of Michigan. And—no surprise—some perform better than others.
Best incubator practices What are some of the secrets of success of the best incubators? University of Michigan researchers collected and analyzed data to determine relationships between how an incubation program operates and how its client companies perform, as measured by a number of outcomes. (It even came up with a web-based tool to help incubation professionals measure their efforts against best practices—facility managers take note!)
Highest performing incubators were found to exhibit the following characteristics:
1) No one practice, policy, or service is guaranteed to produce incubation program success. Instead, it’s the synergy among multiple practices, policies, and services that produces optimal outcomes. There is no single “magic bullet” service an incubator could or should offer.
2) Top-performing incubation programs often share common management practices. High-achieving programs have a written mission statement, select clients based on cultural fit, select clients based on potential for success, review client needs at entry, showcase clients to the community and potential funders, and have a robust payment plan for rents and service fees. Incubation programs with lax or no exit policies typically had less-than-optimal performance.
3) Advisory board composition matters. Having an incubator graduate firm and a technology transfer specialist on an incubator’s advisory board correlates with many measures of success. Additionally, accounting, intellectual property (patent assistance), and general legal expertise on the incubator board often result in better-performing programs. Government and economic development agency representatives also play key roles in enhancing client firm performance, as their presence ensures that the incubator is embedded in the community, which is necessary for its success. Local government and economic development officials also help educate critical funding sources about the incubation program. Incubation advisory boards should include diverse expertise.