How to run a successful innovation lab
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In a recent speech, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt shared the government’s vision for the UK; “If anyone is thinking of starting or investing in an innovation or technology-centred business, I want them to do it here.”
Positive moves are being seen toward this vision in Whitehall with news of a new dedicated department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Ownership was previously split between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
As part of the government’s ambitions, Manchester was selected as one of three ‘Innovation Accelerator’ locations. The three Innovation Accelerator cities will share £100 million of funding over a three-year pilot that aims to replicate “the private-public-academic partnerships trailblazed by the likes of Silicon Valley in the US.”
Putting aside doubts as to whether this level of funding is enough to achieve such a vision, most of the budget appears to be allocated to developing physical spaces and R&D programs. And while the Innovation GM executive summary acknowledges the need to “mobilise investment into existing and new innovation assets and programmes to bridge gaps in the commercialisation journey…” details on how exactly this will be achieved are lacking.
Manchester’s innovation ecosystem needs scaleup and commercialisation support to ensure innovative ideas become economically viable businesses. But local companies already find it hard to access scaleup support. This is unsurprising given that Innovate UK EDGE Scaleup program has only twenty-two scaleup directors for the whole UK. While there are plans to expand to 130 experts over the next three years, their support seems primarily concerned with helping startups secure funding rather than commercialising operations. This proposed level of support simply doesn’t feel adequate to achieve the UK Innovation vision.
The shortage of dedicated scaleup support in Manchester is confounded by the news that Tech Nation will cease operations in March 2023. Tech Nation was the UK’s primary government-funded initiative to help scale up tech and digital businesses. While another entity has been awarded the contract to continue offering support, the break in continuity and the loss of over ten years of service development will undoubtedly impact the ecosystem.
Manchester has long been a hub for radical ideas and innovations thanks to its history, culture, and five local universities. But innovation is about more than developing new ideas or products.
Innovations develop in stages. Different types of support, skills and resources are needed at each stage. The current plan to support Manchester’s innovation ecosystem focuses on R&D, which helps to generate groundbreaking ideas. But without commercialisation support, even the best ideas might never see the light of day.
Specific skills and experience are needed to validate product-market fit and work in cycles of experimentation and iteration to produce something commercially viable. Just watch Dragon’s Den, and you will notice most inventors are there for the expertise to launch and grow their idea; it’s rarely just about the financial investment.
Startups are a significant source of innovation. They develop new technologies, reinvent business models, and create cutting-edge products, but nine out of ten startups fail. Accelerators can improve those odds. Startups that graduate from accelerator programs have a 23% higher survival rate than businesses that don’t. So what is it about accelerator programs that lead to a marked improvement in business outcomes?
Of the startups that fail, 35% put it down to a lack of a market need for their product. Way too often, founders will develop a great idea and ask their friends and family if they’d buy it. Unsurprisingly, the results of such ‘research’ are a resounding yes, so the founders push on to launch their idea. In the marketplace, with competitors, market forces, and discerning customers who aren’t your friends, things can look a bit different.
Good accelerator programs and innovation labs design experiments to validate product-market fit in the real world. Experiments are also used to inform other business decisions, such as target market, features, pricing etc. The business model, product or service should be refined throughout this process so that the offering has the highest potential for success. Such programs can also support entrepreneurs with necessary pivots if the initial innovation or idea isn’t commercially viable—another top cause of startup failure.
This commercial validation and expert guidance helps to objectively evaluate an innovation and better understand the market and its needs. As a result, accelerated ventures grow at significantly higher rates than ventures not accepted into accelerator programs.
According to Pitchbook, a third of all startups receiving venture capital in 2015 had been through an accelerator program. This is likely because accelerators:
With adequate accelerator support in Manchester, the rest of the innovation and business ecosystem will benefit. Investors, startups, international businesses and support programmes will want to establish themselves in an area with impressive success stories.
It’s worth noting here, too, that accelerators aren’t just for startups but established corporations too. By running a corporate accelerator program, Manchester’s established behemoths can maintain their market position while helping new innovations come to market.
If politicians wish to achieve their visions for turning cities like Manchester into international innovation hubs, more scaleup support is needed. With focused commercialisation programs, great ideas develop into great businesses.
Accelerator and innovation labs programs provide founding teams with the expertise and frameworks needed to scale and thrive. Success stories from such programs will have a halo effect on the broader innovation ecosystem, attracting other businesses into the area. All of which would contribute towards the region’s economic levelling up.
8th February 2023
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