Business incubators can speed up the growth of start-ups and guide small companies to success. Sarah De’Lacy, of the Surrey Tech Incubator, discusses their rise and benefits, while Float CEO and founder, Colin Hewitt, explains how incubators have evolved to meet the needs of modern businesses and their employees.
Since emerging more than 50 years ago, business incubators have played a vital role in boosting innovation and growth in the UK. However, many business people are still unaware of the benefits that they can bring to the UK economy.
What is a business incubator?
It is thought that there are more than 300 business incubators in the UK supporting around 12,000 businesses. Unlike research and technology parks, which generally support large-scale corporate or government projects, business incubators specialise in speeding up the growth of start-up companies and guiding early-stage businesses on the road to commercial success, both in the UK and internationally.
Incubation can heavily benefit new ventures, particularly by adding credibility through association, access to shared and more affordable resources and by providing professional expertise and advice. There are some incubators that will provide assistance to any business looking for growth and support, and there are those that specialise in providing sector-specific support and expertise, such as technology. Incubators are set up purely to help both new and up-and-running businesses achieve their goals more quickly, whether this is in the provision of office space, providing access to funding or providing guidance and advice on any business topic when needed.
Where it all began
Business incubation actually began in the US in 1959, when Joseph Mancuso opened the Batavia Industrial Center in New York and since then, incubation has spread widely throughout the US and more recently across to Europe. The National Business Incubation Association now has on its records more than 2,100 members in 60 nations across the globe.
What can incubators offer new businesses?
Business incubators can be called innovation centres, pepinieres d’enterprises, technopoles or science parks. The exact offerings can differ but essentially all incubators will offer a mix of office space – a massive asset in itself for a new business, especially as the cost of office space can hugely impact the outputs of any business – plus the business advantage of access to experienced advice, mentorship, funding and the PR value and exposure of being part of the incubation programme brings.
Traditional business parks are usually built as a blank canvas for occupants to make their own, but that often makes them feel quite soulless. More recently, a new kind of incubator has emerged, which takes its cue from the success of co-working spaces like WeWork, aiming to provide much more than blank office space.
Modern incubators such as CodeBase in Edinburgh or Platf9rm in Brighton prioritise the workspace aesthetic, employee wellbeing and aim to foster a sense of community. They usually have a mix of hot desking zones, dedicated coworking spaces and offices for start-ups. They may also have social areas or even a café or restaurant that is open to the public, since the goal is to be a part of the local community, not hidden from it.
Incubation in the UK
Business incubators are going from strength to strength in the UK, whether run in partnership with education or with the private sector, they can still have a huge impact. All the incubators play a vital role in injecting commercial business growth and dynamism into the British economy, bringing new products and services to the market. Universities, and the innovation that they all nurture, bring a vital element to this economic mix. Many young entrepreneurs are coming through university looking to excel in the business world and business incubators provide them with the platform that they need to showcase their ideas.
There are many universities across the UK that provide such environments for individuals and businesses. One of the highest ranked incubators by the University Business Incubator (UBI) Index in the UK and in fact the second highest ranked in the world is the SETsquared partnership, which looks to accelerate and focus on high tech start-ups and many young budding entrepreneurs with an idea can approach an incubator, such as SETSquared, to achieve such success.
Access to ‘live’ business experience
Incubators can offer a ready-made support system for new businesses, often providing access to mentorship and investment. As well as this formal support, the informal networks created in these environments can be just as important, since residents are surrounded by potential business partners, creative resources such as graphic designers and sometimes even future customers!
Incubators also foster the idea that everyone can learn from each other, hosting training sessions and networking events for founders to meetup and share their advice, challenges and stories with one another. This can be really useful for start-ups trying to scale up or secure funding, since they share the same space as people who have been through the process themselves already, know the challenges involved and how to succeed. Email groups and tools like Slack are a lot more popular now too, to help business leaders and their employees communicate with their peers.
More recently, business incubators have employed ‘entrepreneurs in residence’ – individuals still working in business and industry, whose real life experience and successes can help start-ups navigate the road to success. As well as employed ‘Entrepreneurs in Residence’, many incubators also provide start-up companies with access to mentors who advise on relevant topics such as legal or finance, on a volunteer basis.
Incubators offer a social space
There is also a social side to most incubators, since creating a sense of community has become more important to many business founders. Businesses will often hold parties for the other residents when they reach a milestone or close a round of funding. In some incubators you might expect table tennis tournaments, coffee mornings, and drinks after work.
Space to grow into
Choosing office space is a huge commitment for start-ups and small businesses. If start-ups grow quicker than expected, office spaces that are too small can quite literally cramp their growth. Similarly, nothing is worse for morale or finances than a large empty space waiting to be filled. A benefit to the modern incubator/co-working space hybrid is their flexibility. They offer a fantastic alternative to long term fixed contracts, since businesses can scale up and down within this space, rather than moving offices each time.
Knowing when your business is right for incubation
When an entrepreneur sets up a business and is looking for assistance, most will be unaware of how a business incubator can help, however, the benefits are clear. Shared learning, mentorship, faster access to funding and the various funding grants that are on offer and office space are all vital for any new start-up and, when you are kick-starting a new business, advantages like these can put you ahead of the competition to enjoy accelerated growth in the future.
Further reading on incubators