Accelerator Insider: What to look for in an accelerator

Our new resident expert Ian Merricks shares the variables all start-ups should consider before choosing an accelerator programme

Over the last few years, start-up accelerators have sprung up at an increasing rate.

From the early US exports like Seedcamp, to Springboard (now US-owned TechStars), Telefonica’s Wayra (which expanded from Spain / Latin America), and our own (built for Britain!) Accelerator Academy, which runs from the City of London Corporation’s Innovation Warehouse.

In addition, some strong support programmes have developed for specific types of entrepreneur. Entrepreneur First works with universities and graduates to ease individual grads into work placements leading to entrepreneurial business creation.

And the New Entrepreneur Foundation follows a similar model – I have been involved in the selection and evaluation of students for each of these programmes from launch.

The most recent additions to the start-up accelerator space have specialised (often with niche industry investment) in areas of tech, including:

  • Level39 (fintech)
  • HealthBox (medtech)
  • The Bakery (adtech).

Fighting for start-ups?

As a programme manager I am often asked about the competition between accelerators, and have been asked to speak on panels at a “shoot out” between accelerators.

This absolutely misses the point of the accelerator support structure, and on every occasion I and other accelerator programme managers have turned these down or changed them into something more productive for the audience.

The accelerator “market” is not fiercely competitive. Yes we all want to work with talented entrepreneurs with the potential to build lucrative, scalable businesses.

But we are all nuanced and it is useful for entrepreneurs to look a bit deeper into selection criteria, programme content and duration, access to capital, team, mentors and track record to understand how and where their business will be best suited to different accelerator’s expertise.

Contrary to some opinion, we often work together, we sometimes share mentors and have been known to direct applicants to each other’s programmes where there is a better fit.

It’s not unusual to see myself, Jon Bradford, Simon Devonshire and Carlos Espinal in the same room, or on a panel, chatting together at conferences. We are all founding members of the Accelerator Assembly, a pan-European membership body for accelerators.

A useful resource for researching best fit (even before making an application via F6S.com) is CapitalList, a resource developed with EU funding and operated by Capital Enterprise, the trade association for top tier accelerators, incubators and university knowledge transfer units.

This database can be a useful early research tool, and entrepreneurs can evaluate against their own requirements. For brevity, the main variables are:

  • Time commitment
  • Access to funding
  • Team / mentor involvement
  • And therefore access to markets.

This ignores standard selection criteria such as location, team size, and the track record of the programme, which are easy for entrepreneurs to select.

Time commitment

Some of the programmes are full-time where businesses are perhaps earlier stage and need a lot of support developing their proposition. Others are part-time where businesses have launched or are immediately about to launch.

The aforementioned student accelerators are 12-month programmes, moving from part-time to full-time. It’s important to understand what life stage an accelerator is best able to support.

We are all very particular in what we look for, such as:

  • Businesses at a particular inflexion point
  • Sidebar moving to full-time
  • Graduate looking for entrepreneurial experience
  • Growth company looking for a framework and funding for future growth.

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