Turtles can turn into gazelles in a good incubator

Posted on October 12, 2012 | in Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur | by Richard

IT IS one of the saddest scenes in nature. On a deserted beach, mother turtle struggles up the sand, and laboriously digs a hole to lay her eggs. Sometime later, hundreds of tiny baby turtles scramble out and start heading down the beach towards the water. The birds, in a frenzy, scoop up such an easy meal. That any turtles make it to the water is a miracle but, once they’re there, it’s still not safe. Fish start gobbling them up. Of the tiny few that sneak by, some survive to adulthood and the turtle species lives on.

That scene reminds me of the business world. The big business names, so familiar to all of us, came from somewhere. These “big turtles” were once just someone’s brainwave and ambition. To get to where they are now, they needed many things to go well just to survive. For every big survivor, there are countless others that never made it. In addition, these failures caused many people endless heartache and financial loss. This is your world when you start a business: the risks are very high, but so are the potential rewards.

One way for an entrepreneur to reduce their risks is to join a “business incubator”. It can be a very lonely life in a small company. And sometimes, even though you and your team may be experts in your field, there are bound to be gaps in your business knowledge. An incubator can help tremendously.

I came across a very good incubator the other day, operated by Bristol University. It’s called SETsquared and is part of a partnership with four other universities. Nick Sturge runs the operation for Bristol and he impressed me immediately. I had expected the standard cultural confusion when academia meets business. But Nick is very hands-on, probably due to his own previous experience in business.

He currently supports over 50 companies, of which five have been spun out of the University. The others have come from the local community. The focus is on technology businesses with high growth potential, and Nick is picky about who he accepts into the incubator. He is only interested in innovative and scalable “gazelle” businesses, and avoids start-ups with no ambition. Once admitted, help is given in the form of coaching, mentoring, workshops, accounting, marketing and legal assistance, with the option of renting space in the business park. Now, all of these are initially offered at extremely reasonable prices. But the fledgling company has to grow up, so the charges are gradually increased over a few years towards market rates. Some companies don’t survive. The fairly modest expenditure by the university seems to represent very good value for society. In ten years, many of Nick’s companies have successfully raised large amounts of private funding and some have gained stock market listing. If only it was as easy to help the turtles.