A starters guide to business incubation in London

Old Street roundabout in London's east end - The home to 'Tech City'

Silicon Valley may still be the epicentre of the tech world, but innovation hubs are forming everywhere across the world. In London, government investment in Tech City, coupled with investment from corporates and changing attitudes towards risk and entrepreneurship continue to improve the environment for startups. 

The success of London’s own Tech City, which runs beyond the Old Street Silicon Roundabout to include the Greenwich Peninsula where Ravensbourne is based, has been well documented: and has seen a growth in businesses that serve and support London’s growing tech community.

Incubation is one such area, and London’s start-ups are well catered for in that regard. But choosing the right option can be a minefield. Most places offer shared working spaces and access to influential networks: whether that’s potential staff, other entrepreneurs and mentors, or angel and institutional investors – but how can a business decide what’s right for them?

Although most places offer a range of services, I would call out three main categories; paid-for incubation units, accelerators, and those backed by associated ancillary funding, whether that’s from a corporation or academic institution.

We fall into that latter category. Well-known as a creative, design-oriented university sector college, Ravensbourne has been offering incubation support for businesses since 2008. Incubation at Ravensbourne is currently free (we plan to move to a commercial offer once funding has ended), and focused on creative, design-led, digital businesses. Businesses benefit from the high-end technical equipment we can provide, access to our network of creative professionals and a training programme geared toward the creative sector –paid for by our European Funding. But what if that’s not for you?

Many start-ups opt for incubation, in a paid-for space. While accelerators have many benefits, incubation gives the companies the opportunity to grow at their own pace, in their own time and retain 100% control. This isn’t to say accelerators are a bad thing: done well it’s the fastest way to scale but it isn’t for everyone.

TechHub is the probably best known incubator, offering the best of both worlds. Co-located within Google Campus, and with close ties to seed-funding accelerator Seedcamp it has locations all over the world. With regular events, and corporate partnerships with businesses including Rackspace and BT it’s an incredibly popular choice for many startups.  Innovation Warehouse offers a similar service: with working spaces, access to investors, regular events and training – as do others – the impressive Central Working provides office services in stunning locations while Club Workspace offers the flexibly of hot-desking all over London.

Companies looking to scale quickly often choose accelerators, which provide intensive mentoring, and support rapid growth. Often with links to angel investors, accelerators offer fast track links to finance with many set up to deliver specialist support. The focus is slightly different in accelerators, often they are more project-based and take on new companies in drafts.

With a raft of commercial partnerships and backed by telecoms giant Telefonica Wayra invites high-growth startups with innovative projects to enter a growth programme that connects business with investors. Successful projects receive funding in exchange for equity.

Run by former Tech City CEO Erik van der Kleij and opened by Boris Johnson last March, Level 39 in Canary Wharf is designed specifically for financial technology businesses. TechStars, a generalist accelerator which focuses its offer on a huge range of mentors recently expanded its network to London – venturing out of the US where it has six locations.

Unlike incubators, residency is often short term and while accelerators may represent the fastest route to growth, with access to great people, entry is often by application not guaranteed, and may involve a loss of equity – which isn’t for everyone.

The third option is academic institutions. In Ravensbourne’s case, we wanted to open up our facilities and networks to London businesses to create opportunities for high tech companies in the digital creative sector – namely fashion, film & design – as well as strengthen the links between our student population and the commercial sector.

The London College of Fashion, for example, runs the Centre for Fashion Enterprise – an incubator unit focused on fashion industry, providing business support for designers with different tiers for different stages of development. Established in 2003, the unit has strong links to with links to global brands, plus an innovation agency to develop partnerships.

London Metropolitan University’s Accelerator is a Shoreditch-based incubator for both students and businesses. Intended as a bridge between London Met & the business world it runs bootcamp sessions with mentors and is open to all technology businesses.

With an emphasis on businesses that focus on sustainability & social change, affiliated to the University of Westminster the Westminster Impact Hub provides companies that set out to make a positive social impact with mentoring, collaborative working spaces.

Affiliated with City University London City Incubator offers a technology transfer service to help its PhD students commercialise their projects, as well as help external entrepreneurs ready their ideas for business, focusing on clean tech, medical devices and digital media.

Whether it’s accelerators, incubators or simply shared space, there’s lots of choice for London’s small businesses. To find out more about Incubation at Ravensbourne visit http://www.dmic.org.uk/incubation.

[box]Carrie Wootten is Head of Commercial Development at university sector college Ravensbourne – responsible for the institution’s commercial projects, which include incubation. http://www.dmic.org.uk[/box]