I’ve been helping behind the scenes on a new cleantech incubator recently launched in Vancouver, Canada called the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator. And in the process, I’ve been getting the opportunity to learn what other accelerators and incubators are doing well, and not so well, around the world.
The first incubator launched in the U.S. in 1959, but since then the terms accelerator and incubator have become somewhat synonymous. Both are generally used interchangeably to describe organizations, typically with multitenant facilities, which exist to help foster new innovation — though some characterize accelerators as higher velocity and sometimes contributing cash, as in Y Combinator. Like Foresight in Vancouver, many provide educational programming (in Foresight’s case, a structured curriculum called the Venture Acceleration Program), as well as office space, mentoring, expert clinics and networking with strategic customers and investors. Some even offer capital directly. Still others offer pooled support services such as marketing and accounting.
Incubators are a global phenomenon. In efforts to foster job creation and local economies, they’ve blossomed around the planet. There are some 7,000 such programs around the world, according to a 2011 study by the University of Michigan. And — no surprise — some perform better than others.
Best Incubator Practices
What are some of the secrets of success of the best incubators? University of Michigan researchers collected and analyzed data to determine relationships between how an incubation program operates and how its client companies perform, as measured by a number of outcomes. (It even came up with a web-based tool to help incubation professionals measure their efforts against best practices — facility managers take note!)
Highest performing incubators were found to exhibit the following characteristics:
1) No one practice, policy, or service is guaranteed to produce incubation program success. Instead, it’s the synergy among multiple practices, policies, and services that produces optimal outcomes. There is no single “magic bullet” service an incubator could or should offer.
2) Top-performing incubation programs often share common management practices. High-achieving programs have a written mission statement, select clients based on cultural fit, select clients based on potential for success, review client needs at entry, showcase clients to the community and potential funders, and have a robust payment plan for rents and service fees. Incubation programs with lax or no exit policies typically had less-than-optimal performance.
3) Advisory board composition matters. Having an incubator graduate firm and a technology transfer specialist on an incubator’s advisory board correlates with many measures of success. Additionally, accounting, intellectual property (patent assistance), and general legal expertise on the incubator board often result in better-performing programs. Government and economic development agency representatives also play key roles in enhancing client firm performance, as their presence ensures that the incubator is embedded in the community, which is necessary for its success. Local government and economic development officials also help educate critical funding sources about the incubation program. Incubation advisory boards should include diverse expertise.
4) Neither the size of an incubator facility nor the age of a program is a strong predictor of client firm success. Many incubator funders and practitioners perceive that the size and age of an incubator are key success factors. But it is the incubator’s programming and management that matter most. For example, staff-to-client ratios are strongly correlated to client firm performance.
5) High-achieving incubators collect client outcome data more often and for longer periods of time than their peers. Overall, two-thirds of top-performing incubators (66.7%) collect outcome data. More than half collect this information for two or more years, while slightly over 30% collect data for five or more years. Collected data include client and graduate firm revenues and employment, firm graduation and survival rates and information on the success of specific program activities and services.
6) Most high-achieving incubators are not-for-profits. Incubation programs focused on earning profits were not strongly correlated to client success. The most important goals of top-performing incubation programs are creating jobs and fostering the entrepreneurial climate in the community, followed by diversifying the local economy, building or accelerating new industries and businesses, and attracting or retaining businesses to the host region.
7) Public sector support matters. Only three of the top-performing incubation programs studied operated without public sector support from local government agencies, economic development groups, colleges or universities, or other incubator sponsors. On average, nearly 60 percent of top incubator’s budgets are accounted for by client rent and service fees.
8) Incubation programs with larger budgets (both revenues and expenditures) typically outperform incubators with budget constraints. Programs with more resources have more capacity to deliver client services and are more stable. However, the sources of incubation program revenues and the ways the incubator uses these resources also are important. Incubators receiving a larger portion of revenues from rent and service fees perform better than other programs.
9) The growth or size of a host region’s economy are poor predictors of incubation program outcomes. Incubator management practices are better predictors of incubator performance than the size or growth of the region’s employment or GDP.
10) A region’s capacity to support entrepreneurship has limited effect on incubation program outcomes. Compared with incubator quality variables, regional capacity variables have less predictive power. Among regional capacity measures studied, only urbanization, work force skills, availability of locally controlled capital and higher educational attainment have moderate influence on incubator client outcomes.
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