Okay, you’ve learned how to “incubate.” But how do you “accelerate”?
Once considered a daring innovation, the business incubator is no longer a new idea. Almost every city has an incubator of some sort, usually a low-priced, co-location space for startup companies with some business support services. Now cities and economic development agencies are focused on “accelerators,” a kind of incubator on steroids that provides access to a wider range of startup services, including networking with peers and investors, and connecting businesses to university technology transfer offices and the like. The idea is not just to get businesses going, but also to speed their growth. Some accelerators are private, some are public, and some are attached to universities or other nonprofit entities.
From opposite sides of the country come two very different stories about accelerator efforts -- both of them conventional in one sense and out of the box in another. In Boston, longtime Mayor Thomas M. Menino recently established an “innovation district” on the South Boston waterfront in the hopes of attracting fast-growing companies (Read "The Boss of Boston: Mayor Thomas Menino"). The innovation district idea isn’t new. In fact, it uses a lot of traditional real estate development techniques common in urban redevelopment. But it is pushing the envelope in a few ways. The first is with the Boston Innovation Center, a gathering place for entrepreneurs that was created as part of a deal for a larger redevelopment project. The second is with the arrival of Babson College, whose main campus is located in suburban Wellesley and now has an entrepreneurship program that will focus on Boston’s innovation district.
Meanwhile, Arizona State University (ASU) has set up an accelerator at its SkySong business facility in suburban Scottsdale, just north of the main campus in Tempe. The accelerator is tied not only to the campus, but also to the larger business community. Instead of focusing on tenured faculty -- who may not be interested in taking entrepreneurial risk -- the ASU accelerator seeks out postdoctoral fellows who have big ideas, low salaries and not a lot of patience for the tenure track. ASU doesn’t focus solely on high-tech companies, but on any company with high potential. “If you want to create a business consisting of a bunch of 7-Eleven franchises, we’re not interested,” says Gordon McConnell, who was recruited from Ireland to serve as executive director for venture acceleration at ASU. “But if you want to reinvent the convenience store concept, we want to work with you.”
The accelerator movement is still … well, accelerating. But already it has yielded some important lessons about how to move from incubator to accelerator. These include:
Maybe the biggest lesson is that an accelerator can be one location or many. Not all investment funds or lawyers are likely to be located in the accelerator or the innovation district, for example. Nor is all the space required by a fast-growing company likely to be available in this one location. In other words, an accelerator may not be a single building or even a single district.
More than anything else, an accelerator may be a frame of mind or an approach to economic development. Perhaps the best way to think of it is to simply view your entire city or region as a business accelerator, and then take the steps necessary to make it a success.
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