By Ajay Batra
COVID-19 continues to ravage our lives and livelihoods. No longer is it just important to solve the current crisis – the need of the hour is to concurrently review and revamp our medical and health policies.
But let us not stop here: we need to build upon our capabilities to see us through challenges in education, employment, and logistics as well before they become critically unviable. The best insurance against future storms is to build resilience and innovation in our DNA and to decrease the idea-to-market cycle time for innovators and entrepreneurs. Incubators and accelerators have a huge role to play in making this happen.
Beginning in the Batavia, NY warehouse of the 1950s, business incubators and accelerators have evolved in their concept and impact. From Y-Combinator to Seedcamp and from 500Startups to ChinaAccelerator, accelerators around the world have been growing at a rapid pace.
While startup acceleration is a relatively new concept in India, over the last decade, names like Cisco Launchpad, Microsoft Accelerator, KSUM, 9Unicorns, and KStart have become prominent in the ecosystem – supported by corporates, VCs, governments, and academic organisations.
From the outside, it appears that making startups pitch-ready and showcasing them to investors is the core of an accelerator’s programme. Reality could not be further away, as the focus of all good accelerators is to build robust businesses – helping startups focus on basic venture building blocks one at a time.
What can accelerators do differently in the pandemic-infused virtual world of startups? How can they reach out to even more startups effectively?
The 4-Cs framework is a best practice from successful accelerators around the world:
Coaching (or mentoring) the founding teams on the product, go-to-market, etc., using frameworks like the Lean Startups and Startup Maturity Model while providing a safe environment for founders to develop their personal leadership skills.
Community: Building a vibrant e-community of peers and connecting entrepreneurs to the vast ecosystem of experts and mentors is a critical offering for accelerators.
Customers: Most (deep-tech) startups struggle with disciplined approaches for acquiring and servicing customers. Accelerators can not only help startups develop related talent and processes but open the doors to a global base of potential customers (especially relevant for corporate accelerators).
Capital: Accelerators help founders connect to angel investors and VCs who are aligned with the venture’s vision, and can add strategic non-financial value.
Use robust and reliable assessments – quantitative and qualitative – to determine a startup’s performance on an ongoing basis. No shooting in the dark or relying on conflicting inputs from myriad mentors.
A well-defined you-are-here-GPS that shows a startup’s health on critical parameters like Customer Acquisition & Service, Finance, Product, and Talent is needed at the start of the programme to develop startup-specific interventions and to monitor the startup‘s progress along the way.
This enables accelerators to move from being a passive guide to becoming an active catalyst in moving the needle for entrepreneurs.
Digital and personalised support
While physical cohorts bring the value of community and peer learning, coworking and group programmes have also been a challenge for the last year. Given that each startup is unique in its solutions and needs, accelerators need to increasingly design customised programmes.
In the WFH mode, accelerators also need to invest in providing virtual support and digital mentoring to convert their high-touch service into a 24X7 product. This is a clear opportunity for accelerators to engage with even more startups around the world.
Possibly the only positive service COVID has done is to remove physical and mental barriers of growth; with virtual technologies, it is easier to think of serving customers in Bolivia while being in Bengaluru.
Accelerators bring global connections of corporates, mentors, and investors to actively encourage collaboration between founders. Imagine an accelerator as a catalyst in bringing together a startup formed between founders in India, Germany, and Brazil!
Increasingly, accelerators are developing capabilities in one or two domains like cleantech, agriculture, and health – aligned to national priorities and market needs. This enables them to attract relevant specialists and an experienced pool of mentors and investors.
Some Indian exemplars are the Jyothy Institute of Technology Foundation for Materials and Food Technology, AIC-LMCP for Pharmaceutical and Healthcare, CODISSIA for Defence, and AIC-Sangam for climate change.
While each accelerator can have its focus, we need industry/government agencies like ISBA and Atal Innovation Mission to connect the dots and encourage cross-learning between accelerators.
Accelerators can make a huge social impact by scaling up/leveraging technologies for connecting, evaluating, and mentoring a larger number of startups. Their outcomes will be greatly enhanced by using performance metrics and being analytics-driven in their operations.
Regardless of geography, sector, profit, or non-profit status, accelerators need to share their learning and talent more proactively to help build the ecosystem at large.