Why growing your start-up business inside an incubator is a good idea – an outsider-insider perspective

This month’s blog is written by our non-exec Chairman Rick Chapman who reflects on his journey with NuNano and what it takes to raise a company from start-up to scale-up…

Rick has over 30 years of experience working in high tech industries (including corporates such as Marconi and STMicroelectronics) but since 2001 he has worked predominantly with start-ups, successfully helping four grow himself – two hardware and two software businesses.

 
Rick Chapman, Non-exec Chairman, Nu Nano Ltd

Rick Chapman, Non-exec Chairman, Nu Nano Ltd

 

We’re experiencing exciting times at NuNano. As a company we no longer really fit the descriptor of ‘start-up’, having graduated into a growth-stage company.

You’ll be hearing more about this in the coming weeks, but I want to share with you some of key factors that helped move us from a position of having cutting edge tech, grounded in academic research, that we’ve now turned into a viable, expanding and scalable business.

Central to our success has been the fact that, since our inception, we have been housed within SETsquared, the University of Bristol’s business incubator.

The SETsquared Partnership was formed in 2003 through a collaboration between five leading research-intensive universities: Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey. SETsquared is a focus for enterprise activity and new business creation for the five university partners, including incubating start-ups.

Whilst an incubator isn’t the right thing for all start-ups, a young business, like a young child, needs support, guidance and to be part of a community. For us SETsquared was the perfect environment for this nurturing growth approach, but any incubation hub is good, at the right time.

 
Inside SETsquared Bristol - © Candour Creative Photography

Inside SETsquared Bristol - © Candour Creative Photography

 

Here are three ways that being part of SETsquared really moved our business on.

1)  Business Review Panels – Roughly every 6 – 12 months SETsquared invites the companies it is incubating to present to a panel of 5 – 6 business people. This is a mix of people from within SETsquared, within industry and from services such as legal and finance. It’s effectively a cross between Dragon’s Den and a therapy session! The CEO presents the current business plan to the panel which is followed by a 2 – 3 hour discussion about the business, approach and next steps. Knowledge and insight is shared with the start-up and a robust plan of next steps is formulated with the CEO.

2)  Coaching and mentoring – SETsquared have ‘Entrepreneurs-in-Residence’, these are people like myself who have a significant amount of industry and start-up experience who are able to provide structured and ad-hoc support, advice and guidance to the CEO as they navigate the first few months and years of the business, implementing their plans and responding to challenges.

3)  Learning and development – SETsquared annually organise a number of workshops from the basics of setting up a company to company finances, writing grant applications, presentation skills and so on. What works really well for companies within the hub is that they can attend these workshops at the point in time that it is most relevant and helpful for their company development.

Fundamentally this combination of support methods means that the incubator is able to provide a bespoke programme tailored to the real-time needs of the developing company.

There is of course a fourth way that incubators can help – they can put a business like NuNano in touch with someone like me – people looking to get actively involved with young companies and assist their growth in a hands-on fashion. This combination of solid technical and academic credentials with strong business background and knowledge of developing start-ups makes for a powerful relationship. Ultimately having the right mix of great product and great business skills is what can really help to take your business onto that next level.

Now not all such connections necessarily progress as ours did with me becoming non-exec chair of NuNano. However if you speak to any of my fellow ‘Entrepreneurs-in-Residence’ at SETsquared they would agree that one of the challenges of working in an incubator is holding yourself back from wanting to get too involved in a hands-on way with all the great companies that you meet.

 
Rick Chapman, Non-exec Chairman, Nu Nano Ltd
 

In the main, we simply don’t. But with NuNano it was different. I was impressed from that first Business Review Panel – here was a company with a great product, being led and run by one person, James Vicary, but with a vision from the get-go of being something much bigger.

One indicator of this was the fact that the company had a board in place – something that many might consider overkill for a company with, as it was then, just one employee. But having that structure in place set out a clear stall in terms of future ambition and, as that future starts to unfold before us now, puts us in a strong place with new investors as we’re already set up and familiar with boardroom landscape.

I can’t speak highly or strongly enough of the importance of the level of guidance and support for new businesses provided by innovation hubs such as SETsquared. You can’t put a price on the value of having the ability to run out and test ideas and strategies and come back into the relative safety of the hub to discuss how things went, what could be done differently and what needs to be done next.

I feel privileged to have accompanied James and NuNano on the journey from that first Business Review Panel - very much as a company outsider - to most recently helping to drive the business into our latest stage of growth from the inside.  Whilst the time with the incubator is coming to a natural close as we move into the next phase of development, I would certainly recommend other fledgling companies to consider joining an incubator program to help grow their acorn idea into something that is built to last.