Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The return of the Incubators...

No, this is not the title of a new low budget summer sci-fi movie where some out of space hardly creepy creatures would attack a fun group of bored teenagers in a peaceful californian small city. Instead i am talking about this organisational specie which supports entrepreneurial projects and got quite famous during the dot-com bubble with some private U.S. based structures such as Idealab or Garage.com (they still exist by the way) even though the formal concept appeared in the 1960s in the USA and got followed by many public initiatives worldwide. Some pan-european private incubators were also developed such as GorillaPark or SpeedVentures (they don't exist anymore by the way). I actually entered the bubble myself opening and managing the French subsidiary of SpeedVentures before being hired by Orange to manage for 2 years Inventmobile, the Orange mobile focused incubator which then got merged with the France Telecom VC fund Innovacom .
But let's look at the definition of 'Business incubators' from Wikipedia:
' Business incubators are organizations that support the entrepreneurial process, helping to increase survival rates for innovative startup companies. Entrepreneurs with feasible projects are selected and admitted into the incubators, where they are offered a specialized menu of support resources and services. Resources and services open to an entrepreneur might include such diverse elements as :

- provision of physical space (offices, labs)
- management coaching
- help in preparing an effective business plan
- administrative services
- technical support
- business networking
- advice on intellectual property and
- help in finding sources of financing. '

Focusing on supporting the very early-stage phase of a project, incubators used to value these elements as sweat equity rather than providing seed capital. For instance, we valued Inventmobile's incubation support at 150k€ to take a share of 10% of mobivillage back in 2001, our first investment out of 6 over 2 years. Mobivillage was acquired by the japanese For-side 3 years later at 15m€. Not to mention the other 5 investments were not as successful...
It seems that a new wave and breed of incubators is now appearing and yes i will resist the temptation to call them Incubators 2.0.
Based on the assumption it requires little investment (from 20 to 50k€) and a short phase (about 3 months) to develop a standard web 2.0 new service to be Alpha tested, initatives like ycombinator in the U.S. or seedcamp in Europe, bring virtuality to the incubator concept mainly by not providing physical space, even though SeedCamp plans to provide office space in London. Another key difference is that they provide seed financing (up to 50k€) and strong networking rather than the above mentioned set of elements, a structured business plan being less and less of an issue at this stage, for up to 10% stake of the company.
I would also like to mention the notion of 'Business Accelerators' focusing more on international business development support. In that category, I met few month ago in San Francisco Michel Ktitareff, the co-founder of French Business Accelerator (FBIA) providing great support for French young companies to enter the U.S. market through the Silicon Valley ecosystem.
Finally and to a certain extent, i consider the 'Orange Start-up Program' (OSUP) i launched a year ago within the Orange group as a contributor to the incubation models thus providing a Corporate version of it. The OSUP's purpose is to develop an innovative ecosystem around Orange and mainly focused on web 2.0 business opportunities through partnerships with start-ups and VC funds. In less than a year, this global program has identified more than 200 start-up companies, contacted 100, flagged 30 potential partners, signed 10 MoUs to and launched 4 new services/products with more than 2m€ early-stage fund raising support from VCs (+ 3m€ round currently being negociated, summing up +5m€) . Next year's ambition is higher for these KPIs in order to broaden the areas of expertise and partnerships beyond 2.0 to domains such as Contactless, Mobile TV, Content, Broadband, Location Based Services, Health Care, etc. A similar Corporate version is the Microsoft IDEES program developed in France by Julien Cordorniou.
However successful these different models are, there are all great ways to propose constructive solutions to the lack of early-stage financing and support for innovative projects, that is still not solved at least in Europe and particularly in France.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Summer story: 'UGT', the first time i made money in Second Life....

I am not here going to talk about what happened again in Second Life (SL) : just read the newspapers or listen to the radio to keep updated about which company did what lately as the buzz keeps going daily. Working on Virtual Worlds related projects, i recently felt that i had to understand more about the behaviors and user interests within SL. Even though i registered in October last year, it is only during these last few months that i often left my RL (Real Life) to dive into SL and become more of an SL 'resident'. One thing that strikes me most of the time is the friendliness of most of the people there, very patient at explaining features you don't know about or new places to discover. Another one is how much they are concerned about keeping their SL separated from their RL: i realized that especially when i asked to some of them their opinion about opportunities to bridge communication between SL and RL, and they made it clear that keeping anonymous is fundamental.
But let me now tell as a summer story how i managed to make some money in SL for the first time.
I met a girl in the Hall, a place where new residents are often starting their way into SL, and we had a friendly conversation. At some point she proposed to take me to a great island with a beautiful beach. "Wait for me here and then you'll TP" (TP stands for TelePortation !), she said: not even time for me to tell her that i had no idea how to teleport, she disappeared. After few seconds a pop-up invitation to teleport appeared, and i clicked 'yes'. I arrived then in the most beautiful island, with an amazing beach area, the waves (and the sound of the waves), and another area with confortable seats on the beach. Actually, as i was getting closer, i could see residents seating around a girl dancing in the middle. The chat got very active, with people congratulating the moves and applauding (not easy by chat) the dancer. As i was getting closer, i realized i even didn't know yet how to sit on one of the beach sofas: a request for help later, and someone told me i just had to point a place to sit, click on it then click on 'sit', and here i was confortably joining this fun group of avatars. After just few seconds, one the friendly avatars asked me to go and dance , 'your turn ....' (i respect the SL confidentiality rule by not giving my avatar name here to just anyone!). Well i then sent messages for help since...i had no idea how to dance. Few tips later, here i was shaking my avatar body on that virtual beach with supportive chat messages from my new friends. Until i got the scary message from one of them "t-shirt off! t-shirt off! ". Not the time to get virtually shy i thought, couldn't find the blushing feature anyway, therefore i asked for extra support to find out how to get my t-shirt off. And i did it. And as a cherry on the top of all the learning and training process, i couldn't believe it when i saw poping up some messages asking to accept 5, then 10 and even 25 Linden dollars from my supportive admirers. I clicked 'ok' of course and therefore you know now how i first made money into Second Life. Beyond this for the least interesting new experience, i also though i experienced a new dimension of the 2.0 behaviors that i now call the 'User Generated Training'!
Have a great RL summer.