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.

1 comment:

Scott Rutherford said...

I don't think they ever disappeared (and thus are returning). Instead, the overt promotion of, for example, IdeaLab's Bill Gross was humbled by the bubble's burst and incubators took a far lower profile, appearing to sink away. Perhaps VCs replaced some of the incubators' functions, especially the mentoring and due diligence. But I also think the time is right for them to take a higher profile again. There also seems more interest lately in startup entrepreneurs engaging one another early on to share experiences and lessons. That was one of the nice things about the incubators... A chance to brainstorm with others on the same sort of voyage, even if the destination was different.