Life after an Innovation Center
Cisco Innovation Centers are where start-ups, accelerators, developers, researchers, ecosystem partners and the venture community come together to create ground-breaking technology and innovative solutions for the future. We have nine of them around the world, and we wanted to share a little insight about what it’s like for a start-up to be part of one. In this guest blog, Jacoby Thwaites, founder of SPARKL, discusses the time he and his team spent at the Cisco-backed IDEALondon innovation hub, how it helped the firm grow, and his journey since leaving. The following copy comes directly from Jacoby:
A great emphasis has been placed by industry leaders and governmental bodies on supporting innovation at a grass roots level, to drive industry growth, explore new ideas and create jobs. As a result, hundreds of start-up accelerators have sprung up across Europe and the United States. But what happens when a start-up finishes its placement, and goes off to make it in the real world? Drawn from my own experiences at IDEALondon, here are some of the ways a Cisco Innovation Center can help a firm move to the next level:
Innovation centers are naturally busy places, with people from all sectors and professional backgrounds passing through. As a result, you build up an amazing range of contacts which can really open doors for a start-up.
Often, it’s the introductions you don’t think will be particularly useful that turn out to be really valuable! For instance, a contact made at the beginning of our time at IDEALondon recently got back in touch to introduce us to an innovation lab at the Level 39 tech accelerator in Canary Wharf, London, which might be very useful for SPARKL in its next phase of growth.
Innovation labs such as IDEALondon, which are not industry-specific, also expose you to people from a wide range of sectors. This allowed us to connect with firms from manufacturing, aerospace, retail, finance and more. This is all incredibly valuable – not just in terms of future business leads, but also in obtaining feedback and insights that help you rethink the possibilities of your product.
What skills gap?
Being at the Innovation Center allows start-ups to acquire invaluable soft and hard skills which otherwise would have been hard or expensive to come by. At IDEALondon, participating start-ups had access to mentors provided by Cisco and other sponsors, such as University College London and DC Thomson. There were also a range of guest speakers and additional courses on offer throughout the year – offering training on everything from Twitter advertising to presentation skills.
These interactions, and the meetings set up through mentors, gave us invaluable exposure to dealing with big corporations on a business level – a crucial skill for the future success of SPARKL. These experiences allowed us to get quickly clued up on the best ways to protect your IP, leading us to patenting the SPARKL name and Sequencing Engine technology.
Conversations with enterprise firms also helped us develop our go-to-market strategy, and how to articulate it to others. Our mentor at IDEALondon, Cisco’s Ged Fitton, also introduced us to Cisco’s very active ‘Devnet’ developer community – helping us refine the SPARKL product and overcome coding issues.
Although accelerator placements usually last only last a year, being part of one allows you to join an ecosystem that extends well beyond this period, so long as you play your part!
Innovation center backers pour a lot in to these initiatives. Start-ups, in turn, must be aware that sponsors also have their own targets and goals. It’s important to help them where possible – whether it’s attending a key meeting in which your firm can offer value, or simply helping promote the benefits of the center for the next round of prospective start-ups.
Innovation centers offer numerous ways to stay in touch with the associated community. For example, there are networking events, access to other facilities (in our case Cisco Create near Old Street) or even the opportunity to hot-desk at IDEALondon once a week (which SPARKL still does). Although staying in touch might take a little proactivity, or involve a small investment (such as hot desking), the ongoing access to resources and the wider community of contacts is invaluable.
Combining the ingredients above gives a start-up the best chance of success. Drawing on personal experience, our year at IDEALondon allowed SPARKL to double in size in terms of employees, and form a strong relationship with Cisco, which is now our primary partner (with SPARKL, in turn, being assigned Cisco’s ‘Preferred Solution Partner’ status). Other partners include Intel, ARM and Lockheed Martin, all formed to some degree or another via contacts made at IDEALondon. This level of exposure to market leading enterprises is unprecedented and can really allow a start-up to take off – giving genuine meaning to the term ‘accelerator’.
If I could give one final piece of advice, it’s this; accelerators and incubators aren’t for everyone. If they are, you need to pick the one that suits your start-up best. For example, some don’t provide the additional mentoring support or skills, only a desk and basic resources (although even this can be highly valuable for start-ups in terms of reducing potentially crippling overheads). However, for any firm looking to pick up a broader set of skills and meet as many people in different sectors as possible, there is likely no better place to be.