About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

20 shades of startups

Please think of a well-known startup of the last decade. Do Twitter or Spotify, Skype or Facebook spring to mind? I would not be surprised.

It is the success stories of digital startups we hear most about, but they are certainly not the only ones contributing to innovation and economic growth. Research has shown that high growth firms are spread across various industries and almost equally present in high-tech and low-tech sectors. We also need to start looking at hard-tech and non-tech startups to ensure that we understand their trajectories and the different challenges they face.

That’s what we are setting out to do.

Different startups – different shades

To start this journey, we are currently interviewing 20 startups* across the UK. By startups, we mean young, growth-oriented and innovative businesses in search of a scalable business model, with the potential to disrupt markets and solve problems in new ways.

With this project, we do not aim for another ranking of the UK’s top startups. Instead, we have selected our sample to cover a range of industries (from medtech to games), different funding strategies, various founder backgrounds, and startup ecosystems in as well as beyond London.

What are we looking for?

We aim to produce

  • a broader definition and set of indicators for innovative startups. For example, is it useful to categorise startups as digital, hard-tech or non-tech? No typology is perfect, so let us know if you can think of a better one!
  • a better understanding of innovative startups and the external factors influencing them. We want to identify key challenges in areas such as funding, skill shortage, and policy interventions to guide future research agendas.
  • a clearer idea where startups leave traces online. We are exploring new sources of data for future research projects that use “big data” analytical techniques. If you are already working on this - please get in touch!

We're already seeing intriguing insights emerging.

Take startup hubs as an example. London is a major one providing great networks especially for digital startups. But ask the biomedical startup Eulysis. For them, Scotland was the place to start: “it was even better than the US” (Ross Tsakas, CEO).

And what about the barriers to startup growth? Recruiting talent is a major barrier for many digital startups. Mike Howe, partner at Escape the City, explained to us that "the problem with hiring people in London is that it's so expensive. Expect to pay your lead developer at least double what you pay yourself".

But is this the main problem to be solved for startups in general?

Not if you talk to non-tech businesses such as Social Life, who instead struggled especially with finding information about legal issues around "how we define ourselves as a social enterprise and IP. Accelerator programmes are so focused on getting people finance, there isn't as much out there on other issues” (Nicola Bacon, Founding Director).

Want to know more? What’s next:

We will run a month of startup stories on our website in April, based on the companies we've interviewed. We will use their stories to enrich our understanding of the variety of trajectories and challenges startups face. Once fully analysed, we will share our insights from interviews and secondary data analysis in a report this spring, as well as a series of events later in the summer with the research, policy and startup communities.

We need to understand all the different shades of innovative startups - who they are, how they work, and what they need to be successful.

Watch this space!

*Interested in which startups we've interviewed? Here they are:

BareConductive, Blaze, Crowdcube, Decoded, Droplet, Erudine, Escape the City, Eulysis, Grannies Inc., Neul, Nifty Minidrive, Outplay Entertainment, Oxford PV, PixelPin, Psonar, Psychology Online, Quantum Waste, Rojo&Co, Sensum, Social Life

Photo Credit: eupherism via Compfight cc


Valerie Mocker

Valerie Mocker

Valerie Mocker

Director, Development & European Digital Policy

Valerie and her team focused on helping policy makers, corporates, entrepreneurs and society make the most of the digital transformation.

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