The Accelerator Assembly Conference: what we learned and what’s next?
The first conference of the Accelerator Assembly network took place Friday 14th March, at the BBVA Innovation Center, in Madrid. It brought together around 80 accelerator directors and managers, policy makers, corporate representatives, investors and entrepreneurs, to discuss best practices, future trends and policy initiatives to strengthen the support for European startups.
Since announcing the launch of the European Commission’s Accelerator Assembly initiative in 2013, Nesta has been working together with the network’s partners, Seedcamp, TechStars London, Startup Weekend, Bethnal Green Ventures, Seed-DB and How to Web, towards launching its first European large scale event.
Here are some of the main ideas that came out of the conference:
- The ‘accelerator bubble’ refuses to pop (so far): Although the number of accelerators continues to grow globally, emerging programmes as well as established ones are constantly reflecting and adapting to the needs of the ecosystem in order to remain relevant. Trends in this area include focusing on a specific vertical (e.g. fintech, cleantech) or on a service (e.g. design, customer development), and creating partnerships with corporations - although the advantages and disadvantages of the latter route are still being explored.
- How to measure the success of an accelerator: The significance of agreed-upon metrics able to measure the impact accelerators have on both startups and the wider economy was an overarching topic. Whether accelerators look at startup funding rates, partnerships created, exits, tech adoption or wider impact on the ecosystem, precise measures of quantifying success are still lacking and make discussions about relevance and impact difficult.
- We’re swimming in research questions: What makes accelerators work? What do founders need? How do we measure impact? There are many questions to be answered in this area and research in the field is scarce. Nesta reports such as The Startup Factories and Unchaining Investment, as well as research in the area of High Growth Firms and Crowdfunding are highly valuable for the ecosystem, but more detailed work still needs to be done. One route would be that of encouraging accelerator programmes to collect more detailed information about their startups and their evolution and make the information open and available for research purposes. There are several examples of attempts to interpret and understand the available information, but more formal research is still needed.
- Some findings: Jed Christiansen, Seed-DB founder, gave examples of research that can be done in the area by using both qualitative data from surveys and quantitative data from online databases. Using Seed-DB and Crunchbase data, he identified 213 accelerators worldwide and 57 in Europe (53 in the European Union, 4 more in the wider region). Over 3600 companies have graduated from accelerator programmes globally, out of which 738 graduated in Europe (703 from EU based accelerators, 35 from non-EU based). These European startups have, in turn, produced an estimated 3500-4500 new jobs. Using qualitative methods, he surveyed 50 startup founders about their accelerator experiences. He found that mentorship and networking opportunities were the most valuable benefits gained from attending the programmes, while generic, and inconsistent mentorship or too much focus on the Demo Day were frequent drawbacks.
- Accelerators shouldn’t be the default starting point for startups: Although accelerators have taken the spotlight as the first step founders need to make to advance their startups, they may not be right place to start for everyone. Other support systems like hack weekends, pre-accelerators, co-working spaces or startup academies have emerged and are increasingly diversifying in order to offer a broader range of support for early-stage startups. Sean Kane, founder of F6S, mentioned that only 4% of accelerator applications that go through the platform are successful, so complementary support systems need to ensure that the remaining startups have access to guidance and mentorship to understand whether their idea is worth pursuing or not.
- Attracting seed and first-round investment is still very difficult: Although numbers show that VC funding in Europe is growing, the reality is that accelerators and their startups are still struggling to attract first-round investments. Because European VCs, compared to US ones, prefer to invest in mature startups, early-stage companies are increasingly reliant on angel investors and crowdfunding platforms. Initiatives such as that of the European Investment Fund to put up to €4bn into venture funding over the next 7 years are significant, but more needs to be done in terms of engaging European multinational corporations to invest in startups and encouraging VCs to reevaluate their role in the ecosystem and invest in companies earlier on in their journeys.
- Championing European startups: Skype (Estonia), Soundcloud (Berlin), Angry Birds (Helsinki), Spotify (Stockholm), Prezi (Budapest) - Europe has its own startup success stories, but they suffer from a PR problem - we only find out about them when they are bought by large American companies. Work needs to be done to increase their visibility, ambition, and capacity to scale up. Championing these examples would make the European startup ecosystem more credible and potentially less risky and more profitable in the eyes of investors. Be on the lookout for the first European unicorn!
- Working with the EU: The Conference highlighted an eagerness on both accelerators’ and the European Commission's part to develop effective programmes and policies to support European entrepreneurship. However, additional work is required to ensure that the process of developing funding opportunities and relevant policy and regulation is open and transparent, and that accelerators can have a genuine consultation role.
The Accelerator Assembly Conference was a strong start to a needed conversation around accelerators and the impact they have on startups and the European economy.
The event also served as a forum for deciding the future direction of the Accelerator Assembly network. There was a clear call for it to develop into a self-sustaining organisation that:
- Helps European stakeholders learn about accelerator models and best practice
- Helps build communication between the European Commission and other institutions and the startup community across Europe
- Does so in a light touch, low cost way without duplicating other efforts such as the Global Accelerator Network and the Global Accelerator Meeting.
As a central partner of the Accelerator Assembly to date, we believe Nesta should continue to play a role in the network by developing open research around accelerators and startups, encouraging the sharing of best practices, and ensuring that the ecosystem evolves based on evidence of what works.
Want to join us?
See the Storify roundup of the Accelerator Assembly Conference here.