Inside Startup Support Programmes

The past decade has seen an explosion in support programmes for startups. Whereas the entrepreneurial journey was once very lonely, there are now a profusion of programmes offering to make the experience less solitary for founders. But how clear are the objectives and business models of these programmes?

Miller & Bound's 2011 report The Startup Factories charted the rise of accelerator programmes and helped to define this emerging phenomenon; Miller and Stacey subsequent study, Good Incubation, described how incubation models were being applied to social ventures. More recently, Valerie Mocker's study of Startup Studios explored another potential model. 

To illuminate the field further, Nesta is today publishing two commissioned reports that analyse the models in use within various startup ecosystems:

  • Startup Programmes: What's The Difference explains how different types of support programme fulfil different roles within startup ecosystems. It differentiates programmes in terms of how they make money, and when they intervene in the startup journey. 
  • A Look inside Accelerators dives into one particular support mechanism, describing three emerging archetypes for accelerators: ecosystem builders, investors and matchmakers.

For startups, these papers point founders towards the most appropriate type of support. For accelerators, they highlight that clarity of objectives is crucial.

However, they also raise questions about the sutainability and ultimate success of many of these programmes.

For instance, one conclusion is that objectives and success metrics are likely to differ between archetypes. As a consequence, accelerators created with the purpose of ecosystem building may have different outputs to investor-led ones, which could be a challenge for publicly-funded accelerators expecting to become self-sustaining.

A further challenge, identified by both papers, is that of transplantation: in other words, many incubator programmes are applying models which have been taken from different sectors or geographies, which may generate unexpected problems.

We should also remember the paucity of data surrounding the performance of many programmes. In particular, it is unclear whether many incubation programmes create successful businesses, or simply select for success. (Whilst this is not tackled directly by these papers, it is a question which we are attempting to unpick through randomised controlled trials via our Innovation Growth Lab.)

Together, these papers give a helpful analysis of the increasingly crowded landscape of startup support. It is hoped that these studies will aid startups, policymakers and programme developers alike in navigating that landscape, and in finding sustainable models which help startups thrive.


Christopher Haley

Christopher Haley

Christopher Haley

Head of New Technology & Startup Research

Chris led Nesta's research interests into how startups and new technologies can drive economic growth, and what this means for businesses, intermediaries and for the government.

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