Launching the Digital Arts and Culture Accelerator

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Pilot Accelerator follows Digital R&D Fund

Arts Council and Nesta announce a new accelerator for the Digital Arts and Culture.

Arts Council England and Nesta are excited to announce the start of a Digital Arts and Culture Accelerator. This is a pilot programme to explore whether a tech accelerator model can transfer into the arts and cultural sector, to support innovative new ideas from organisations that do not ordinarily take on commercial or social investment. Nine organisations previously backed through the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts will make up the cohort for this pilot, which starts on 10 May and will run through to September.

Background to the pilot

Since the launch of Y-Combinator in 2005, there has been an explosion in startup business accelerators across both the USA and Europe. In the UK, research by O2, showed an increase of 110% in the in number of accelerator and incubator programmes from 2012-2014. These programmes, characterised by a small cohort of project teams that undertake a rapid programme of business support to create investment-readiness, have spawned a number of companies that have returned a high margin for investors.

The focus of current accelerator models is almost exclusively on startups emerging from the tech sector. There have been a few accelerator programmes in the field of social enterprises (such as the Nesta-backed Bethnal Green Ventures), however as The New Art of Finance has outlined:

“While there are accelerator–type initiatives for creative industry businesses in the UK – such as the ACE–backed MeWe programme23 – there isn’t currently an accelerator for the arts in the UK, despite the fact they seem to be working well in other areas”

One of the major reasons for this is that driving a commercial return is simply not the primary mission of arts and cultural organisations. Their goal is to deliver social and artistic value, rather than generate profits or provide a viable investment opportunity. The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts has proven, though, that organisations in this sector have the potential to come up with original and exciting ideas for products and services that could be commercially developed.

However, the arts organisations that have led this work say they would need new skills and knowledge to be able to attract investment for their projects. An accelerator model could help them gain such skills, and support them to move away from an organisational mind-set that characteristically sees financial opportunities as being limited to a mix of earned income, grant funding and philanthropy.

In addition to providing support to a pioneering cohort of arts organisations, Arts Council England and Nesta will be watching with interest the reaction of the investment community to the programme. We think investors will be looking for opportunities beyond existing fields, such as fin-tech and ed-tech and, the accelerator programme – which will culminate in a live event at which the nine projects will pitch to carefully targeted investors – will allow us to test this assumption.

The Accelerator Network, which has a deep track record of accelerating technology startups, has been chosen deliver a 12-week intensive programme for arts organisations looking to scale their digital product or service.

The programme is based on an established accelerator model, but with some modifications to reflect the cohort of participants and the particular challenges they face. Primarily:

  • Participants are not company founders but are representatives of established arts businesses.
  • They are not profit-seeking startups and they have a core operation that may or may not be closely aligned with the new digital product.

Other differences from a conventional accelerator are that the programme will not require the participants to co-locate, and the Accelerator Network does not hold an equity stake in the organisations coming onto the programme.

As the pilot progresses we will continue to post reflections on what we and the project participants have learned and will be looking for signs of whether the model may be transferable to the arts and culture more broadly.


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