Why we need Business Incubators

cockpit arts supporting businesses

Business Incubators Supporting UK Companies

For the last three years Samuel Fry has worked within business incubators: centres which support companies to grow. He reflects on this time and explains why he will be sad to leave these amazing organisations behind.

In early 2012, as I approached the end of my Masters Degree at University of Bristol, I had a decision to make. What kind of job should I apply for? Would I enter the world of corporate banking, the media, some form of graduate programme or perhaps join a small start-up? Like anyone, this was a difficult decision to make but one job called out to me more than anywhere else.

While studying, I was one of those students that started stuff. Whether establishing theatre festivals, developing papers or creating websites; I always had a project to get going with. So, naturally I found myself drawn to areas of the university that supported entrepreneurship.

Fortunately, University of Bristol had a lot to offer a budding entrepreneur – not that I would have necessarily called myself that. They had talks on how to run a business (from “Idea Generation” through to “Intellectual Property” and “Finance”), one-to-one support, a New Enterprise Competition, a couple of student-run “enterprise” societies and – most importantly for me – a business incubator called “Basecamp”. I had engaged with each of these areas of support at one stage or another, so when it came to deciding what to do when I graduated I felt that there was only one choice.

Running a Business Incubator for Students

university of bristol student business incubator

One of the most amazing parts of the enterprise support at University of Bristol is its structure. Namely, that they encourage former students to manage a lot of these activities. In 2012, I was interviewed for the role of Enterprise Consultant at the university, a role which would place me as the liaison between the University’s Enterprise Managers and the student body. I was very lucky to be offered the role and so had the privileged of facilitating the work of three Student Enterprise Societies, planning speaker events, workshops, enterprise projects and challenges involving local and national businesses.

Alongside my colleagues Will and Shaun, I also co-ran Basecamp, our student business incubator, which supported 130 student businesses in that academic year.

Now, student business incubators are quite different to any other business incubator. The concept is not necessarily about helping them to grow their businesses as, basically, most of them do not have businesses. Some do; yet, most of them simply have an idea. So, the role of Basecamp was to help them make that idea real. It was about giving them the confidence and outlining the steps that they needed to take.

These places are really important. They are a place where entrepreneurship, innovation and professionalism is encouraged while students are studying. People often claim that students are ill-prepared for the world of work; however, places like Basecamp challenge that assumption. It provides a place for students who want to get real life experience of running a business, project or society. These were students who were spending time, outside of their studies, to create and run businesses. How could you not be inspired?

Exploring the Business Incubators

I had a great time in the Enterprise Education team at University of Bristol. One of the other advantages of working there is that I was able to see how another incubator worked. Bristol SETsquared is a business incubator for corporate companies and university spin-outs. The incubator is connected to the university and, so, worked closely with myself and my colleagues to plan ahead for the student business incubator.

Bristol SETsquared is a real success story. In 2008 it won the UKBI “Established Business Incubator of the Year” award, in 2012 it won the UKBI “Outstanding Contribution to Business Incubation” and, in the 6 years to 2013, it helped its member ventures raise some £83m of debt, grant and equity funding. For me, they were also great at introducing me to the world of professional Incubators and Accelerator programmes.

Bristol Business Incubator

These days Bristol SETsquared is part of the Engine Shed where it shares its space with other organisations that support businesses to grow, including: Invest in Bristol and BathWest of England Local Enterprise PartnershipDigicity and WebStart Bristol. While I was there, I was also introduced to other amazing organisations, for instance: Wayra UnLtd, which supports companies that are enabling social change using digital technology, and the Pervasive Media Studio, a space which hosts a community of artists, creative companies, technologists and academics exploring experience design and creative technology.

I have always been drawn to creative and artistic companies, so I wanted to find out if there were any organisations that would focus on supporting these companies. There are a number of organisations that provide business coaching and support for creative companies. School for Creative Start-Ups, for instance, was started by former Dragon’s Den investor Doug Richard to support people to start creative businesses; while, organisations like the Barbican Centre are also entering this space having recently announced Fish Island Labs, a unique new centre to kickstart the careers of a new generation of emerging talent spanning technology and the arts.

Each of these organisations are really important for supporting the growth of creative businesses. However, there was another company that, on leaving Bristol, I wanted to join.

Creative Business Incubator for Designer-Makers

The company I joined is quite extraordinary. Cockpit Arts is an award winning social enterprise and the UK’s only creative business incubator for designer-makers. They provide studio space and on-site business support to 170 businesses at any time, in their London sites in Holborn and Deptford.

You may well ask, what is a designer-maker? Well, their definition is any company with a craft element to their work. So, their studios are full of jewellers, ceramicists, weavers and other artists. The craft industry is a difficult industry to work in. Due to the processes involved, the pieces created can take a long time and a lot of skill to make. Pricing is often high. Yet, how can you put a price on the opportunity to meet the person that has made an item that you wear, or decorated your home with? What value can you attribute to the experience of seeing where a product is made?

Running a craft business can be tough. Yet, those supported by Cockpit Arts are exceptionally strong craftspeople with interesting and imaginative work. They already have the creative skill. Often, what they need is business advice from their peers and expert coaches. Having started in 1986, Cockpit Arts became formal incubator in 2005. Since then, designer-makers’ turnover and profits have increased year-on-year. In 2013, research also showed that, on average, the businesses at Cockpit Arts turnover 30% more profit than the industry average.

The organisation runs as a social enterprise, so any profit they make is ploughed back to support the beneficiaries most in need or disadvantaged. However, they still have a small funding gap which is why they are also a registered charity which asks for donations. This is where I was involved, raising money for the organisation whether in the form of donations or by generating other kinds of income.

Organisations like Cockpit Arts, Basecamp, SETsquared and others are there to support innovative, growing companies. It is essential, therefore, that they adapt to the needs of these companies. That is one of the things that I have found inspiring about working with them: they are quick to adapt and innovative about the way that they work.

Each of these organisations are going from strength to strength because they are continually shifting the way that they work and adding new ways of supporting their businesses. It’s really inspiring working in an organisation like this as, quite often, when you spot a problem or opportunity you can change it straight away.

I am now leaving this organisation to join a larger corporate organisation. This comes with a lot of positives, but I know that I will miss the adaptability of these business incubators. Not to mention the variety of inspirational companies that are being supported.

So, for now at least, I am stepping away from them. However, I won’t be “leaving” them. I’ll be keeping my eye on h0w they develop and I would encourage anyone else to do the same.


Written By

Samuel Fry

Samuel Fry

Samuel is a Business Consultant at IBM, working in their Interactive Experience team. He is also currently the Director of Create Hub. Samuel has a history of working with creative, innovative and entrepreneurial companies such as the creative-business incubator Cockpit Arts, in the Creative Economy team at Nesta, with entrepreneur network Virgin Media Pioneers and as the Enterprise Consultant at University of Bristol.

Image Credits. Top: Laura Theiss work at Cockpit Arts, by Jamie Trounce; Second: Business Support at Cockpit Arts, by Jamie Trounce; Third: “Monday Means Business Talk” at University of Bristol; Fourth: Bristol Temple Meads Engine Shed; Video: Cockpit Arts Open Studios, by Create Hub.

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