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Are Startup Incubators too focused on Technology?

I tackled a similar question last year, but two articles I came across recently got me thinking.

Are incubators worth the trouble for startups?

But Vijayashanker took a pass. She’d noticed that many incubators focus heavily on technology development but didn’t teach the business skills she wanted to master. “I was talking to people who had graduated from these business incubators, and the vast majority were still asking business questions,” she recalls. “They were talking about ‘How do we market? How do we find customers?’” As she did her research, she found that entrepreneurs in a variety of fields who’d built a company outside of the incubator scene “had the most knowledge and experience,” she said.

The there’s Google Ventures, which takes a more collaborative incubation approach to jump-starting innovation:

Maris’s formula includes an unusual emphasis on data–and a team of researchers to quantify elements that lead to successful investments. Then there’s his Startup Lab. According to just about everyone in the startup scene, including rival VCs, Google Ventures is one of the most hands-on, full-service funders in the Valley. “They have recruiting partners, design partners, engineering partners, user research partners,” says Somrat Niyogi, who has raised money from Google Ventures for his social TV startup Miso. “That kind of structure, you just don’t get in the VC community. Period.”

As I previosly wrote, this type of thinking is making its way across the border in Tijuana. For example, I’m one of the organizers of Startup Weekend Tijuana, which will be held at MindHub. A Startup Incubator in Tijuana.

In this incubator, you’ll find technology minded people and conversations. Lots of engineers and graphic designers. Human speak? Not really. The stuff I hear around here is ‘how can we create a Pinterest for México’, or ‘the Foodista for México”. Not innovation speak if you ask me.

I find nothing wrong with creating a startup culture powered by technologists. It’s good to know that my city is at least making an effort. It also makes sense to think that because it works in Silicon Valley, it’s going to work everywhere else. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Silicon Valley works because it has a powerful ecosystem of  Universities, engineering driven companies, a diverse community of people and an active venture capital community. None of which exist in most cities. Including Tijuana.

Replicating this model will take time but I believe there is a BIG opportunity to do something different instead of copying and trying to replicate a formula that everyone else replicating.

Why not create an MIT Media Lab/IDEO incubator?

Think about it, what if you mixed culture and arts with technology? All in the same place? Sharing work space with each other working side by side.

I think this is where the idea of co-working spaces, as an alternative to incubators, becomes very powerful. For example, I have my México office in a shared workspace by IOS Offices. It’s not necessarily a co-working space because it has closed offices and meeting rooms, but it has the potential because it has open spaces. Yet little collaboration, if nothing at all, happens. For the most part, people are focused on getting some business from their next door neighbor. This is not conducive to create creative collision.

The creative collision required to create sparks needs a mix between diverse people from different backgrounds. Not an accountant talking to a Management Consultant. Unless the accountant suddenly gets an epiphany, and decides he’s to become a renegade and starts questioning the reason for the existence of his profession, creative sparks won’t fly.

What we need are non-profit entrepreneurs talking to user experience designers. We need actors talking to accountants. We need cognitive psychologists talking to architects. We need technologists talking to care takers. We need Management Consultants talking to social entrepreneurs. Etc, etc, etc..

You get the picture.

That’s what I think. Incubators should be about inspiring humans to empower humans. For this we need different heads at the table, not just technologists.

What do you think?

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  • Sandymaxey

    I am so glad you have said this. Technology is a keystone cluster species- it’s a huge economic force on its own, yet is also a source of innovation for all other economic sectors. I’m seeing few incubators working in the white space opportunities evident at the intersection of tech and every other sector, and as your anecdote suggests, an incubator which focuses on developing the skill sets of entrepreneurs. 

    • http://www.game-changer.net Jorge Barba

      Hi @sandymaxey:twitter ,

      Thanks!

      This idea has been around for way to long. From what I’ve heard, Google Ventures is moving away from this direction.

      Then there’s this shift to ‘making everyone a coder’, which I think is cool, but it is an “either/or” proposition. Not much room for Serendipity.

      It is difficult to walk the fine line between an Generalist and a Specialist, but like you, I think it can be done.

      Do you think co-working spaces serve as a “test lab” for what lies ahead?

      A few more links:

      http://bit.ly/HYYN1x

      http://bit.ly/HYYP9P

      Cheers,

      Jorge

      • Sandymaxey

        I think a critical piece missing is 21st c civic infrastructure at the intersection of living and virtual networks, of which co-working spaces are crucial. Increasing the coincidensity- the opportunities, in real life and virtually, for diverse ppl across silos/sectors/fields of knowledge to have idea sex. 

        I also see community economic development undergoing a radical transformation/disruption. The ability to make the networks of place visible and connecting the ppl and ideas for economic differentiation is way to grow economies. 

        Focus on developing pipeline of entrepreneurs- and broadening the definition of entrepreneurs a la Len Schlesinger from Babson- is key. Tech is source of innovation, but not the only one. (I think some are easily distracted by Shiny Things.) Boundary spanners and those willing to live in the white space between fields is a 21st c skill set. 

        A start would be to focus on connecting creative, green and tech clusters within a region. Really fuzzy and will provide a disproportionate economic impact for investment. All keystone species. Of course, it makes the metrics slaves squirm. Need ppl who can cope and thrive with ambiguity. 

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  • richfe

    Hey Jorge,

    Good thoughts.

    There are a couple of really big problems with incubators: doors and cliques.

    Give somebody an office and they’ll stay in it. Actually give them a cube or desk and they’ll stay there! Tim Minshall, former director of the St John’s Innovation Centre in Cambridge UK, has a story about a company in the centre looking for a really specialised component. They eventually tracked down a distributor meeting the spec in Japan. Three weeks later when it arrived they opened the packaging and found another package inside. The original sender’s address was the St John’s Innovation Centre…the manufacturer was a few doors down the hallway. I saw a similar problem at the CBTC here in Cardiff: you really had to go out of your way to network.

    Add to that incubators tend to be either evolve towards a set of companies in a sector…or deliberately select companies with a focus. There are some benefits to this: sharing expertise, obvious collaborations yada yada yada. However as you imply the really cool stuff happens when you get poets talking to coders, musicians talking to physicists. Even biotech talking to telecoms is a start. But is the fault of the incubator…or the company not embracing the pain and going out and talking to people? I use the word pain deliberately…for a lot of people networking is painful…fast smiles and hard pitches…but for innovation breaking out of your bubble is vital.

    • http://www.game-changer.net Jorge Barba

      Great stuff. I think it’s the job of the company to “face the pain”, but that is wishful thinking. This creates a valuable business opportunity (if executed correctly) for incubators: to create the conditions for sparks to fly. To make deliberate cross-pollination happen.

      Co-working spaces are ideal for this environment because of their open space and low-cost attraction to freelancers of all types.

      Thanks for sharing.

      Cheers,

      Jorge