Carolyn Rutherford, Copenhagen Business School & Copenhagen School of Entrepreneurship
Tuukka Toivonen, Central Saint Martins & University College London
This is the first in a series of short reflection pieces on the topic of supporting entrepreneurship and creativity through various models and practices of incubation. We base these reflections on our own research activities, direct observations in cities such as Copenhagen and London, as well as prior academic studies. Our intention is to share insights and dilemmas that can stimulate creative thinking and future-oriented dialogue, not necessarily to prescribe particular solutions. We adopt an agnostic rather than religious perspective on the merits of incubation, viewing ourselves as critical friends of this sprawling field.
Incubators are continuing to grow in popularity and promise as a mechanism to support early stage entrepreneurship from ideation to growth. Alongside globally recognised names such as Y Combinator, Techstars and Startupbootcamp, we now also witness a rapid rise in incubators linked to the university sector, including the Copenhagen School of Entrepreneurship and the Imperial White City Incubator, which we have had the opportunity to observe from close range.
At the same time, there is persistent ambiguity over what an incubator actually is. One could view this positively as evidence of diversity and dynamism: incubators come in many different shapes and sizes, blending elements from coworking, acceleration, entrepreneurship education, creative communities and many other sources. They can furthermore be publicly or privately funded, industry-focused or generalist, and they can be found in many different contexts, from universities, multinational corporations, laboratories to renovated warehouses.
While these differences and definitional issues have been discussed in more depth elsewhere (for example Cohen & Hochberg, 2014), what is common to all incubators is their stated dedication to supporting entrepreneurial and creative endeavours by catering to the needs of enterprising individuals and teams.
But what are the exact needs that incubators seek to fulfil, and how well do they succeed in this task? Are they posing the right questions or falling prey to too many untested assumptions? Are some of the needs they try to serve more perceived than real, and to what extent have incubators become formulaic and even arbitrary in their practices (e.g., focusing on delivering an X number of mentoring hours vs attending to the specificities of each emerging innovative project and journey)?
We argue that a good place to start exploring these questions lies in revisiting the history of how incubators have evolved over time. Understanding the interplay between (perceived) needs, benefits and the reformulation of both over time can help us become more clear-minded about the promises that incubators make in the present and the possibilities they can pursue in the future. Charting the key stages through which incubators have developed will be the focus of our next post.
In ancient times, incubatio referred to the practice of visiting a temple or sacred place, performing particular rituals before sleeping on animal skins with the intention of receiving visionary dreams (Aernoudt, 2004). What would it mean for the diverse incubators of the 2020s to truly live up to their potential as “temples of entrepreneurship”, or as platforms for bringing to life the most exciting and useful creative visions of their members? Stay tuned for more musings and do share your own insights below.
Aernoudt, Rudy (2004) Incubators: Tool for Entrepreneurship? Small Business Economics 23, 127–135. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:SBEJ.0000027665.54173.23