On Monday 30th November a webinar was hosted to discuss the findings and recommendations of the recent report published by Whitecap Consulting in partnership with City of York Council and University of York.

The report, commonly referred to as the ‘York Accelerator Report’, is the result of a consultative process over recent months involving approximately 100 stakeholders, and assessed the appetite and opportunity for a business accelerator to deliver job growth, attract new inward investment and to support the expansion of York’s innovation and technology ecosystem. It found that an accelerator could enable and support tech startups to succeed in the city and attract additional high-value inward investment.

The purpose of the webinar was to discuss the report findings and next steps. The speakers for the event were drawn from across the business ecosystem in York, including  public and private sector, and higher education.

The event was opened by Alex Dochery, Economic Growth Manager, City of York Council, with introductions from Kiran Trehan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Partnership and Engagement at University of York, and Cllr Waller, Executive Member for Economy & Strategic Planning, City of York Council.

High-level overview of York Accelerator report – findings / recommendations

Stefan Haase, Director and Tech & Innovation Lead at Whitecap Consulting, provided an overview, explaining that the York Accelerator report both reinforces the strengths of York but also highlights the areas where more needs to be done to support start-ups and business growth in the city . This is particularly important now as York has been hit hard by Covid-19 and the effects that it has had on mass-employment sectors such as hospitality. The business accelerator can contribute towards York’s recovery from the pandemic and also ensure the sustainability of the city’s economy through diversifying the sectors that provide most income and jobs and helping to retain and attract talent. A support network from the entire ecosystem will be crucial for the success of the accelerator as well as finding suitable space and funding in order to make this work.

To view the slides from this part of the event please click here.

Panel discussion

The speakers were joined by Charlie Jeffery (Vice-Chancellor and President, University of York), Simon Brereton (Head of Economic Development, City of York Council), Dick Whittington – Entrepreneur / Mentor / Angel Investor.

The notes below summarise the key points made by each speaker:

Charlie Jeffery – The university is strongly supportive of this vision for a major business accelerator facility in the city. York University is a university for public good and an important part of that is the contribution to economic vitality and the future of the city. That’s in part about the flow of innovation from the university into the economy and the research and development from academics  on the applications and products that new technology is opening up, often in some of the most promising fields for the future economy, such as the green economy, the bioeconomy, technological transformation of the creative and heritage sectors, new communications technologies, cybersecurity and robotics.

The university’s students leave the institution equipped to deliver on these new technologies, project and ideas. York University has worked with students and staff ideas for several decades now through York Science Park, but there is more to be done to get the university’s ideas and talents into the local economy, which is a view that is shared by York St John University and York College and Askham Bryan College.

Moreover, the ambition is for York to become a magnet to attract others to come to York to launch their businesses. What the city currently lacks is critical mass and the ability to scale, the support structure, advice and nurturing, to mentor early-stage businesses, to showcase their ideas, to draw in the investment to help them grow. That’s why a major accelerator facility is so important. It’s the missing link.

Also, in York Central, York has a fantastic location at hand, which is one of the best-connected sites for economic development in the UK. York needs to use the ideas from the report, the York Central site and the research, talent and innovation from its ecosystem to really make a difference to the future economy.

Simon Brereton – The aim of the council is to create more high value, well paid jobs in an inclusive economy. There has been a real effort over this summer to support small businesses in York and the council is also a landlord to 1,000 businesses.

There are a great number of businesses in York but the city has seen a lack of a concerted and collective effort to help smaller businesses onto the next level. There are some fantastic opportunities with the development of York Central and York Guildhall, a joint regeneration project with York Science Park. There are lots of opportunities ahead enhanced by two great universities and two great further education colleges and a highly skilled workforce but there is a lack of highly-skilled jobs to match these skills.

The accelerator and the emphasis on creating high tech companies is really important for the city and the development of York’s economy, alongside the support for other small businesses and entrepreneurs. Overall, the council is delighted to be supporting this initiative and to further develop the innovation ecosystem.

Dick Whittington – Having spent time growing businesses in York for 25 years and more recently working with national and regional accelerators as well as mentoring start-ups at York University, Dick has experienced first-hand as well as second-hand the challenges start-ups are facing. This has led him to further more successful start-up activity in and around York to make the city the vibrant and innovative centre it can be. 

Q1) What makes accelerators succeed and what makes them fail?

Stefan Haase – At the start of the research process, it was important to recognise that a one-size fits all approach will not work. Copying the exact operating model and process of a successful accelerator in one country or region may not be successful in York due to the differences in ecosystem, sector strengths etc. Therefore, it was necessary to truly understand the key opportunities in York and build the accelerator around them and to do this, we needed to take all the stakeholders along on the journey so that their opinions and those of the entire ecosystem could be heard. Rather than it being the responsibility of one specific stakeholder to lead and drive the project, the ecosystem needs to come together and collaborate in order to make it a success. As everyone gives to the accelerator, everyone benefits.

Charlie Jeffery – Making the accelerator a success will require bringing together different capabilities so that they become more than the sum of their parts, which is absolutely vital and that will not happen by itself but requires a collective mobilisation but also a collective understanding of the special assets that York has as a city. There are many great assets such as the railway, the bioeconomy but also the way new technology supports the appreciation of York’s heritage which the hospitality industry in York relies on.

York has the potential to become much more than just a hospitality centre around the city’s heritage, which has been successful and York wants to continue, but York can become a global centre for the technological appreciation of heritage, which should be a city ambition.

Also, an accelerator is not simply a building but a place in which through structured programmes but also through networking between early stage businesses you get an early education in business strategy, business planning, risk management and how to establish business structures which enables businesses to move to the next stage and to attract investment.

Kieran Trehan – Previous experience from the West Midlands has demonstrated that people as well as ideas are at the heart of this initiative and that it’s vital for York’s universities and its colleges to be critical partners as investing in people’s talent and education means that ideas will flow. A whole range of accelerator programmes have shown the value of this premise and that collaboration is at the heart of it. And this is a genuine collaboration led initiative that has the voices of all and that also has the potential to reveal innovation that is occurring in the city in places that were not known before. Raising the awareness of an initiative such as this is vital and it complements the work that is done at the University of York which will shortly launch a new Institute for Enterprise and Leadership.

Dick Whittington – A final note on the question is reinforcing that it is all about people i.e. the leadership team that runs it and the people that have the ability to inspire the entrepreneurs coming through and to hold together the ecosystem such that you get the dynamism and vibrancy that you need behind these sort of initiatives to make them work and sustain them.

Q2) What other resources should be put in place to help start-ups succeed?

Simon Brereton–Businesses need support at all stages in order to succeed and initially they would receive support from their own network, from mentors or people who have done it before and been through the process of getting a business off the ground. The emphasis of the council has to be to provide help to people who cannot access it anywhere else,  and seek to understand where it can make the biggest difference and help those businesses that can create real value and impact by advancing them through an accelerator.

Councillor Waller – Investing in people was one of the key driver behind the council’s micro-business grant support scheme during the pandemic, as many of them could not receive government support and we wanted to invest in them to ensure they continued to be a dynamic part of the York economy. The council is also investing in Telecare which with an ageing population could present an innovation opportunity for York. At one point during the pandemic, 30% of employees in York were on furlough which reinforces the idea that York needs to diversify its economy to make it more robust.

Q3) There is lots of goodwill for the project, but a lack of ownership and funding may prevent it from happening, so what needs to be done to progress from here?

Charlie Jeffery – The university does not make a claim for leadership as the success of the accelerator requires input and support from the ecosystem as a whole. The focus needs to be on mobilising the range of assets that are already inside the university, the private and public sectors and the wider York ecosystem and it needs to be consider carefully how collectively the ecosystem can provide leadership to give effect to these tremendous assets.

The next stage -following on from the report- is to reflect on how this can be delivered. It can involve some bricks and mortar but it certainly requires investment to be brought in to support this activity. There is a moment of opportunity, considering that the government indicates it wants to level up and rebalance the economy from the south to the north, and York can offer opportunities on that score through what has been set out in the report.

There is also an imperative to consider the post Covid -19 recovery. Covid-19 has done real damage in York and there is an opportunity if public and private sector investment can be attracted in the right way to transform the York economy to one which works at a higher productivity level  than one that is heavily reliant on the provision of hospitality. This needs collective leadership across the educational, the local public and private sectors, but it will require government input and support and if the York ecosystem can provide a strong collective vision it will be hard for the government to not support this initiative.

Councillor Waller – The key aspect the council can bring is to be a facilitator to ensure that all the networks are followed up and that the project is representative and inclusive. Previous failings of projects can be avoided through the council making sure not only one group or cohort in the local economy is being heard but that all stakeholders can make a contribution. Also, there are now more sectors wishing to exert their presence in the shape of forward investment which will be really helpful in terms of shaping a collective and more comprehensive vision of the city.

Stefan Haase– The next step will be to build the business case, i.e., what should this accelerator look like? What will be the business model? What will be the operating model? There are various models out there such as university-led, corporate-led or neutral accelerators. Mass Challenge in Boston is a great example of what an ecosystem-led accelerator can achieve.

What needs to happen, now that the ecosystem has confirmed it is behind this accelerator initiative, is for the ecosystem to come together again and to articulate which model would be most successful for York and what ingredients this model would need. While the universities and the council are a key supporting and facilitating part of this next phase of consultation, it is the ecosystem as a collective that needs to drive this forward in order for it to be a success.

To carry out this next phase of work it requires some funding of approximately £25-30k to move the accelerator project forward. Whitecap is looking to use a crowdfunding approach where multiple partners and contributors come together to fund this second phase of research to build the business case for the accelerator.

Q4) How can the accelerator encourage collaboration between small and large organisations?

Simon Brereton – It’s important that the accelerator can help start-ups to get off the ground and get the start-up ethos into larger corporates. The interplay between the large corporates that often find it difficult to be agile and the small, nimble start-ups will be interesting. Ultimately an accelerator like this will really work if it creates value for businesses and their projects. In order to make a difference and to make it sustainable the accelerator needs the right blend of collaboration, and both large businesses and start-ups need to genuinely benefit from it.

Kiran Trehan – The message needs to be “it’s not what we do to small businesses, it’s what we do with them” as this will ensure small businesses are heard and that they are part of the design and implementation of the accelerator. It is the small businesses that have the potential to scale up and the collaboration between them and established businesses and the mentoring process make a real difference. The accelerator needs to drive an entrepreneurial region and an enterprising city and this discourse and collaboration is essential to achieve that and to make a difference in terms of future sustainability. This needs to be done in the York way and not simply replicating what other regions have done.

Charlie Jeffery – In Edinburgh the traditional financial services sector has been utterly transformed and is now at the heart of a digital and FinTech revolution as the result of early-stage businesses coming up with new ideas that the big banks or insurance companies had not considered before. As a result, the start-ups became part of the supply chain which strengthened the sector as a whole and ensured it remained anchored in Edinburgh.

This concept needs be assessed from the York and regional lens, where large companies such as Nestle, Croda in terms of food production, Yorkshire Water in terms of the circular economy, Drax and BP, who are working hard to adjust to the biorenewables revolution, or Channel 4 and Screen Yorkshire in the digital creative sector could benefit from the flow of brilliant ideas and products which can then become part of their supply chains and strengthen their position in the city and the regional economy and anchor them and their jobs here.

We need to see big businesses just as much a part of this ecosystem as the smaller ones and their interaction really embeds economic strength.

Q5) How can we make sure sustainability is at the heart of the accelerator? Given York’s size, is it best to focus on a couple of strengths rather than a widespread approach?

Stefan Haase – York has some great assets and the key sectors that were repeatedly highlighted through the research as potential areas for growth and innovation were:

  • Bioeconomy – aligned to the clean growth and low carbon economy which has seen significant growth across the region and the North as whole, and York has a key role to play. This also links to HealthTech which is really strong in the Leeds city region, and York could sit right at the centre of this developing ecosystem.
  • Digital & Creative – also linked to heritage tech, York has some great success stories that start-ups and SMEs that developed over the last 10, 20 or even 30 years that are driving the digital creative sector, which is a high-value and high-growth sector and it creates jobs in a sector young people like to get engaged with as it is about interactive gaming and modern technology, i.e., something they can relate to.
  • Rail and RailTech – HS2 in close proximity and York is still at the heart of the overall rail economy. The level of innovation that is required in this sector is tremendous, and York can align its other strenghts such AI, data analytics and other capabilities to this and the other key growth sectors.

Simon Brereton – The hospitality and tourism sector is often talked about as being a cause of unbalance in the city however it presents huge long-term opportunities for York. The heritage of York is a huge contributor to its popularity and the location draws in tourism from all parts of the country. Make It York works closely with the tourism sector and organises events such as the Christmas market, which generate significant income for York, and it also looks at economic development and could consider how it can reinvest income generated by tourism into initiatives such as the York Accelerator. The mechanism that exist with Make It York is a key strength for York.

Breakout Sessions – Summary of key themes

Five breakout sessions addressed the key themes from the report. These were led by: Claire Bennett (General Manager, York Science Park), Charles Storr (Economy and Enterprise Manager, Make It York), Jim Bennett (IIG MooD), Dick Whittington, and Stefan Haase.

Theme 1) Corporate collaboration 

Although collaboration between corporates would be a low-cost way for them to be involved and have exposure to new talent and ideas, they may still ask the question, what are the benefits for them and their business? Therefore, the accelerator will need to be advertised to corporates in a way that clearly demonstrates the potential gains for their businesses, making it attractive to them and encouraging their involvement.

They are also likely to need clarity of what the requirements will be of them and what they will be expected to do. Clearly defined sectors may also help to reassure corporates that they specifically can contribute relevant resources and expertise to the accelerator rather than broad sector descriptions leaving corporates unsure of their significance.

The output is likely to be important for corporates as they seek to understand the long-term impacts of the accelerator and how they will benefit from this. For example, the increase in tech start-ups is likely to lead to retention of graduate talent as well as the attraction of highly skilled talents from other regions.

There ought to be alignment between the accelerator and the objectives of corporates which will require communication and collaboration on both sides. Introducing corporates is likely to improve the innovation conditions as long as they do not stifle the inherent entrepreneurship by imposing their agendas onto the accelerator and its start-up businesses. It may be more successful if there is a large and varied group of corporates that the accelerator can call upon for support depending on the start-ups within that cohort and the relevant skills and expertise required, rather than relying on a small number or even singular corporate to contribute.

In terms of council and corporate collaboration, there needs to be clarity with regards to shared legal understanding and a neutral enabling vehicle could help both the council and corporates to facilitate an outcome. Funding must also be considered, for example spreading funding through small seed investments distributed broadly so that the one with the best chance of success can be picked

With the collaboration of corporates, the accelerator is likely to be able to locate and use physical assets more effectively whilst the digital service collaboration will provide benefits for local users. Due to Covid-19, innovation has been pushed to the top of many corporates’ agendas but a number of them may not have the structure to support innovation or the understanding of emerging technologies. Therefore, an exchange of two-way skills, knowledge and information could provide exactly what both parties need, so long as there is a willingness to collaborate.

Theme 2) Maximising local sector strengths

The neglection of talent is one of the key barriers that has been preventing York from maximising local sector strengths. York produces high quality graduates however there is a lack of prospects for them when they leave university which is preventing them from staying in the region and causing retention rates to be worryingly low. That talent needs to be harnessed in order for local sectors to maximise their strengths.

The lack of office space is also an issue in York and the accelerator would need suitable collaboration space with the appropriate facilities and equipment, not just a space to conduct admin. With York Central being a potential opportunity for the future, there is the question of whether there are any corporates that could provide collaboration space in the meantime before the completion of York Central. This also may be even more of a possibility now that a large proportion of corporate employees are working from home due to the pandemic and many may never return to working within an office setting.

In order to maximise the local sector strengths, it will be important to not only encourage different corporates to collaborate but also different sectors to come together and talk about the potential cross-sector gains for the region. It is a good opportunity to reach out to some of the larger companies that can often be difficult to engage as well as sector leaders from the wider business community.

With regards to specific sectors, there are a number of strengths that York as a region has already which can be maximised through collaboration, innovation and the existence of an accelerator. For example:

  • Rail/ RailTech
  • Heritage Tech – York’s history
  • Bioeconomy – Tackling climate change
  • Digital Creative/ Immersive tech
  • Life-sciences and HealthTech
  • AgriTech
  • Hospitality & Tech

The selecting cohorts shouldn’t be too bounded by current sector classifications – but rather focus on the people, thus, to not limit local innovation by being too sector focused.

Lastly, as well as creating a local proposition based on York’s strengths, a balanced appetite for investment risk needs to be established so that both longevity of regional benefits is secured as well as a return for investors.

Theme 3) Attracting start-ups and supporting framework – mentorship, funding, tech infrastructure, legal & IP etc.

One issue the accelerator may face in the early stages is attracting high quality start-ups as there is no track record or established reputation. This means that getting the first cohort through the process quickly and successfully is important for future longevity as once the accelerator has tangible examples of good practice, start-ups will want to come to York and be involved.

With this in mind, the accelerator needs to demonstrate that progress is being made and action is being taken to get it started rather than plans being made and just talked about.

The focus of the accelerator is also likely to be an important factor as having an identity will ensure it stands out from competition and also attracts the most suitable start-ups that will gain most from the accelerator and its support network. Including a social enterprise element may also help with forming an identity for the accelerator.

The physical location is also of key importance and hybrid physical / virtual options to attract startups from wider region should also be considered.

The next steps to enable this to happen revolve around decisions being made with regards to operating model and what resources will be needed to deliver it. As well as operating model, an engagement model, incl. IP ownership will need to be clearly communicated to all parties from the onset to avoid any future detrimental issues.

Lastly, a crucial part of the accelerator will be the mentorship and engagement process that will run through the entire journey as it will enable York to capture high quality start-ups and ensure their experience through the process is monitored, improving the chances of success.

Theme 4) Leadership, governance, role of key local stakeholders

Ensuring the accelerator has clear and strong leadership that can communicate a clear business plan will be crucial for its long-term success. This is even more important given the varied group of stakeholders who are likely to have both an interest and influence over the decisions and running of the accelerator. For example, the universities, the public and private sector and potential international partners if marketed globally.

While it will need a single leader that becomes the face of the York Accelerator, it requires a steering group with collaborative leadership to get behind a single agenda, a leadership of shared purpose.

In order to accelerate the project, York needs to tap into existing and established models and there may be an opportunity to learn from local success stories such as Science City York as well as previous lessons from within the city and beyond.

Finally, the York Accelerator needs to build engagement with the wider region and international partners and market the facility internationally.

Download the report:

York Business Accelerator Analysis (high res version)

York Business Accelerator Analysis (email version)