Katie Lewis is the Business Growth Manager for Innovation Warehouse’s resident accelerator, the Accelerator Academy. She set up her first business at university and closed it down before travelling from her native New Zealand to London – only to later realise she could have explored other, more interesting options. Her entrepreneurial urges led her to join an early-stage VC and become an active participant on the investment circuit, where she met Ian Merricks, and together they established The Accelerator Network. Innovation Warehouse sat down with Lewis to talk techie.
How did the relationship between Accelerator Academy and Innovation Warehouse begin, and how has it evolved?
The relationship was established between Ian Merricks, founder of the Accelerator Academy and chairman of The Accelerator Network, and Innovation Warehouse CEO Ami Shpiro, and it was actually around the time that Innovation Warehouse was launched that we ran our very first Accelerator Academy programme.
We took that first programme on tour. Every week we were in a different venue, and after spending time in the Innovation Warehouse space we picked up on the conversation with Ami to take permanent residence and become the in-house accelerator programme.
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship where we get access to the space to run our presentation evenings and clinic events. From Innovation Warehouse’s point of view, they have access to the startups as they’re coming through the programme, and we’re always bringing interesting new businesses into the space.
Through his experience of being an exited tech entrepreneur, Ami has been a mentor on the programme along with Stephen Bloch, and the team are always invited to attend our investor events – and those opportunities have also been opened up to the Angel Network associated with Innovation Warehouse.
What is Accelerator Academy all about? What is its purpose and process?
Our USP, our secret sauce, is that companies coming onto the accelerator programme have access to mentors who have all built and sold technology businesses. That’s really important, because they’ve been in the same place as the founders on our programme – around the kitchen table, pushing against all the different challenges one faces when building a business – and they really understand the value that can be created when going through an exit process.
We look for mentors who’ve had a minimum of a £20 million exit and of our mentor pool, which is 26-mentor strong, most have had multiple exits. But I think from a founder point of view, that’s the real gold dust – that they’re able to work with someone who’s been in their shoes and learn from their mistakes; their lessons as to how they wish they’d done things differently, or things they can see with hindsight – that when you’re in the thick of building a business you don’t necessarily have the clarity to see.
What criteria do you look for in startups? What is essential to getting on the AA programme?
We have a 13-point checklist where we look at things like the business stage and life stage of the startup. We typically look for companies in their first year of trading; we like them to have a product, and we like to be able to see sales traction – real cash coming into the business – but if it’s, say, a B2B proposition with quite a long sales cycle, then understanding the proximity to that first sale is also important.
We really love founders with domain experience, because we don’t focus on one particular area of technology – we expect the domain experience to come from within the founding team. We look for teams and qualities around a market opportunity that we believe could be scalable and a growth opportunity for the businesses.
So we’ve got a checklist that goes through things in finer detail, but what is essential from our side is really difficult to quantify. It’s the conversations you have with people, and that means looking for individuals who are firstly humble enough, and willing and able to take on mentorship, guidance and feedback – coupled with people who are ambitious enough to build a business that will grow beyond the UK market and make a real difference. Maybe even change the world.
Humble and ambitious would typically clash, but you can definitely find that combination and when you see it in people, you can see it unfolding in the way they’re engaged with the content of the programme, how engaged they are in the different sessions, and how they’ve prepped beforehand. If they take the opportunity to be really thorough, then that’s generally a sign that they’ve taken on board the essential advice.
We have a real mix – some people may have spent 15 years in a career and spotted an opportunity that they’re now looking to exploit, while others are younger founders who are tapping into something that is generational and of the moment.
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