The Current Incubator and Accelerator Space: Guidance for Start-ups
We take a look at the various components of the incubator and accelerator space, and break it down into the areas you need to factor into your decision making when it comes to selecting the support programme that’s right for you. In this blog we’ll be breaking down to: 1) What are the different types of support programmes for founders? 2) What are the program differences (and) 3) What are the key considerations in selection

As a start-up, getting started can feel like a mammoth task. You really need some support and guidance to show you the way, otherwise you risk never even getting out of the blocks. 

Luckily, there’s a whole host of different support organisations & programmes out there, all designed to provide different types of support and create different kinds of impact for your business. 

But even so, the number and range of these support programmes available to startups can feel overwhelming, and knowing how to find the perfect programme for you and your business can be challenging. 

Over the last 5 years, the UK Incubator & Accelerator network has more than doubled to over 700 different organisations covering a whole range of services and supporting almost 20,000 businesses. The tricky piece to navigate is an ever evolving definition of the categories and where these organisations sit in and what services they provide. 

That’s why we’ve pulled together some advice and guidance for startups looking to explore the current incubator and accelerator space, this will help you to find the support that’s going to work for you.

Let’s take a look at the various components of the incubator and accelerator space, and break it down into the areas you need to factor into your decision making when it comes to selecting the support programme that’s right for you. In this blog we’ll be breaking down, 

  1. What are the different types of support programmes for founders
  2. What are the program differences
  3. What are the key considerations in selection

This article has also been possible from the outstanding work that the Centre for Entrepreneurs do and the research from the updated 2022 Incubator & Accelerator Network (IAN) report. 

Section 1. What are the different types of support organisations

There are many different types of support organisations in the IAN network, which the CFE list 9 main variants, but here we will focus on 3 specific ones. 

What is an incubator? 

To provide the official definition from the CFE:

“Incubators are startup support organisations which provide physical space to startups, along with additional growth-related services, but are not cohort-based nor fixed-term.“

The provision of space is often a key factor, as their business models typically rely on the rental income as a key source of income. 

“Most incubators also provide services such as investment readiness training, connections to investors, IP advice (directly or via third party service organisations), technical support, and peer-to-peer interaction.”

This provision of services is a major positive to founders as the ready to access support services can be incredibly beneficial when you don’t know where to start or what you need. 

“Programmes are often fee-based (e.g. charging a monthly rent) and tend to be less selective than accelerators — though there are typically still some admission criteria, such as geographic location of firms, university affiliation, stage, or sectoral focus.”

Finally, the requirement for a fee is a key factor that may immediately rule out some from considering an incubator when the search for funding is the primary areas of focus. 

These are fixed term, cyclical startup support programmes with a start and end date. Unlike an incubator, you join with a cohort of other startups and are provided with a comprehensive range of support over an intense course of training. Accelerator support includes mentoring opportunities, investment guidance as well as sector specific advice and training and critically introductions to investors. 

The Pre-accelerator

This is an additional terminology to be aware of given their rise in numbers. To quote the CFE’s effective and simple definition:  

“These are short programmes designed for prospective entrepreneurs who are not yet ready for an accelerator. They are typically intended for first-time entrepreneurs at a very early stage. Programmes are shorter in duration than accelerators, and do not aim to take a product to market, but rather are focussed on fostering entrepreneurial awareness and understanding.”

Section 2. What’s the difference between incubator and accelerator programmes?

There are some similarities between accelerators, and incubators but there are also some significant differences, the below shows the main services provided, along with some common cross over areas. Please note, there is no one size fits all and the provision & depth of support varies from one to the other.  

Key advantages of joining an accelerator:

  • Advice from serial entrepreneurs, operators, and investors: In general, accelerators provide support or mentorship from a large collection of experts who can assist founders in overcoming obstacles and identifying opportunities for growth.
  • Partnerships and connections: Accelerators frequently provide access to a variety of collaboration opportunities with other founders or larger organisations. While this is also actually the case for incubators, you will be at a possibly a bit later stage, so your potential to use or activate such partnerships may be more appropriately timed.
  • Ideal for early stage investment: Startups that participate in an accelerator programme frequently require early seed funding to grow. Accelerators may participate in funding rounds by providing a small cash injection, or they can connect founders with investors who may be able to provide capital.

Key advantages of Incubator programmes: 

  • Ideal for idea stage start-up: Unlike accelerators, which typically require founders to demonstrate their growth potential and existing traction, startups can typically gain access to incubators at an earlier stage of development and even at an idea stage.
  • Offer co-working space: Incubators typically provide startups with a co-working space where your team can discuss and exchange ideas with some other professionals, which is great for networking.
  • Training and mentorship: Incubators, like accelerators, provide support or mentorship from a large network of experts who can assist founders in overcoming challenges, setting targets and priorities, and help them to make sound decisions.

Section 3. Key considerations when choosing the right accelerator or incubator programme

Sector Specificity

An important element to consider when selecting the right support programme for your business is how sector specific you want it to be. Generally, the more specific the programme is to a certain sector, the more value you may gain from it given its niche focus.

One thing you’ll need to have crystal clear as you go into this process is exactly what kind of support you’re looking to gain from joining an incubator or an accelerator. If you’re looking to make industry connections, then a sector specific support programme might be best for your business. But if you want support on business model refinement in the early stages of your business growth, then understand who the course mentors & advisors are to learn how best they are placed to help with your business. 

Invest some time into clarifying your key goals for seeking help from a support programme. Once you’ve got these finalised, it will make selecting a programme with the right level of sector specificity a lot easier. 

Location & Accessibility 

There are now over 700 start up support programmes available across the UK, with large clusters of both incubators and accelerators located in London, and a significant density of accelerators across the Tees Valley. There are also hotspots across the south, in Cambridge, Oxford, the Midlands, as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh. 

Due to geographical availability and spread across the country, incubators are more likely to be a more efficient way for you to access support from where you’re located. However, with the pandemic forcing us to redefine the role of collaborative workspaces across the world, the current incubator and accelerator space has undergone some changes regarding the accessibility of their programmes. Many programmes have either widened the catchment area of their application process, or have adapted their offering to be hybrid and virtual. If you’re not located in one of the above hot spots, accelerators are not only likely to have larger catchment areas than incubators, they’re also more likely to deliver remotely. 

It is worth revisiting, however, what you’re hoping to achieve with your involvement in a support programme before you start filling out the application. If you’re hoping to expand your network and connect with likeminded business owners, this may be lost if your programme is delivered online. Or, dependent on the sector or industry of your business, you might want to try and find a programme that is already established in the geographical hotspot that relates to your industry of choice. For example, in London, the majority of support programmes focus on private sector businesses, and are driven by large corporations. Whereas in the Tees Valley, the accelerators centre on economic ecosystems and regeneration. 

Time Commitments 

Membership with an incubator typically doesn’t have a set start and end date. While there are time commitments involved with incubators, these aren’t as demanding as accelerators, and are generally considered to be a longer term, rolling responsibility to factor into your long term business growth. 

Accelerators, on the other hand, are cyclical programmes that startups enrol in and graduate from after having completed the various sessions. Accelerators require a more intense but shorter term time commitment, lasting anywhere between 3 to 6 months. 

When selecting the support programme that’s right for you, you’ll need to consider the demands on your time both now and in the near future. If you want to throw your everything into your support programme for a shorter period of time, an accelerator might be the option for you. Whereas if you want longer term support in growing your business over a longer period of time, consider applying for an incubator.

We hope this article has been of benefit to clarify the incubator and accelerator landscape. The support offered is greater than ever, with some truly incredible organisations & programs to choose from, so with a little research, you could find the right support to give you the perfect kickstart. 

FundingHero for Fundraising Support

If you’ve recently started out on your new business venture and are looking for more guidance on how to raise capital to help you grow your start-up, take a look at our FundingHero LEARN package. Our in depth library of content and toolkits span our 6 pillars of fundraising framework to help prepare you for the pitfalls and milestones you should be looking out for as you’re growing your business. Our learning resources are created from proven frameworks and experience taking businesses from idea to exit, so we understand the whole journey ahead.