Professor Laura Galloway, Edinburgh Business School and Kallum Russell, Manager of the Edinburgh Business School Incubator
What a learning curve we have all been on! There is hardly a soul who is in work or in business who has not had to adapt to new ways of doing things. This weirdest and most worrying of times has seen more innovation in practice than any other in generations. People in everyday organisations have stepped up pragmatically, creatively and even ingeniously. An irony though is that this has been a particularly difficult time for those we refer to in normal times as ‘the innovators’. These are the ‘entrepreneurs’, the new starters, the potential disruptors. These are the men and women who have come up with a new idea, an investable technology, service or process, credible and exciting enough to merit interest and support. And at Edinburgh business School we have several.
The Edinburgh Business School Incubator at Heriot-Watt University is currently supporting 22 new entrepreneurs, including those in education tech, energy solutions, leisure, tech-enabled care, sensors and transport infrastructure (see https://ebsglobal.net/incubator). And there have been some great successes in the incubator since its inception, from awards to RSE fellowships to funding and in-kind support.
The secret sauce is community. The EBS Incubator applies an inclusive approach so that along with being housed in the Business School together and receiving one-to-one coaching, new firms receive a programme of support. This includes access to University and EBS networks and the opportunity to learn from business school and external specialists and from each-other as they commence their entrepreneurial journeys. For all of this, community is key.
But how do you maintain community during lockdown, social distancing and travel restrictions? And how do new firms continue to develop their entrepreneurial propositions in these circumstances? These two questions are front and centre of EBS’ response to Covid for incubated firms.
First, we reassured all the incubated firms their contracts of stay were automatically extended to January 2021 so that no-one was expected to leave, as per originally planned, at the end of June. New businesses are precarious enough without having to think about finding new premises. In any case though, like all organisations, the second thing that happened was that the EBS Incubator community went online. We had to pivot ourselves! Overnight we became a virtual incubator. This has required lots of communication and facilitation of communication. We use phone apps, social media and online meeting services. We cancelled nothing. All seminars became webinars, including the ones delivered by EBS specialists and by external supporters such as Allison Harrison, founder of Hot Yoga Edinburgh, and Alistair Lang, partner at Thornton’s Law. Communications with firms became more regular – not less – as demand for coaching and for specific lockdown-related help increased. Specifically, several firms just could not continue on the trajectory they were on. Take Faisal, the founder of SolarisKit. Right now, he is meant to be prototyping and testing his mobile solar energy technology in Rwanda. With travel impossible, he has pivoted to focus on testing in the glamping market in the immediate term. Similarly, the founder of IntelliDigest, Ifeyinwa, and her team are developing the world’s first automated “bio-upcycler” that converts food waste into climate-friendly reusable chemicals. Originally intended to service commercial customers, since hotels and restaurants are also in lockdown, they have pivoted to develop in the domestic market, to help with food waste in the home.
These examples serve to show just how fast and comprehensively Covid has been able to stop some entrepreneurs in their tracks. But these guys were not alone. They had EBS and they had each-other. Heriot-Watt, EBS staff and incubated firms worked together and through this community and some specific events on brainstorming problems, responses and opportunities, pivoting has been enabled. And new directions have been identified too, with a few of our incubated firms exploring how they might contribute to some of the challenges Covid and lockdown have presented for others. The sonar-tech firm IMERAI, for example, has recently explored potential applications for social distancing support, and the children’s education and wellbeing charity, A Place in Childhood, is seeking to explore what young people think about Covid-19 to give them a voice from which we may be informed about how best to support them (see APiC Blog).
The incubated firms at EBS have been keen to engage with the incubator and its resources during lockdown. And the School has been keen to provide these. Covid has challenged these new firms. Its challenged the incubator too. But as a community, we have risen to this challenge. And in fact between us, the response has been to charge our resilience, our ability to innovate, and our practice of entrepreneurship.