Stew McTavish Supporting Founders Development in Incubation Ideaspace for New Ventures
by Rado Durina, 26th May 2014
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Hi Stew and welcome to! Firstly, please tell us a bit about yourself. How did you begin your entrepreneurial journey and what has motivated you to pursue your own ideas?

"Thanks for asking me to participate. I think I started my journey like most entrepreneurs. I discovered something that I was passionate about and I wanted to learn more about. In my case it was e-learning systems. I had a concept for how they could be better and loved discovering more about it and designing better solutions. I never got to the point of turning it into a company but through the people I met through the discovery process I started a web consultancy which was my first business."

You are the Founding Director for IdeaSpace - Enterprise Accelerator, based in Cambridge in the UK. How did the idea originally come about and what inspired you to pursue it? How did the idea become reality; was it a long journey?

"The concept for IdeaSpace was created as part of the vision for the The Hauser Forum. The Hauser-Raspe Foundation, and later the East of England Development Agency, granted money to the University of Cambridge to create an entrepreneurship centre. Within the vision of the entrepreneurship centre was an incubation space for new ventures. I was just exiting my last startup when they were recruiting for a founding Director for this IdeaSpace and it was suggested I might be good at it. Almost five years later it’s still a work in progress but we’re now working with over 80 new ventures across two and soon to be three founder hubs in Cambridge."

How exactly does IdeaSpace help Europe's startups?

"We don’t help startups directly. We focus on supporting founders develop in their role as leaders of the business model discovery process. The primary way we do this is through our membership programme where we carefully interview prospective members so we can create a high quality community of new venture founders who can help and support each other by working in close proximity to each other."

What differentiates IdeaSpace from other Startup Accelerators? 

"The big difference I suppose is the focus on the development of the founder and founding team rather than the development of the startup itself. We believe that great organisations are founded by great people."

And what role does the University of Cambridge play in fostering promising startup ideas?

"I think it’s hard to distill a single role. University’s embody a wide range of activities and goals, each of which has the potential to contribute to fostering startups. At it’s core the University of Cambridge is one of the greatest concentrations of talented and driven researchers in the world. These researchers uncover and develop world changing insights and discoveries that can be the basis of a startup’s competitive advantage if adopted or translated correctly. These researchers also attract some of the best students in the world and these students spend years absorbing these insights and thinking patterns and then taking them out into the world. Cambridge is also one of a handful of collegiate universities in the world where fellows, researchers and students mix across academic disciplines in colleges on a daily basis and different discoveries or thinking patterns can spread quickly. Finally the culture in Cambridge around individual freedom and excellence really creates a supportive environment where people feel confident to try risky ideas in the knowledge that they will be supported."

What types of startups is the IdeaSpace accelerator programme suited for? What is your advice to entrepreneurs hoping to get their startup into one of your programmes? What are the criteria?

"We are looking to work with high impact potential founders. Founders work after the point of invention but often before the work of a traditional entrepreneur begins. It’s about discovering the engine which correctly harnesses the spark but before you start to build the car to translate that energy into movement. The key is inspirational humble ambition. They need to be ambitious enough to want to make a substantive positive contribution to the world but humble enough to know there’s a long way to go, they don’t know all the answers but they go about it in such a way that inspires others to join them on their journey."

What are you most encouraged about when you work with emerging startups and entrepreneurs at IdeaSpace?

"It’s the people I meet every day. Both on the startup side and the academic side. They continually inspire me with their vision as well as achievements which make any thing seem possible."

Can you share with us some of the most exciting startup projects that have emerged from the IdeaSpace accelerator programme?

"All projects are still emerging but some ventures are working on printed plastic electronics, curing peanut allergies, creating a peer to peer energy company, global manufacturing processes, zero carbon economies and the nature of part-time employment. Lot’s of potential but what is really exciting is that the founders we work with have the potential to found multiple ventures it’s not just a one shot game."

Now, let's talk about you and your startup life. Prior to pursuing IdeaSpace you had built a number of startups. Could you share some of them? What are the key lessons you have learned?

"My three previous ventures that saw various stages of the light of day were a web consultancy, a magazine for entrepreneurs and a venture creation system. None were stellar successes but they each gave me the opportunity to work with some amazing people, make a real difference to groups of people and to learn. Key lessons all depend on the situation.

But some of the basic lessons that are often missed by first time entrepreneurs is to:

1. Solve for the real problem, not just the one you want to solve or the one that you know how to, 

2. Management is not a bad thing you just need to manage with high levels of communication, shared understanding and trust

3. It’s amazing what can happen if you ask so don’t be afraid to

4. You can start engaging customers and partners at any point in your journey, just be clear and transparent about what stage you are at and don’t over sell too early. 

What would be your most important advice for people having an idea but not knowing how to pursue it?

"Start and talk to others who have already done so."

What are the key barriers to innovation and how can one overcome these?

"One key barrier is that people fall in love with solutions rather than problems and they fixate too early on one idea. You can take your time to experiment with different ideas and aspects of an idea. As an entrepreneur your success is that of the people that make up your company solving problems for customers not that you had the right idea or solved the problem yourself."

Some people think that innovation is most likely to take place in bigger companies with huge R&D budgets. How can smaller business be equally innovative despite limited resources?

"A horrible phrase I once heard but rings true is that resources are never the issue it's resourcefulness and persistence." 

Any startup or innovation related blogs or online resources every entrepreneur should read?

"Too many to say but the key is to start somewhere and then find a peer group that challenges you and helps you improve." 

If you were to give five golden tips to young entrepreneurs, what would they be?

1. Listen to everyone but make and own your own decisions.

2. Let others make theirs. 

3. Scale your own impact by working effectively and complimentarily with others. 

4. Align interests effectively and magic can happen.

5. Don’t believe in golden tips.

How do you see your entrepreneurial journey will evolve over the next 5 years? Do you see yourself "getting your hands dirty" to pursue your startup life again?

"I don’t know. I tend to be goal orientated rather than time orientated. My current goal is to develop IdeaSpace to serve our members better and help unlock the potential of the people and discoveries in Cambridge. I’d like to think I’m still pursuing my startup life. If you think of Steve Blank's definition of a startup as a temporary organisation in search of a business model you can see how any team in any organisation can structure and manage itself as a startup. I think that a startup is a mindset and set of activities rather than an organisation structure or size."

Finally, where can our startup community find you online? 

"Email tends to be the way. Those who want to find me can."

Thank you Stew. We wish you and your team at IdeaSpace continuous success in serving supporting entrepreneurs throughout their exciting startup journeys.

Author: Rado Durina

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