Do business accelerators really work? (via The Globe and Mail)

Wednesday, June 26 2013

Dusan Stojancevic/Getty Images/iStockphoto

An innovative business idea can strike at any time. Just ask Igor Faletski, John Boxall and Peter McLachlan. While waiting for a bus in the Vancouver rain in 2007, they conjured up the concept for an SMS application that would provide passengers with up-to-the minute transit data on their mobile device. It was one of the first systems of its kind in North America.

Recognizing the growing demand for mobile services, the three university students eyed a lucrative international market. The question: how to translate a viable idea into a global business?

In 2009, the aspiring entrepreneurs spent the summer in Silicon Valley to gain additional insight on how to create a better product that addressed the needs of their target market. They returned home to Vancouver a few months later ready to build a Canadian company. Wrestling with a growing list of actions and limited resources, they were connected with an organization that provides wireless firms with access to funding sources, as well as the technical, business and market services required to grow a sustainable company. They secured a spot in the business accelerator of this national Centre of Excellence for Wireless Commercialization and Research (CECR).

Within a year, the team leveraged onsite wireless development labs and testing services; business expertise and mentors; access to NRC-IRAP funding; international partner networks; and global market entry programs.

They emerged as Mobify, a growing company with a solid business strategy, three market-ready wireless solutions, and two international customers in Asia. And they achieved these milestones without any venture investment.

Mobify’s mobile web platform now counts 90,000 users in more than 200 countries, including globally recognized brands such as Starbucks, Bosch and Toyota. In 2013, Mobify is on track to power $200-million in mobile and tablet transactions for its e-commerce customers. The Vancouver-based company has multiplied its talent base, catapulting from four to more than 50 employees within three years. Mr. Faletski, the CEO of Mobify, believes the targeted support from the accelerator catalyzed this success. It is the reason he continues to work with the accelerator today.

Mobify is a Canadian business success story. But it’s also a business accelerator success story. There’s extensive debate about the value of accelerators today: Are there too many? Are they doing the right things? Are they actually helping to grow sustainable Canadian companies?

As any industry executive will tell you, there’s no single recipe for business success. Many factors influence the growth trajectory of a company. Accelerators address these elements, and help companies overcome the hurdles they present. The end goal: thriving, sustainable companies that strengthen the Canadian economy.

So what is working when it comes to accelerators? It’s a tough question – but there are some critical success factors we can draw from Mobify’s experience.

Accelerators that provide concurrent access to different sources of funding and an integrated suite of technical, business and market services deliver greater value to growing companies. Physical space and cash alone do not build a sustainable business. Accelerators that address all facets of growth enable firms to develop the right product for the right market, and acquire customers in a cohesive way. Combine this with the mentorship and training that occurs within an accelerator, and the founders of Mobify will tell you it drives growth. Mr. Faletski believes this support accelerated Mobify’s time to market – and time to revenue – by at least two years.

And in an era where investors seek rapid results from accelerators and the companies they support, ‘time to return’ is a dominant topic. It is important to establish realistic expectations on this front. It takes years to build a globally-scaled company. Some of the highest profile accelerators in the U.S. address very specific needs of early-stage firms in just 90 days.

There’s no question that seed financing and a compelling pitch are essential to get a start-ups off the ground. But these are the first of many steps in the growth of a global company. It’s a multi-year journey that tests even the greatest industry veterans with decades of experience.

Accelerators that offer targeted support over the long haul can help companies overcome roadblocks that might otherwise stunt their growth. For example, it’s challenging to build a customer base in foreign markets – even when the product and business plan are well developed. Accelerators that cultivate strong international networks are well positioned to facilitate different market linkages over time. These introductions can help young companies land critical first customers and deals – and propel continued growth. A partnership between the wireless accelerator and Japan’s Mobile Computing Promotion Consortium (MCPC), for example, helped Mobify secure its first global customer and revenue in 2010. The company has since benefitted from similar missions to India and Japan, expanding its deal flow in the Asian market.

Not simplly business programs, accelerators are are financial investments. Private investors know this well. Public funders have the opportunity to adopt a similar approach to help grow more companies like Mobify in Canada. We can reap greater economic benefits from these organizations by:

  • Developing a national accelerator strategy that maximizes public and private investment, and promotes the longer-term technical, business and market support required to build sustainable companies;
  • Leveraging accelerators as delivery agents for free trade agreements and other policy imperatives, enabling them to directly address economic development objectives;
  • Focusing accelerators on high-growth sectors that capitalize on Canada’s technology and innovation strengths to seize the greatest opportunities for long-term economic growth; and
  • Facilitating collaboration among accelerators and other innovation players to put more proven practices to work for companies and gain greater leverage from public investments.

By providing the right support to high-growth businesses throughout their development, we can harness the power of accelerators to help build stronger Canadian companies – and a stronger economy.

James Maynard is a former entrepreneur and industry executive, and president and CEO of Wavefront, a Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR) that accelerates the growth and success of wireless companies by connecting them with critical resources, partners and opportunities, to drive economic and social benefits for Canada.


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