As Imperial College Business School is opening a teaching and research centre in White City within Scale Space, further enhancing the partnership with Imperial College, Scale Space’s Executive Chairman Mark Sanders discusses the relationship between the university and the business incubator, outlining why the bond between research and innovation is all the more vital for scale-ups as the UK grapples with recession
What is Scale Space?
Scale Space is a community of scale-up businesses and we exist to help them unlock the potential of UK innovation. We’re university connected, which gives access to know-how on talent, innovation and all the thinking that you get from leading universities, and we’re backed by Blenheim Chalcot, the UK’s leading digital venture. So together that perspective of business-building along with access to leading university talent and know-how will allow us to crack the challenge of unlocking the potential of UK innovation and make a bigger contribution to the UK economy as a result.
What problems are scaling businesses facing right now?
There’s lots of research out there and the ScaleUp Institute did a nice job of describing the key challenges for start-ups and scale-ups, which we’d agree with: access to finance, access to talent and skills, access to markets, infrastructure and leadership. All of those, from our experience, are real challenges that scale-ups face – as well as a more general one of getting good, practical advice.
And of those, what would you say are the key problems that Scale Space is solving?
One of the things that drove us to develop Scale Space is that we saw research saying that the UK was a world leader in starting up businesses – in the top three when you look at start-ups, but it didn’t make it into the top 10 when you looked at companies that successfully scale. We think there’s a real opportunity to help unlock the potential of UK innovation by creating this community, which is providing physical space, but because it’s linked to universities and business builders, it’s also giving access to know-how and the support that scale-up businesses need.
The real goal here is providing an environment which helps us become much better as a country, unlocking potential and creating more successful businesses that scale more effectively.
Why do you think Scale Space being university connected delivers a unique opportunity to start-ups and scale-ups?
One of the things that scale-ups need, and perhaps sometimes don’t realise, is a bit of help along the way. There are problems to solve. And so being in an innovative community and an environment that’s conducive to innovation helps scale-ups, who are able to bump into other entrepreneurs or interesting people doing interesting things.
I think it’s good for businesses to be more creative and diverse. We can create a central gravity for this, which will make it more attractive to talent. The university connection is really important as it provides access to know-how and access to talent and brings more diversity to the mix.
Blenheim Chalcot has started up around 40 businesses over the last 20 years, and we’ve seen those businesses work with universities and we’ve seen benefits in that, whether that’s internships or MBA students doing projects, or more specific pieces of research and case studies.
We know that when you can make the connectivity work with universities there are real opportunities and also, when we look at it the other way, for academics and researchers having access to interesting and innovative companies that are solving problems, that’s of great interest to them.
You’ll hear people talking about Scale Space as a living laboratory for academics and we’re creating this great opportunity where you’ve got business people solving business problems helped by academics who want to look at it from a more theoretical basis and put some of their theories into practice. That’s got to be good for these scale-up businesses.
What led to Blenheim Chalcot identifying the critical role universities could play in supporting business growth?
Over the years, Blenheim Chalcot has worked with leading universities, particularly in London, Nottingham and Edinburgh, and we’ve seen the benefits of working together and how that helps our businesses. We’ve seen the universities being positive and interested in engaging with us on that.
When I think about Scale Space, there’s a happy moment of serendipity. There was a part of it which was Blenheim Chalcot growing in west London and looking for more space. There was part of it with Imperial College having land available. But I think very quickly we could see that there was a massive opportunity to work together, to create this innovation centre to support entrepreneurship and innovation in west London, and do that in a more formal way.
A joint venture with Imperial College very quickly became something that we were all excited about on both sides. I think that’ll allow us to take some of the things we’ve done in the past and make them more systematic, which is what the Scale Space proposition is all about.
To date, have any Blenheim Chalcot ventures benefited from university collaboration?
We’ve had businesses that have worked on really complex modelling challenges. You bring people from the universities’ maths or stats disciplines to help advance the state of our thinking on modelling. That leads to better outcomes in terms of risk management in financial services, for example. So we’ve ended with better models and better outcomes as a result.
We have worked a lot on talent with universities. Researcher, one of our businesses, which is providing solutions for academics, has massively benefited by being able to work closely with Imperial College to advance the thinking around what the product is and how it provides benefits.
How did the partnership with Imperial College London come about?
We had been talking to Imperial College around opportunities to work with them in White City, which was something the local authority wanted to support.
Simultaneously, one of our founding partners, Manoj Badale, was having a conversation with Imperial College at their most senior levels, with their president Alice Gast, and they found a meeting of minds around the opportunity to have a business builder working with a university on entrepreneurship.
Scale Space today is an obvious outcome from those conversations. You could put it down to luck and serendipity, but there was a lot of relationship building that led up to it. Over the last three years, we’ve worked closely with Imperial to advance this agenda: sponsoring the venture catalyst challenge, working with the business school, working with academics, helping provide access to some of our businesses for Imperial College to work on business cases with them.
All of that feels like it’s the basis of a great relationship and I’m hopeful we’ll continue to grow as we find more things that we can work on together.
Being university connected offers a huge talent opportunity to your community. What would you say are the key benefits to both ventures and students through this partnership?
One of the things I’m personally fascinated about is this idea of fractional resourcing. There are problems that scaling businesses need to solve and they can be really quite pithy, difficult, complex problems to solve, but they need solving quickly. One of the things that Scale Space can provide is a mechanism for getting access to academics or research, or to students who have expertise in the field that’s relevant to the problem you’re trying to solve.
As a scale-up business, you’re not going to be able to afford to hire the super world expert on the problem to be part of your business, but having access to somebody – and it could just be for a day – helps you get a better framing of your problem and the routes to solving it.
All of which sounds great for the venture, but it’s great for the academic too. If they’re operating in the pursuit of understanding how the world works or coming up with theories and hypotheses around what the right answer is to dealing with that view of the world, then having a real-life example to test that on – to have some empirical evidence about the kind of outcome of that theory – is valuable for them as well. So it can be a win-win for both.
We have an MBA group working with us at the moment. Like any business, Scale Space has challenges that we need to solve. Getting a deeper understanding of what our community will value and benefit from in a systematic way requires you to do the work and the research. It requires you to talk to your community and potential members of your community and get to a deeper understanding of what they value.
We’ll create value for them as they grow their businesses and, for us, it’s about having some real talent at our disposal. It’s useful to have access to MBA students who can do a thoroughly professional piece of work in a more disciplined way than we may do as we’re rushing to scale. Answering a difficult question that we really do want to answer is valuable for Scale Space and I think it’s motivating for the students to work on because it’s cracking a problem that hasn’t been solved yet.
With elements of Imperial College Business School being part of Scale Space, what benefits to your members do you see that bringing?
Having parts of the Imperial College Business School being resident in Scale Space is going to be a massive advantage for the business school and for the community and Scale Space. You get that proximity and the accidental collisions of people who come into the business school being able to interact with the business community in Scale Space. That will happen naturally as a result of them being in the same building or queuing to buy coffee.
I’m excited by the idea of the business school being able to contribute to programmes of education and sharing expertise with the community. Later in the year, as we start to work on the Scale Factor, the business school will be a massive part of that agenda. We’re excited about this idea of sharing the know-how and expertise with our community, and tapping into our community to get their reaction and perspectives in return is going to be really important.
Having leading academics and researchers and members of the business school community coming to Scale Space and seeing what the businesses are doing will be beneficial not just for those business school participants, but also for the community in Scale Space and the businesses that are there.
Blenheim Chalcot and their ventures are also going to be a cornerstone of the community you’re building. Will there be opportunities for new members to access Blenheim Chalcot’s venture-building experience?
Yes. We want to make available access to some of the know-how and expertise and learning that we’ve got in Blenheim Chalcot. We’ve had 20 years of experience of building businesses and hopefully sharing some of our know-how will be beneficial to our community. I think that can be as informal as meeting people from Blenheim Chalcot because we’re in the same building. But we will do things that are a bit more programmatic and that could be around sessions where Blenheim Chalcot leaders can talk to the community about things they’re doing.
As we start to codify some of the know-how into the platform we’re building to share with our community, some of the Blenheim Chalcot know-how will inevitably make its way into that platform.
Would you say having access to academic research and venture-building experience creates unique insights for businesses wanting to scale?
Yes, there are some unique insights and opportunities. I think if you’re the founder or the leader of a scale-up, it’s an incredibly fast-paced environment that you work in. There’s a lot of pressure and it’s a little bit lonely at times, because, as the leader, you’re expected to know the answer to everything and in truth, great leaders are the ones that recognise they don’t know the answers to everything.
This environment we’re creating is characterised not only by the businesses and their teams and their leaders, but also by a university connection and all that brings in terms of academic talent, know-how, research and expertise. I think it makes it much more normal to ask questions and go looking for help.
And so what does that all mean? I think it provides the power to solve problems by having more diverse input from people who’ve got an academic or more formal perspective linked with people who are practitioners, right in the thick of it, doing the day-to-day challenge of building a business.
I have to believe that that it will lead to better answers and will allow those businesses to grow more quickly and to avoid the other kind of worst outcomes, which is doing something that is fundamentally a mistake and then subsequently realising that.
So this power of deep research, expert know-how and academic expertise with business builders running at pace to get through that scale phase and breakthrough this challenge that the UK has, it’s got to be more effective with the community that we’re building.
As the country moves out of lockdown, how pivotal is the success of UK innovation to the speed our economic recovery?
It’s critical. I’m in a world where everything is uncertain, where everything that we know may not hold true anymore. The pandemic is unprecedented. So as I think about the challenge for the economy, there are these businesses that are scaling, that are by definition more agile, that are at a stage where they can pivot and change and take advantage of a bunch of opportunities.
I have to believe that’s going to be critical for the economy in terms of job creation and in terms of generating economic benefit. The reality right now is that the winners who are going to succeed post-pandemic, as we move towards a new normal, are the ones that are going to be able to understand the environment they’re in, understand what customers really want, and are able to be agile and respond accordingly.
In my experience, the kind of businesses that can do that are those scale-ups that are designed to be more agile and more creative and more innovative. I think it’s critical for the economy that innovation is stimulated and I think scalers have a massive role to play in that.
What is exciting about being in White City?
We’ve been involved in White City with Imperial College now for three years. In that time, you can see the massive investment that’s going into the infrastructure and the environment. There’s a real energy and excitement happening in White City.
Exciting new businesses are relocating to White City, there’s a world-leading university, Imperial College, and Scale Space is right in the heart of their campus. It’s also an environment really well served by transport, has a more open space and is a less densely populated than central London.
Along with the massive investment into White City, this all feeds into it becoming a place that can be truly about innovation, technology, fashion and life sciences. Think about the diversity that those sectors would bring. That’s going to make White City a truly exciting place to be.