Blog: Designing the Perfect Virtual Incubator

23 April 2013

ColinBio: Colin Gray’s background is Web Design, Online Education and Digital Marketing and he is studying for a PhD within DiA. His research focusses on virtual support for startup ideas and companies, and how to encourage entrepreneurs to employ the design process in their business development.

The term incubator means different things to different people. If you’re a gardener or a botanist, you might be using one to coax tiny plants into life, offering heat and light when they need it most. If you’re a farmer, you think immediately of that device that keeps your eggs warm, hatching far more of them into healthy chickens than a mere real-life hen could even do. Whatever the term conjures up in your mind, the common component is normally support, sustenance and growth.

In recent years, a new connotation has grown in the public perception, attached to the term incubator; the concept of an organisation which offers exactly the aforementioned components although on this occasion, it’s not to infant hens or plants, but to infant companies.

The Rise of The Technology Incubator

Business incubators have been around for a long time, from the business park entities of decades ago, to the recent university knowledge exchange units. In more recent times, it became the tech-incubator. The dot com bubble brought with it thousands of technology business ventures, and with that arose the need for business support focused on agile, low-cost, hi-tech startups. Tech incubators were developed to fill that role, and brought together knowledgeable, skilled and passionate tech-preneurs in small startup communities. One of the most famous of these is Y-Combinator, the birthplace of both Dropbox and AirBnB, and it has many other ultra successful contemporaries.

Incubation Through Chiasma

The Chiasma process, developed by Design in Action has learnt some lessons from the Business Incubator. Academics, business, designers and wild cards come together around a shared goal, exchanging knowledge and experience, working with disruptive thinking to evolve potential new products and services. Networking and sharing is an integral benefit of the Chiasma system as it allows mergers of ideas and business organisations, business support, financial advice and infrastructure are offered to ideas emanating from the process. In Chiasma, seed investment supports the ideas. Development into a prototype ready for investment into the current market place follows this process.

Designing a Virtual Incubator

My research as part of the Design in Action team is to look at the opportunity for a virtual support tool, to be offered to chiasma participants as they engage with the chiasma procvess and the research. The research will analyse how design of a Virtual Business Incubator can form a core support mechanism for teams post the Chiasma event, offering support and ensuring rigour in order to support them realise their ambitions.

The virtual incubator will take the form of a close-knit social network, accessible only to Design in Action members,  offering access to business expertise,including: legal, financial, business planning and IP management, additionally it will offer the benefits of networking and knowledge exchange.

Virtually Incubating Ideas and Innovation

My research will investigate how to design and provide a service for effective ideas development and innovation. This support will employ the design process to enhance products, experiences, systems and service developments. This will be achieved by looking at what tools would be useful in applying design to a business context. We can encourage the use of customer validation, a key step in the design development process and social networking allows this validation on an unimaginable scale. Crowdsourcing is an aspect that can allow validation from thousands in a matter of hours, a tool almost unused by companies when developing their strategic direction and consumer products.

That last point is key. Knowledge Exchange is the driving force behind the Design in Action project. Exchange between designers, businesses, academia and wildcards. How do we design an environment that fosters trust and encourages the sharing that is so desired in all incubators? Well, over the next 3 years, I hope to find out.