I entered Engine Shed in January 2020 as the Centre Director at SETsquared Bristol on an interim contract with a year to embrace the community and maybe tinker with a few bits of the well-oiled incubation machine. Roll on a few months to the challenges of the COVID pandemic and the resultant lockdown that would impose wholesale change on the way that we do everything. Not a standard year but an incredible lesson in how unwelcome upheaval can be good for progress.
As the country was asked to stay at home in March, my first reaction was to make sure that SETsquared Bristol kept going. We moved to virtually deliver the whole business support programme in a couple of days thanks to the quick wits and enterprise of Lisa Matthews, our then Business Incubation Manager. Then our main concern was looking after our members as well as trying to look after our books. We had a few months of huge change when people stopped coming into the office, some members left, and pretty soon we fell into a cycle of groundhog days of nothing much new happening and very little opportunity to make big changes for the better.
In times of flux, it’s often easier to notice how things should be, when the routine of normality is stripped away and you have to think from scratch. We were able to see the incubator model with fresh eyes by necessity rather than intention. As things started becoming less constrained in the summer, we looked at the new world and tried to regroup on our purpose and how to achieve it. In this time of existential angst, it was important to ask “why” SETsquared Bristol exists.
Purpose for us is about delivering progress by helping tech founders succeed and doing that in the right way; by considering every founder and business journey as unique and providing bespoke solutions, by working in a boundaryless way to enable any technology and anyone from any background to have the chance to succeed, and finally by not just providing a service but by aspiring to brilliance in everything we do.
Online provision of coaching and workshops gave us the freedom to truly deliver on that ambition. A virtual existence means we’re no longer a regional incubator. We are an incubator supporting the world–leading tech companies of the future from our home in Bristol. Although we are outside of London, that doesn’t make us an incubator of small regional ideas! Winning the Europas Hottest Accelerator award in June recognised the value created in SETsquared Bristol over the last 10 years by Nick Sturge, Monika Radclyffe, Grev Commins and Rick Chapman among others. The pandemic has helped us make that offering available to more founders in Bristol and in focused tech sectors across the country.
We’ve been able to do this in style by smashing the glass ceiling on representation at leadership level, with 45% of our founders being women and 24% from BAME backgrounds. It was also the third year in a row that SETsquared Bristol members collectively secured over 10% of all the investment to startups in the South West. As we look to roll out future groups around greentech, quantum and cyber, we’re able to attract more founders and business to get incredible support face to face on screen.
From a personal point of view, what a year to remember! It’s been amazing to be welcomed into the SETsquared Bristol family as well to be part of the University of Bristol and SETsquared Partnership communities.
My two big hindsight learnings?
Firstly, communication is key and I believe I could have done this better, in more volume and at more speed. But looking back it has sometimes been hard to know what plan to communicate when the world is upside down. In the end we may not be where we thought we were going but hopefully we’ve ended up where we need to be. Thank you to everyone in the SETsquared and Engine Shed teams for their patience, perseverance and understanding.
Secondly, the key to getting through to a better situation, through building momentum and quality with finite capacity and resources, can only come from focus on the things that matter. To get that focus right needs investment of dedicated time and energy. During lockdown, that time availability has sometimes been forced rather than desired but it has certainly had an impact and is worth investing in again for the future.
So despite a tragic and terrible year for many and a jolt for everyone, it’s also hopefully been a year that’s helped us view incubation needs from a design thinking perspective. The imposed change has been good for SETsquared Bristol, providing opportunity for more progress as we make Bristol the home of global fast growth tech businesses.