Give city incubators the warmest of welcomes

Overcoming fragmentation of support is key, writes Frank Ross

Edinburgh boasts at least 15 incubators providing vital, early stage support to new businesses. Picture: Contributed
Edinburgh boasts at least 15 incubators providing vital, early stage support to new businesses. Picture: Contributed

IF you are starting a business, Edinburgh is the place to be. The Scottish capital was recently ranked one of the top three cities in the UK for business start-ups – no small achievement given the size and scope of some of our competitors. I believe incubators – facilities that combine free or affordable workspace with business support services such as funding, staffing and legal advice – play a crucial role in this.

Edinburgh boasts at least 15 incubators providing vital, early stage support to new businesses across a diverse range of sectors. They include Creative Exchange in Leith, an incubator for creative and digital businesses; Nine at Edinburgh BioQuarter, a new incubator aimed at life sciences start-ups; Ideas Lab at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, specialising in low carbon innovation; TechCube, an incubator for technology start-ups; The Melting Pot, which specialises in helping social enterprises, and E-Spark at South Gyle, which promotes itself as the world’s largest free business incubator.

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The city council already supports a number of these incubators through funding and premises, but wanted to do more. When we were preparing the business case for our own incubator, Creative Exchange, we noted that nothing linked these incubators strategically. Each project ran independently – some at capacity; some with waiting lists and some with spare space. The client’s journey, through start-up to growth, and the movement of clients between incubators wasn’t mapped. We wanted to address this fragmentation to help new and growing businesses.

The result is Interspace, a collaborative online portal where new businesses can search Edinburgh’s incubators for supported workspace by facility, sector or area. For example, you might be looking for an arts incubator in east Edinburgh with parking and 24-hour access; or an environmental incubator in west Edinburgh offering hot-desking and secure storage. Alongside the workspace itself, each venue provides its own “menu” of business support and collaboration, including networking events, mentoring, funding assistance and access to bespoke IT and creative facilities – such as recording studios, libraries or exhibition spaces.

The Interspace project is funded by the council and the European Regional Development Fund, and was developed with Edinburgh College, the University of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.

The vision is to make it even easier to do business in Edinburgh, by promoting the wealth of flexible, affordable workspace and business support services available. By collaborating through Interspace, each incubator can reach a wider audience with its specific offer – and in doing so, help achieve our own strategic objective of creating jobs and growing the local economy by supporting businesses.

This builds on our aim at the council to provide one point of contact for business customers – no matter what service they’re looking for. We started this process in 2012 by creating a new one-stop business hub at our Waverley Court headquarters. This integrates Business Gateway, the business support and advice service, with the council’s other business-facing services, including planning, building standards, licensing, trading standards, environmental services and non-domestic rates.

There is now a huge opportunity, through Interspace, for Edinburgh’s incubators and their members to benefit further from this extensive business support network. Past and present members include FanDuel, the fantasy sports league provider which has raised around £60 million investment since it was set up in 2009, and online identity verification service miiCard, which has been expanding in the US since securing £1.6m of second round venture capital funding in 2012. Other promising businesses include The Big Cheese Making Kit, and Lyles Sutherland, a website design and cloud software agency that has grown from three to 13 staff since joining Creative Exchange 18 months ago.

If we can repeat successes like these by improving collaboration between the city’s incubators and business support services, our local economy will benefit exponentially.

Frank Ross is economy convener, City of Edinburgh Council. For more on Interspace, visit