Three incubators linked to the University of Umeå in northern Sweden offer the empirical basis for this chapter. These incubators are well known, have received high ratings from several external reviews, and receive annual support from the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova. The state-owned Almi Business Partner—one of Sweden’s major provider of support for small and medium-sized firms (SMEs)—ranks one of the incubators, Uminova Innovation, as one of Sweden’s leading university incubators. The other incubator, Umeå Biotech Incubator (UBI), has been declared Scandinavia’s best biotech incubator. The most recently established incubator, eXpression, develops new methods to support new creative industries. In total, the incubators facilitate over 100 startups every year.
All incubators are majority-owned by the Umeå University Holding Company. They are closely linked to the university’s innovation office, which manages the system and exercises pre-incubation activities like scouting for business ideas with commercialization potential and research ideas that can be utilized by society. The innovation office acts as a bridge between the university, the incubators, and society at large.
This first part of the chapter uses primary and secondary data as an empirical basis and point of departure for a better understanding of the work being done in practice. It draws material from a prior survey of 222 startups in Umeå (Hjalmarsson, 2017) in which one in four respondents reported receiving some kind of public support. About one-tenth of all startups emerged from university research of some kind. An understanding of incubator support was sought in three different ways: First, the CEOs of the innovation office and the three incubators were interviewed in the spring of 2019, focusing on how they view the process of starting new academic-based companies and how they perceive the rationale behind the support they offer. Second, the understanding here results from a decade of participatory observation as a member of the board of Umeå University’s Holding Company, which is responsible for the innovation office and also the majority owner of the three incubators. Third, the discussion draws upon public documents and evaluations of the Swedish incubator support system and innovation systems in general (SOU, 2020:59) Innovation as a driving force, from research to practice. Figure 1 depicts an initial schematic view of the local innovation support system and the type of companies it seeks to attract.
An empirical description of actual support activities is summarized in four short narratives, crystallizing the essence of incubator support activities as kinds of Weberian ideal types (Giddens, 2006). The aim is to identify a few central concepts that can cover the empirical content of the support activities. Throughout the chapter, concepts like direct support, sounding board coaching, and creative arenas will be discussed.
2.1 Academic Innovation Support in Practice
This section rests on interviews, participatory observation, written documents, and earlier studies. The interviews, as the main source of information, were conducted as conversations with CEOs of the innovation office and the incubators, comprising the following questions: How can the process of starting a new business be understood? How do support needs differ at different stages of the development process? Are there differences between startups in different lines of business? What does the incubator do? What are the basic support measures? Does support differ between startup cases? Will action differ over time? What kind of program logic guides the incubator’s work?
The innovation office and the incubators work within the Umeå academic innovation support system (Hjalmarsson, 2017). The incubators are also members of the Swedish Incubators & Science Parks (SISP) organization, which has a total of 63 members throughout Sweden. The innovation support system in Umeå consists of Umeå University Holding Company, which is responsible for the innovation office and is the majority owner of the incubators: Umeå University Innovation Office; Uminova innovation (UI); Umeå Biotech Incubator (UBI); eXpression; and a minority-owned business angelsnetwork. A total of about 50 people work in the Umeå academic innovation support system, including the Holding Company’s own employees.
Umeå Innovation Office. The innovation office presents itself online as follows:
We help you to refine and realize your ideas. Regardless of faculty or discipline, our well-developed innovation support system is here to help you explore the possibilities and potential of your idea.
The innovation office thus aims to help individuals at Umeå University, from ideas to markets, with the utilization and commercialization of innovative ideas generated within the university. The innovation office is run as a separate part of the Holding Company’s organization. Its activities are divided into two categories: First, its task is to inform and encourage people in academia to take an interest in entrepreneurially utilizing ideas emerging from academic activities. This information-sharing can be seen as a kind of nudging to convince people to consider commercialization and utilization. Second, its role is to provide early, development-stage support. Here, the innovation office offers pre-incubator activities to verify the idea for the potential entrepreneur.
The innovation office’s information-sharing activities comprise a broad set of activities to stimulate and nudge utilization activities: In 2018, ten seminars were conducted to generate an inflow of ideas from the various faculties at the university, as was a course for researchers and doctoral students in collaboration with the Swedish Patent Office. Furthermore, special funding from Vinnova supported collaboration with Companion and eXpression over the Social Innovation Hub project to strengthen the knowledge of social innovations.
The overall aim of the innovation office’s attempts at stimulation and encouragement is to spread knowledge about and interest in the resources available within the innovation support system. The goal is to demonstrate that entrepreneurship can be an alternative career path and a way to realize dreams. During the summer, students on vacation can have their business ideas verified in order to generate students interested in commercializing their own academic ideas. Students are given advice in evaluating their business ideas and verifying commercial potential. Other activities include the Innovation Boot Camp, Startup Coffee (with Uminova Innovation), and Summer eXpression (with eXpression).
The innovation office’s second central task is to verify whether business ideas have the potential to be commercialized in new companies or whether ideas can be utilized in other ways. In this role, the innovation office works to provide access to networks and skills that may be necessary in further development of the project. It is crucial to meet, to connect, to create a startup community. Activities also include more direct action. The innovation office offers the support needed in order to properly be able to sign contracts or otherwise secure intellectual property (IP) rights. Important work also includes offering resources for innovation development and advice, licensing, and social innovation. The innovation office can provide funding for verification at very early stages, an activity carried out in ongoing cooperation with the three incubators.
The innovation office stresses that “every business is unique.” Further, that, “It is difficult to categorize in a world where service offerings and physical products are mixed with digital, often global, solutions … No processes are linear… but still there are useful tools to support like Lean Canvass, value-creating, and design and prototyping.” The key to success for such firms is always “Grit and enactment.”
The mission of Uminova Biotech Incubator AB (UBI) is to support the commercialization of ideas from Umeå University’s life science research. In 2018, UBI handled 17 business ideas, 4 of which were carried further into the incubator. UBI describes its incubator as follows:
Being a state-of-the-art biotech incubator, offering facilities, know-how and financing. We provide full service support for biomed innovators who are eager to test and verify their business ideas within the life sciences field. … UBI verifies and supports.
The focus is on taking academic research and ideas in biotechnology all the way from idea to startup company. Ideally, companies should remain in Umeå, preferably with 20–100 employees. The focus is on building companies and on supporting profitable businesses. For UBI, it is important to create growth, mainly in Umeå. Starting a business in biotech “takes place in a different context.” Business models, public procurement systems, and regulations are specific to the life science industry. Another feature is that the business is global from day one. “A researcher with a possible idea may think that you do not need to talk to the customer early.” But the definite view is that the customer must always be in focus, from the beginning and throughout the whole development process.
UBI provides each project or tenant startup a designated coach that facilitates the case and the work ahead with practical questions and issues related to the strategic development of the project. These coaches are given a clear activity plan. The working method is described in detail in a document that clarifies the development process from idea to established company or business deal, and how the process can be promoted. This process has been documented in a Standard Operation Procedure that resembles the development process in the Medtech business.
UBI operates in a scientific context in which verification and testing are central to the business culture. UBI’s work has similarities with the testing stages that apply in the pharmaceutical industry, whereby each product goes through (1) an idea phase, (2) preclinical studies, then (3) three phases of clinical trial, to finally (4) market launch. UBI stresses that it is crucial to set clear goals and sub-goals early in the development process, and then work purposefully according to the Standard Operation Procedures to effectively pursue the projects. At the same time, UBI emphasizes the creative role of the incubator in that the exact process “depends on what phase the current case or company is in. There is also some individual freedom in coaching as long as the overall incubation process is followed and reconciliation is discussed with others in the [business coach] team.”
Uminova Innovation AB (UI)—the second incubator—offers support for “startup companies with growth potential.” Venture ideas emanate from students, researchers, and staff at the university, the university hospital, and from the business community in the region. UI focuses on different types of business ideas with an emphasis on tech firms. UI offers initiatives such as (1) startup programs for new business ideas, and (2) an accelerator program for companies that can and want to scale quickly and already have a good team in place. In 2018, there were between 60 and 70 business ideas and startup companies at various development stages and phases in the incubator. “Nobody knows in advance what to do when starting a successful business, and what to do when you want to support a company. It changes over time.” One of the general problems described in developing research from the idea stage to a growing company is that the idea-owner and team is not focused enough and fails to allocate enough time to move the project forward. UI therefore tries to provide external people who can participate and push the project forward, helping to build entrepreneurial teams. UI works to continuously supplement the team, set up shadow boards, and otherwise ensure that the original project owners are complemented with the resources needed for successful development. The incubators also charge tenant firms rent for staying in the incubator. The incubator, like other incubators, works according to common methods in the entrepreneurship support industry, such as customer development and lean canvas, to quickly find out if the idea is feasible and then uses acceleration processes to start scaling up.
The incubator is also involved in efforts to impact the local entrepreneurial ecosystem through external activities such as networking events and different types of external information. The goal here is to create meetings, creative arenas, between different individuals who can contribute to the development of ideas and to create good general conditions for commercialization. Every year an event called Umeå Tech Arena is organized. In 2018 about 400 participants—entrepreneurs, students, researchers, investors, and businesses—participated.
eXpression AB—the third incubator—was started in 2014 at the university’s art campus. The purpose was particularly to support business ideas in the cultural, artistic, and creative industries, including business ideas in design, architecture, art, social media, informatics, journalism, music, film, fashion, and gastronomy. eXpression seeks to “unite creative minds… The incubator welcomes differences and similarities, in an environment of co-creation and community. With a dynamic method, innovative environment, and experienced coaches, the incubator supports the idea-owner to release their inner entrepreneur.” During 2018, eXpression worked on several activities including a startup program (Express program) and an incubator program (Creative Corporation). The summer of 2018 was the second time the summer eXpression activity was conducted. The incubator also managed a large number of workshops. eXpression emphasizes that people within the incubator’s framework are often value driven and want to start operations as a means of achieving things like environmental sustainability and equal opportunities. Many are initially one-person companies “who, through the incubator, want to develop as part of a larger network, to reach further.” Creating new ventures in the arts sector primarily stems from creativity, and the incubator staff argue that business is “more than just making money. But still the project-owner wants to be economically self-sufficient and wants to be responsible, and to move forward, to be active in ‘new industry networks.’”