Finding a successful incubation program is like discovering a rare gem. If nature has provided the proper environment, after thousands of years and a great deal of heat and pressure, a crystal with the potential to become a gem ifs formed. But it isn't until the craftsman applies the knowledge of cutting gemstones using the proper tools, that a work of art emerges. So it is with incubators, where the combination of a good program design coupled with high quality management can yield a great product and successful entrepreneurs. I like to research incubators and accelerators to figure out why they do well (or not so well). Over the years I have started and/or managed several, and I think we could agree that a bad business plan, inadequate funding, or uninspired management can make even a good incubation concept seem bad.
Tech incubators are my favorite, and a few months ago I spent some time speaking with Celine Duros, Head of Operations and Partnerships at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) Incubator in Accra, Ghana. I had learned about MEST from industry colleagues in Accra who had founded the GMIC (Ghana Multimedia Incubator Centre) a public sector program that is a success in its own right in the Ghanaian market - but that will be another blog entry. MEST is a private non-profit, the brainchild of Norwegian entrepreneur Jorn Lyseggen who founded it in 2010, and the reason I found the MEST incubator's story so compelling is that it's one of the few incubation programs that truly provides startup capital in addition to the other more traditional value-added incubator services of mentoring, office space, training, graduate support, etc. Most importantly, MEST succeeds at its mission.
MEST operates much like an accelerator in the sense that it has a competitive selection process and accepts applications from several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa including Nigeria, Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire, and South Africa, in addition to Ghana. The startups that attend are focused on establishing new businesses in SaaS, Consumer Internet, e-Commerce, digital media and healthcare IT (to quote from their website).
The program unfolds in three phases that include a training phase of as much as two years, this is followed by an incubation phase in which the entrepreneurs start their companies, and then a mentoring phase. During their time in Accra, the entrepreneurs are exposed to local networking events, outside investors, industry experts and others who can help them think about making their business successful. In other words, the MEST folks are doing exactly what we in the incubator industry have always advocated - training, funding, and continuing support for those that have graduated. This is not something a lot of incubation programs are good at, and it's nice to see a successful program (MEST grads have been recruited to both Y Combinator and Techstars) that covers all the bases. MEST will also take equity in the companies with $50-200K being the range for a minority stake. Finally, the incubator companies have the ability to relocate to, or use temporarily, office space in the Meltwater offices in Silicon Valley and London - not a bad way to collect customer data when testing your minimum viable product (build, measure, learn...).
Another interesting thing about this program is that they have recruited a number of partners with both the staying power and the market reach to help them continue their expansion. Not many other incubators or accelerators can boast a list of partners that includes Samsung, Vodafone, Interswitch (Nigerian electronic payments business), Amazon Web Services, DLA Piper (legal), Microsoft BizSpark, and of course VC4A in addition to another 30 companies that are "ecosystem and event sponsors".
The organization is currently managing sites in Ghana, and Nigeria and plans to launch additional sites in South Africa and Kenya by 2018. Here's a Youtube link to an interview with founder Lyseggen:
I think I'll keep an eye on this one.