Yesterday evening I was renewing my car insurance and I had to pick my occupation from a drop-down list. You will not be surprised to learn that “Super Connector” was not on that list. Neither was “Regional Lead” or “Programme Manager”. I opted for “Business Consultant” which was as close as I could get to describe my new role at Capital Enterprise… but it still doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. This, and the continued questions from my Mum (“remind me what it is that you do?”), prompted me to write this blog post.
Parents not understanding what their offspring do will be a familiar tale to many of my peers working in the digital, tech, and entrepreneurship space. These are new roles and can be hard to explain. Y Combinator in California, arguably the world’s first accelerator programme, was founded as recently as 2005 . Within the past 10-15 years, a whole raft of job roles have been created which simply didn’t exist before, in particular around programme management and community curation.
So, what is a Super Connector? And where does this role fit within the entrepreneurial ecosystem that supports growth-oriented startups? (Many may be wondering, “what is an entrepreneurial ecosystem?” – but let’s save that for another day!). Fundamentally there are three parts to this role: 1. Connect people; 2. Connect institutions; and 3. Increase pre-acceleration and acceleration in South Yorkshire to support entrepreneurs. Taking each by turn…
- Connect People. This is about being a visible presence in the ecosystem. As Super Connectors, Ceri and I are accessible touchpoints for any tech and digital entrepreneurs who are looking for the resources they need to build their business. Those resources might be tangible, like investment or a co-working space, or they might be intangible, like knowledge, introductions, and learning new skills. We might not have all the answers, but we will hopefully know someone who does. One of the defining characteristics of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is that it is inclusive and welcoming to everyone, and South Yorkshire is no different in that respect, but it can sometimes be hard to know where the entry point is if you are starting out or new to the area.
- Connect Institutions. This part of this role is the least tangible. It’s about ensuring that the ecosystem is joined up. In brief, an entrepreneurial ecosystem is comprised of various institutions that support entrepreneurs. These institutions include the public sector, universities, and funding bodies, alongside a whole host of incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces that we can group together as “entrepreneur support organisations” (ESOs). For the entrepreneurial ecosystem to be a thriving environment for entrepreneurs, it’s important that these institutions and ESOs are well connected. As Super Connectors, it is mine and Ceri’s role to be aware of the various entrepreneurship initiatives that exist across South Yorkshire, and to ensure that this information is shared widely – not just to make it easier for entrepreneurs to find support, but also to avoid duplication of offers across the region. New programmes that are introduced are done so to complement what already exists. Which brings me to the third part of the Super Connector role
- Increase Pre-acceleration and Acceleration in South Yorkshire. This is the bread and butter of our jobs. It’s about ensuring that we have the pre-acceleration and acceleration programmes to meet the needs of the entrepreneurs in our ecosystem. What this means in practice is that we are working with local and regional partners to co-design industry-specific accelerators (for example in EdTech or Deep Tech). We are also working with external partners to attract pre-acceleration programmes to the region that are suitable for a wide range of people at different stages of their careers. The ERDF funding allows us to part-fund roles within these programmes. Every step of the way, we are guided by the needs of the ecosystem – it would be inappropriate to simply “parachute in” an established accelerator to the region: there has to be a good “accelerator / entrepreneurial ecosystem” fit.
It is worth spending a moment exploring the second part of our role, Connecting Institutions, in greater depth. Overt competition between different institutions and ESOs can fragment the entrepreneurial ecosystem. South Yorkshire, like most regions outside of London, is too small to host competing accelerators that are focussed on the same target population. For instance, it would be counterproductive for South Yorkshire (at this stage) to have two or three accelerators all focussed on AI, as the pool of available entrepreneurs simply isn’t large enough.
This is why it is so important to have a high degree of cooperation and collaboration between ESOs and other institutions in the region, so that we can work together to ensure that new programmes complement what is already here. Fortunately, South Yorkshire is a friendly and collaborative place. People want to help and recognise the value in sharing information and knowledge. Some of the hard work has already been done for us in Sheffield, with the creation in 2019 of the Sheffield Incubator and Accelerator Network https://sheffieldincubatoraccelerator.network/ (SIAN).
Why does all of this matter? The goal of TEAM SY is to support economic growth in the region. Digital is a fast-growing sector in and of itself, but it is also an enabler of more established sectors, Digital Manufacturing or HealthTech for example, which are prevalent in South Yorkshire. We want to see more startups, more scaleups, more spinouts, more entrepreneurs, and faster growing companies… all contributing to the region’s economic growth (and post-Covid recovery). We are here to act as the glue between all the different initiatives, people, and organisations who have complementary aims. You can find out more at http://capitalenterprise.org/ecosystem-development/teamsy/. ———————————————————————————
 It’s slightly harder to pin down the first accelerator programme in the UK: Jon Bradford’s Difference Engine (which later became Ignite) launched in 2009 in Middlesborough, stating in a press release at the time that it was the first European accelerator programme outside of London. That honour belonged to Seedcamp which launched in London in 2007 as a seed-stage venture capital fund, but to what extent that was an accelerator programme as we recognise them today I’m not sure. I’d be happy to be enlightened on this point if anyone wants to get in touch.
 SIAN is a quarterly meeting between the managers of different incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces located in Sheffield (thank you Tom Wolfenden at Sheffield Technology Parks for setting this up!) Its purpose is to share information and promote entrepreneurship activity in the city. If you manage an incubation or coworking space, or entrepreneurship programme, then do please get in touch with SIAN to join.