These days, would-be business magnates can pick from a good selection of accelerator programmes to help them achieve lift off with nascent ideas.
But back in 2009 there was little on offer, particularly outside of London. That was until former fund manager and trained accountant Jon Bradford decided to import an accelerator concept straight out of the Stateside entrepreneurial capital: Boulder, Colorado. He landed it in the North East.
Now as managing director of TechStars London — the UK arm of the worldwide technology accelerator — Jon is in demand on the world start-up speaking circuit but his affinity for the North East has not waned.
Mr Bradford said: “I took the idea from the US and imported it back to the UK. I’d managed to pester a bunch of people to fund the thing, but I didn’t really know how the it would work.
“Despite this, I’d been fortunate enough to convince people to work with me and together we formed something which was a bit of a first for Europe.”
The Difference Engine received support from the likes of One North East, Sunderland and Middlesbrough councils, and launched with the ambition to propel ideas from the North East and further afield into full fledged businesses.
The recipe was simple: nine teams equipped with ideas, £20,000 investment each and a 13-week programme of mentoring, honing concepts and developing their businesses.
Cue One North East’s abolition and a withdrawal of funding. Jon had hoped to acquire the assets of The Difference Engine to continue, but the chance to start up another accelerator — under the guise of Springboard — drew him to Cambridge.
Jon has recently blogged about some of the teams that were fed through The Difference Engine, and where they’ve ended up.
Among those highlighted is Ross Linnett, the North East founder of web accessibility innovators Recite Me — who recently accompanied David Cameron on a trade visit to China. Elsewhere Bastian Lehmann and Sam Street, the creators of curated.by — a tool for sifting the internet — are mentioned. The pair went on to develop successful on-demand delivery and logistics concept Postmates in the US, which has garnered attention from the international technology press.
The run-down also mentions Tristan Watson, now a programme manager at Ignite100, but trying to launch his Love Your Larder idea.
Jon’s reflections on the Difference Engine provide a window on the impressively eclectic community the programme helped to cultivate. Darlington provided the base for the global team, although demo days — a feature of accelerator programmes where teams showcase their concepts — were also staged in London.
Perhaps fortunately for the accelerator world, his own start-up dabblings never really took flight. At one stage he hoped to launch an online accounting software package known as Son of Sage. The idea was thwarted at the fundraising stage due to the existence of a competitor — Kashflow — which was founded by Duane Jackson, ironically now a mentor on the TechStars London programme.
Jon said: “It’s the serendipitous nature of my job that people who I worked with in the past are now beginning to cross my path again, sometimes in a totally unrelated capacity.
“Through The Difference Engine, Springboard and TechStars we’ve ended up supporting hundreds of teams over the last few years.”
Ignite100 — described as the “bastard child” of the Difference Engine — provided the worthy successor in the North East under the leadership of co-founder Paul Smith. Jon is still a shareholder in Ignite, and an active non-executive to boot.
The programme is now intrinsically linked to the start-up and technology sector fabric of the North East, and has established a focal point for such activity in Newcastle’s Campus North.
Jon added: “TechStars is fundamentally similar — it just does the same thing on a worldwide basis. I strongly believe the guys have done a great job in the North East.
“The Difference Engine was the first accelerator outside of the US and now there are over 1,000 around the world.
“The thing about the North East is realising what a great place it is to start a business, but at the same time it’s about not having a big chip on your shoulder about being in the North East.
“I think that it comes down to the people in and around it that make the difference.”
It’s some small credit to the early support of the North East that it fostered a concept which has taken Jon around the world 12 times in the last two years and permeated international business.
“Accelerators have played a major part in repositioning business and enterprise,” said John.
“I think it’s highlighted that it’s OK to start your own business. There’s been a cultural shift which follows the logic that devising a product or service to be sold a wide scale is more efficient than selling your time.”