research accelerators

What is the role of Start-Up Accelerators in the Development of Sustainability-Oriented Start-Ups?

Interview with Greta Radzevičiūtė about her research to Start-Up Accelerators

By Klara Keutel - Master Student Industrial Ecology 

From making teachers happier at work to developing glasses that enable blind people to see again: Sustainable entrepreneurship holds great potential to induce positive societal and environmental change. It doesn’t surprise that the number of sustainability-oriented start-ups increases by the year. However, little is known about what kind of support would be of most benefit and what kind of start-up accelerator can boost their development most effectively. Greta Radzevičiūtė, a recent graduate from the Rotterdam School of Management, used her master thesis to venture into this new field and develop a framework that helps start-ups finding their perfect accelerator match.

Let’s talk about your research. Could you briefly summarize what it was about?

I studied the role start-up accelerators have in the development of sustainability-oriented start-ups. I was interested whether the type of the accelerator, so either commercial or impact accelerator, has any effect on how well they can support sustainable start-ups.

To research this, I went to London and talked to 12 start-ups and accelerators and experienced their work environment. London has a very vibrant start-up ecosystem with loads of start-ups and accelerators. So that was very exciting!

You’re talking about sustainability-oriented start-ups. Could you give a definition?

That was one of the biggest challenges and one of the most interesting parts of my research. As ‘sustainability-oriented’ is a very broad term, it basically means that the innovation the start-up is working on has some sort of societal or environmental benefit. But it does not differentiate the start-up in any other way. So sometimes, a start-up wouldn’t consider itself as sustainable, while when I talked to them, it turned out that it has a huge societal impact. To give you an example: Give Vision develops glasses that enable blind people to see. They are very financially oriented and have great commercial ambitions. Other start-ups, however, are very process-oriented, explicitly sustainable, with little financial focus. To illustrate this - the Happy Teacher Project works on a process innovation to improve the work environment of teachers, to keep them happy and make sure they are enjoying their work. These two examples are very different but both are sustainability-oriented and have a highly positive impact on the world.

Why do sustainability-oriented start-ups need different kinds of support?

What they all have in common is that they tackle environmental or social problems. And those are often enough in a highly-regulated space. Legal issues are therefore a great obstacle for sustainability-oriented start-ups. It’s also harder for them to get access to customers. For instance, the Happy Teacher Project needed access to the school system in the UK – teachers and students as well as governmental bodies in education. And this process is again heavily regulated. As the startups often need to innovate in the public sector and deal with the government that makes it extra difficult. Ordinary, non-sustainable start-ups tend to struggle less with these kinds of issues.

And impact accelerators are primarily focusing on these kinds of issues?

Yes. Of course, there are different types of impact accelerators but they do normally have a focus. One I interviewed – The Young Academy - focuses on educational inequality. They have their network in this field and can provide special support to start-ups that want to contribute to this issue. Another one – The Big Venture Challenge - used to be more generic, but now they also have plans to specialize in a few key areas, like unemployment and health care. This way they can develop a specialized network and resource pool that provides the best support for related start-ups.

What can start-ups and accelerators learn from your research?

Quite a few things I believe! It starts with providing a better definition of sustainability-oriented start-ups and outlining their needs. Describing the differences between commercial and impact accelerators and what each has to offer is another important contribution. Commercial accelerators have been around for a long time already and there are thousands of them globally. But impact accelerators are a fairly recent development, with only a few hundred being active. And no one has really researched how they work.

But the main insight from my research is a framework that helps start-ups choose an accelerator depending on their development stage and focus. The researched showed that there is a huge difference between the sustainability-oriented startups that prioritize focus on sustainability and impact and the startups that prioritize financial performance. Identification of such focus is crucial before choosing an accelerator. Returning to my examples from earlier on, the Happy Teacher Project would be a very sustainability-oriented start-up while Give Vision is more financially-oriented. If your start-up is either strongly sustainability- or financially-oriented, you should choose an accelerator that matches the determined focus. Else there might be heavy culture clashes, you might not be able to make optimal use of the resources the accelerator has to offer or the accelerator might not even have the resources you need. So first, identify accelerators that match your focus, and in the second step, find one that matches your stage. On the other hand, when the startup aims to combine both financial performance and sustainability, the stage of your start-up is the most important selection criteria.

How did you pick the topic in the first place?

I worked for a start-up a while back and I really enjoyed it. Afterwards, I did an internship at a start-up accelerator in Spain. That was the moment when I really immersed into the start-up environment and it was such a great experience. Since then I have been really interested to explore more. During my masters, I followed a course on Social Entrepreneurship. We had a lot of guest lectures from social entrepreneurs and they are just so inspiring! Their eyes are sparkling when they talk about their projects and they’re so passionate about what they do. I mean, how can you not want to talk to them! And I could even get a master’s degree for it. I mean, that was just the perfect choice for me. 

If you could give a tip to other graduate students, what would you give them on their way?

A very important choice for me was to do qualitative research. This is so much more difficult than I ever imagined, but also very rewarding. You get to meet so many interesting people and expand your network, I even got offered internships! But I also had to transcribe and code 200 pages of interviews which was really challenging. So you should really consider well.

And also: Do your thesis on a topic you like and care about. It’s so much work, so you should really enjoy what you’re doing. And for me, it was great career starter too. I started working for a portfolio entrepreneur to help him organize and mentor his high impact start-ups and get in new projects. I ended up in the same field and actually feel like an expert already. I can really say that my research made me more knowledgeable. And I do have the feeling that it had an impact. I got a lot of a positive feedback from social entrepreneurs, accelerators and even investors, that the topic I researched is very important, that they appreciate me looking into it. And that’s of course very rewarding to hear!

More about Greta:

My educational career was a very international and combined experience. I did my bachelor in Lithuania, in International Business and Communication. I also went for an exchange in Korea, a summer school in Slovenia and an internship in Spain. A lot of different things. And I then came to Rotterdam to do my masters in Global Business and Sustainability at the School of Management. That was quite a challenge. But I’m very happy I have chosen for this. It gave me so much knowledge!

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