What are the best governance models for startup incubators?

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What are the best governance models for startup incubators?

While there is no pre-existing information to fully answer your question because according to information published by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, academic and research organizations have only just begun to collect data and analyze information on startup incubators and how they operate, we've used the available data to pull together key findings. Research in this area is so new that there has yet to be a standard definition given to identify what exactly constitutes incubators and accelerators with regard to startups.

Please note, for the purposes of this research, we are using the terms incubator and accelerator interchangeably, however, we have made sure to focus on programs which are providing resources for early-stage startups. This is because you have specifically asked for incubators, and our research findings revealed that, while these two terms are overlapping, an incubator is generally more focused on early-stage startups. Despite this, many programs operating in this space are unique or hybridized types of programs, which could be classified as both an incubator and an accelerator.

Since preexisting information on this topic is lacking, we have instead analyzed the governance structures of three startup incubators/accelerators, including how the governance teams and programs are structured. Next, we compared and contrasted these governance models to outline their differences, and to identify their similarities. We have noted their similarities as being 'best practices' for a startup incubator governance model. We have determined that the governance models of these incubators are the 'best' on the basis of the overall success of the incubator, assuming that a successful governance model would lead to the overall success of the incubator.

In order to select the incubators to focus on for these case studies, we worked to select those which could be classified as the 'best' and those that were noted as being focused on women-led start-ups. In doing so, we first located this list of the 'Top Accelerators and Incubators for Women,' which has been published by Startup Funding, a podcast that interviews leaders in the startup space. Starting at the top of this list, we analyzed each of the incubators on the list and have chosen to focus on the highest ranked incubators which have a sufficient amount of publicly available information regarding their governance structure.

While not a whole-lot of information is publicly available regarding the actual internal governance models of these incubators, we have focused on analyzing this topic through two lenses: fist through the organizational structure of the incubator, and second through the program structure of the incubator. From there, we analyzed the data we collected and connected the dots between these two structures in order to understand how the incubator was operating.

Below, we will outline the governance case studies for Entreprenuers Roundtable Accelerator, 500 Startups, and Capital Innovators.

Entrepreneurs roundtable accelerator

How it focuses on women:
This incubator has a large number of female mentors available and "has supported female-founded startups like Dezignable and KitSplit."

What makes it the best:
This is the largest accelerator program in New York City.

Governance Structure:
This incubator's team is divided into several categories: managing partners, staff, venture partners, resident experts, and interns.

There are two managing partners, seven staff members, and seven venture partners. The number of interns is not listed. The resident expert team is further broken down into the following categories:

-- There are 10 resident technologists, who are a mix of CTOs and expert software developers.
-- There are three resident product experts, who are experts in UX and design.
-- There is one resident growth hacker, who is an expert in analytics and growth.
-- There is one resident graphic design expert.
-- There is one resident accent and communications coach.

The managing partner team consists of the companies co-founders, one of whom is a computer scientist, entrepreneur, investor, and author; the other is a tech and media entrepreneur, investor, and startup adviser.

The staff team consists of the following:
-- One program manager who has experience in management consulting, and strategic business development.
-- One operations manager.
-- One global program manager.
-- One "principal," who is a strategist/strategy consultant.
-- One director of communications, who focuses on helping startups with branding/marketing, message development, media relations, etc.
-- One CFO, who is an expert in VC.
-- One operating partner.

Program Structure:
This incubator offers two programs each year, both of which run for four months. The program provides participants with seed funding in the amount of $100,000, hands-on learning experiences, and a co-working location. Participants also have the potential to receive additional funding, and are also given a wealth of sponsored benefits, such as web hosting space. Participants need to be located in New York City for the duration of the program.

This incubator program supplies access to a network of more than 400 mentors, which includes "serial entrepreneurs, industry experts, functional experts, technologists, and investors." Access to these mentors is gained through a software database that allows program participants to locate the precise expert for their needs.

500 startups

How it focuses on women:
This incubator was founded by a woman and "Google Allum," and the mentorship team consists of a large number of women.

What makes it the best:
Founded in 2010, this company has already helped over 1,800 startups.

Governance Structure:
This is a supremely large incubator, which operates in over 60 countries, and has over 100 staff members. The incubator has four "global funds and 13 funds dedicated to either specific geographic markets or verticals." The governance structure is divided into three sub-teams: the management and investment team, the support team (financial/legal/marketing/portfolio), and a team for the Series A program.

The management and investment team consists of the following:
Founding partner - 1
Managing partners - 2
COO - 1
Partners - 17 (*These are broken up by global locations -- for instance a partner who represents the EMEA region, a partner that represents Canada, a partner at represents Vietnam etc.)
Venture partners - 15 (*Also broken up by global locations)
Investment Partner - 1
Advisers - 3
Portfolio managers - 1
Associate - 2
Investment managers - 2
Entrepreneurs in residence - 4

The support team (financial/legal/marketing/portfolio) consists of the following:
General counsel - 1
CFO - 1
Director of HR - 1
Senior legal operations manager - 1
Legal operations associate - 3
Corporate counsel - 3 (*Representing different global regions).
Operations manager - 1
Director of operations - 1
Accelerator operations - 2 (*These positions run operations for the accelerator program).
Office manager - 1
Miami operations - 1 (*This position works to expand the incubator's presence in Miami).
Senior marketing and design coordinator - 1
Marketing and events manager - 1
Education director - 1 (*This position manages investor training programs).
Education operations -1
Senior fund accountant - 1
Controller - 2
Fund accountants - 1
Staff accountant - 2
Software developers - 1
Investor relations associate - 1
Strategic alliances - 2
Director of investor relations - 1
Executive director of investor relations -1
Investor relations associate - 1
Relationship manager -1
Annual partnerships manager -1
Community and portfolio relations - 1
Director in Thailand - 1
Special operations associate - 1
Community manager - 1
Marketing manager - 1
Marketing and community manager - 1
Investment manager - 1
Annual partnerships associate - 1
Analyst - 1
Interns -3

The Series A program team consists of the following:
Partner - 3
Distribution partners - 1
Distribution hacker - 1

Program Structure:
This incubator's program structure is divided into two separate programs: a seed program, and a series A program.

The seed program runs for four months. The program focuses on growth, and intends to help startups grow their product, rather than build their product. The program connects startups with companies, provides hands-on training, support, connects them with investors, assists them with marketing, assists them with prepping their pitch, provides fundraising best practices, provides network building opportunities, and provides access to mentors. This program "emphasizes digital marketing, customer acquisition, lean startup practices, and fundraising for pre-seed companies."

The series A program is a three-month long program that focuses particularly on growth strategies, and aims to help participants locate and evaluate their growth metrics, helps them to attain salable growth, and offers connections to Silicon Valley. This program emphasizes "growth marketing and investment for post-seed and pre-series-A companies."

Capital innovators

How it focuses on women:
This incubator, founded by a woman, features a large number of female mentors, and has "supported many female-founded software, mobile, and social media companies like Dabble and HealthyMe."

What makes it best:
This incubator has helped more than 92 startups since its inception, and has raised "more than $300MM".

Governance Structure:
This incubator's governance structure is divided into three teams: a core team, a lead mentorship team, and a subject-matter expert mentorship team.

The core team consists of the following:
CEO - Managing Partner -1
COO - 1
Director of Operations - 1
Portfolio Manager - 1

The lead mentorship team is comprised of the following:
Lead mentors - 10 (*These people are former C-suite execs, including CIOs, CEOs, CFOs, CKOs, and a sales manager).

The subject matter expert mentorship team is comprised of the following:
Subject matter experts - 68 (*These are former C-Suite executives, including CEOs, CFOs, CTOs, and marketing experts, who have experience across different verticals).

Program Structure:
This program accepts 12 startups each year, and the program lasts for 12 weeks, with two programs running per year, during fall and spring. Participants are given $50,000 in seed funding, access to mentors, access to a global support network, and connections to clients and strategic partners, along with a co-working space in St. Louis. The purpose of this program is centered around growth. Participants are also given a wealth of sponsored benefits and discounted service offerings. The program also provides participants with access to "back office service tools, CRMs, analytics, project management platforms, marketing services, [and] web hosting credits."

differences and best practices

In analyzing the data we compiled above we have noted some key differences:

1) The governance models of the incubators appears to be highly dependant on the size of the incubator, with the size of the incubator reflecting the number of startups the incubator helps each year. It would appear that the more startups the incubator helps, the more intricate the complex the governance model is.

2) Some incubator governance models appear to be more consolidated, where the overall organizational structure is quite small, while others have a significantly larger organizational structure.

3) The incubators with smaller organizational structures and simplistic governance models appear to be able to offer a higher wealth of financial value to their participants, while incubators with more complex structures appear to be able to provide a greater wealth of internal expertise guidance.

4) While all of these incubators have organizational structures that are broken up into teams, the larger incubator, 500 Startups, appears to have teams that are further broken-up into sub-teams, at least where their support team is concerned. For instance, their support team covers financial, legal, marketing, portfolio operations, and within this overarching support team, there appear to be smaller teams working within each of these aforementioned verticals. For instance, they have a team of legal experts and support staff, a team of financial experts and support staff etc.

5) The larger incubator also differs from the smaller incubators in that its organizational structure has a large global footprint, whereas it would appear the smaller incubators have all their teams located domestically.

6) The last key difference we noted here is that the larger incubator has a governance model where it employs are larger number of experts as staff, whereas the medium-sized incubator, ERA, relies on a mixture of internal and external experts (i.e. mentors), and the smallest incubator relies mostly on external experts (i.e. mentors), as opposed to hiring on these experts as staff.

Below is a list of governance model best practices we have identified based on the similarities between these incubators:

1) Regardless of the number of teams and the size of the teams, all of these incubators have governance models which are divided up into teams which either focus on the management of the incubator itself, or the operations and functioning of the incubator program.

2) All the incubators have a governance model which is heavily focused on fundraising and investments.

3) All the incubators have a governance model which includes mentorship.

4) All the incubators have incubator programs which provide participants with a co-working space, networking opportunities, and growth tools.

6) All the incubators supply experts, either in the form of staff or in the form of mentors, for each critical area of the program.

7) All the incubators run programs that last between three and four months, and offer programs twice per year.

8) It appears that all the incubators have either a person or a team involved with handling investor relations/working with the incubators' investors.


We have analyzed the governance models of three incubators who are known for being in the top incubators for women. We have outlined their differences, and identified their similarities to help illustrate best practices for designing an incubator.

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