How COVID-19 could lead to a shift in startup accelerator models

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The changes forced upon the African tech space by COVID-19, most notably the need for remote working amid the requirement for physical distancing, could cause a seismic shift in the way accelerator programmes are delivered on the continent.

In the short-term, accelerators have either had to postpone, or adapt. But will those short-term changes lead to a long-term model adaptation? Those in the know suggest that could be the case. 

Catalyst Fund, the global inclusive fintech accelerator that recently announced its latest batch of startups that will receive capital and venture building support, has always blended remote and on-the-ground support to the startups in its portfolio. 

Given the Catalyst Fund team is used to working remotely, it therefore has not experienced a major shift in the way it supports its startups, said director Maelis Carraro, with the exception of the ability to conduct in-person research. 

“Luckily we have been able to continue working with our startups and ecosystem partners with relatively little disruption,” she said.

The pros and cons of remote acceleration

If anything, the new way of working has enabled Catalyst Fund to further prioritise the things it focuses on when it spends time with our companies. 

“Some startups have actually told us they preferred the remote support in some ways as it can be more efficient, for example having more focused two-three hour calls, rather than one full-day workshop, allowed them to stay concentrated and make the most of the work sessions,” said Carraro. 

“It also means we’re able to bring in mentors from anywhere in the world who can offer additional support for our companies remotely, to enhance their growth.”

She said it goes without saying that the ability to come together as a team is missed, as well as the chance to spend time getting to know its companies, both during in-person sessions and informally. 

“These moments of informal exchanges are fundamental to build trust between the startups and our team that gets to work with them and can also spark creativity. These are just much harder to replicate in a virtual environment,” she said.

One of the larger disadvantages is the challenge related to customer research, which tends to be a big focus for Catalyst Fund while helping companies solidify their value proposition and test their products. 

“We’re looking at ways of conducting research remotely, which gets easier as most ecosystem partners start developing workarounds,” Carraro said.

An industry-wide rethink, but greater relevance

Catalyst Fund, then, has had to adapt, as have many other accelerator programmes. Carraro believes COVID-19 has forced a think from accelerators across the board, particularly those who rely on bringing founders to a particular location for a set programme. 

“We’ve always seen the benefit in having flexible models that don’t take founders away from their businesses and the markets where they operate,” she said.

Yet the need for accelerators is not going away, and in fact that need, especially for early-stage companies, is perhaps more significant than ever. 

“As these companies navigate our “new normal”, pivot their products to better serve customers in a post-COVID environment and determine how to prepare for the years ahead, they will need the support, funding and guidance that accelerators like Catalyst Fund are designed to provide,” said Carraro. 

“As well in the absence of more physical convenings and ability to meet investors and partners in person, the network and introductions to partners and investors that can help companies scale will become ever-more valuable.”

A “new normal”, then, will emerge in the accelerator space. Investors and accelerators are adapting to the idea of conducting remote due diligence, and as a whole everyone has realised that much more can potentially be done remotely than previously thought. 

“We might start to see lower travel budgets and more meetings taking place remotely, even after we emerge from the crisis. We’ll start becoming more selective in terms of what has to be done in person versus digitally,” Carraro said.

“I think more and more accelerators will see the benefit of creating programmes that operate more remotely and enable founders to remain in their markets and benefit from bespoke support for the majority of the programme.”

However, there remains a benefit to bringing cohorts and stakeholders together in person, as nothing can replace the value of some of those informal conversations, interactions, and exchanges. 

“I believe these types of events will certainly begin to return, though they may look different in the near future. There is a chance that many of the events that have become mainstays in the ecosystem will struggle in the coming months, but we are sure the ecosystem will continue to find creative ways to bring people together and share perspectives,” Carraro said. 

“As they say, never waste a crisis. We also can reinvent and improve the way we think about startup and ecosystem support, remaining focused on solving challenges for those who need it the most, the three billion underserved individuals who are suffering the most from this crisis.”

ALSO READ: Accelerator programmes for African tech startups are slowly moving away from the batch-based “Silicon Valley approach” in favour of on-demand, needs-based, and corporate-supported models.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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