Catharina Sandberg, CEO, LEAD. One eye-catcher at the office at Mjärdevi is a number of gold-coloured shoes mounted on the wall. They symbolise companies that have left LEAD, after about two or three years, to stand on their own two feet. Catharina Sandberg often uses the phrase “Sweden’s best” somewhat routinely, but the fact is, many small innovative companies that have moved through LEAD have developed into strong, sustainable businesses. And LEAD is the incubator with the most companies on the annual 33 List of prominent young innovative companies in Sweden.
“We measure the companies’ sales, for alumni companies and the 35 to 40 companies that remain on our books more permanently. The companies have a survival rate of 70 per cent. Since LEAD was founded, their sales total SEK 928 million, and they have employed 681 people”, says Catharina Sandberg.
Established in 2007, LEAD is a regional incubator with offices in Linköping and Norrköping. It is owned by Linköping University, and funded by Linköping University, Vinnova, and Linköping and Norrköping municipalities.
Tailored to needsWith research and education, societal benefits are often part of the deal. About half of the LEAD companies originate from the university in some way. A researcher, student or employee from LiU can get early help with their idea at LiU Innovation, and when it is time, to LEAD. Over the years, they have developed various methods that work well. Catharina Sandberg:
“We say ‘Come in, we’ll take care of you, you’ll get the help you need’. It’s tailored to meet their needs, so the journey depends on the company. Many people come on their own with their idea. But we’ve learned that in these situations, no person is an island – so we focus a lot on skills matching as well.”
What’s required, to get accepted?
“You should have an idea that’s unique in some way, and can be scaled up. LEAD works with scalable, innovative companies, and our real strength is business-to-business.”
As a LEAD company, you get access to business coaches who become personal advisers. LEAD has four employed coaches, and four who run other companies.
“The contact with the private sector is extremely important. We also have a network of business angels, that is, financers, who you can get access to.”
IntensiveWhen you come to LEAD, it becomes intensive, but there is a clear pattern. A lot of people start by taking a three-month business development programme. There is a selection process there. About half the participants continue to LEAD. They get their own business coach, and they work with even more focussed business development for another three months. At this point they should be able to enter the LEAD incubator programme:
“For this you should have a paying client or a paid ‘proof of concept’. In this phase you build the company, forming the board and employing staff. This is done in six-month sprints. Every six months you attend a business forum where you set new targets for every six-month period. Here there are also various training programmes in sales and marketing.”
Researchers who want to researchMany researchers want to focus on their research, and might not be so interested in running a business. In such cases, they can get help realising their idea. At LEAD you work with various tools such as Summer Matching and the trainee programme ‘Entrepreneur In Residence’.
“Every year we do Summer Matching, where students are employed temporarily to analyse, test and market verify ten ideas from researchers. This way, every idea gets a great deal of attention during a few summer months. We see that it’s an effective way to pressure-test the ideas against the market.”
The magic coffee moment at LEAD. A time for new ideas to fly. LEAD also has an annual trainee programme where they collect and select research ideas.
“For 2020 we selected eleven early research ideas where the trainees work for six months on investigating the market. The aim is that a few new companies can be created, and that the trainees can be part of moving the companies ahead.”
It’s important to highlight the exploitation of research and the collaboration with society, which the young LEAD companies are aware of.
“It’s reflected in many of the new companies that are formed through LEAD. The aim isn’t to exit and make fast money, it’s to make the world better.”
Meeting magicThe huge network is one of LEAD’s biggest strengths, according to Catharina Sandberg. It results in contacts with the business sector, deep collaboration with incubators in other regions, and finance opportunities.
After passing through the entrance of LEAD’s offices in Mjärdevi visitors soon come to a detail that has proven very important for creating new contacts and meetings:
coffee cups from LEAD. Photo credit Ulrik Svedin“Yes, we say that we have a magic coffee machine at LEAD. It’s where experienced entrepreneurs, business angels and juniors can get together and ask quick questions. Where LEAD businesses can meet each other. They can share experiences, and sometimes new constellations can form, as a result of these meetings”, says Catharina Sandberg.