Q&A: Why the BBC wants to house tech start-ups

The BBC’s commercial wing, BBC Worldwide, has launched BBC Labs, a start-up accelerator with office space, and investor’s mentorship. But what does the broadcasting powerhouse want from UK start-ups?

I asked the head of the project and BBC Worldwide’s new digital ventures, Jenny Fielding, who runs the project after kickstarting BBCWW-owned Lonely Planet’s Wenzani mobile service…

Q: What’s the big idea?

Fielding: “The idea is to support British innovation at the intersection of technology and media (education, games, video, CRM, analytics etc). We believe that BBC Worldwide can help foster growth in early-stage UK digital media by providing them with the tools and a platform necessary to scale internationally. This is, after all, what BBC Worldwide has been doing successfully with British IP, both BBC and non-BBC.

“This will be achieved by selecting five companies to spend six months working from within BBC Worldwide’?s London headquarters. During this period, they will integrate into the BBC Worldwide ecosystem and have the opportunity to be mentored by  a number of relevant business units including: sales and distribution, channels, digital, legal, PR, ad sales etc.

“In addition to internal mentors, the companies will interact with various external mentors including: VC?s and digital leaders, all of which will support the teams in the next stages of their business.”

Q: Are you investing in companies? How much money is going toward it?

Fielding: “We are not offering any financial investment beyond the office space provided as we are focused on partnering with the selected companies, rather than taking an equity stake in them.

“We decided against taking equity stakes in companies because we believe early-stage companies should ensure they fully understand strategic investors before accepting investment.”

Q: The BBC already puts online work out to tender. Is this kind of competition now the preferred route for winning online commissions?

Fielding: “The Labs initiative is from BBC Worldwide and not from the public-service BBC. Labs is not about commissioning work for hire. The companies that we select are not consulting companies but rather technology companies with scalable platforms.

“Additionally, RFPs (requests for proposals) tend to favour larger companies rather than smaller start-ups, who have yet to build up a client base and in some cases win their first customer.”

Q: What will the start-ups get out of it? Is six months really long enough?

Fielding: “It is often difficult for start-ups to work with large companies as they find the landscape hard to navigate. With this in mind, we created Labs, a program that helps early stage companies access mentors and new skills at BBC Worldwide.

“Within the timeframe, the companies will have weekly meetings with mentors and key leaders of the various business units – ample time to develop relationships and kick-off partnerships.”

Q: What areas is BBC Worldwide hoping to fill or see ideas emerge from? And why haven’t you yet seen these ideas from established companies?

Fielding: “As BBC Worldwide is a diverse company, we are always scouting for strategic partners across all of our business units. Of particular interest is: children’s learning, second screen, games, analytics, CRM, enabling video technologies, mobile apps, travel inspiration and more.

“We are looking to work with emerging UK-based digital companies to strengthen our relationships with the UK digital community and provide access and opportunity for innovation to flourish. That innovation doesn’t always come from large, name brand companies.  We would also like to play a part in helping the government with its various schemes aimed at early stage companies – with the goal of building a thriving, UK based Silicon Valley.”

Q: What will success look like for BBC Labs?

Fielding: “Success can come in many forms. From the start-up company’s perspective, we hope the mentoring and learnings that will accrue over the six months will be invaluable. If a commercial deal or partnerships comes to fruition, then that can have a huge impact on an early-stage company.

“From our perspective, having access to new content ideas and innovation provides inspiration for our people at BBC Worldwide. If we are able to create partnerships that provide us with access to innovation and help with our global distribution, then the program will be considered a success.

“If we’re successful, we’d like to think how we roll the programme out in BBC Wordwide offices around the world.”