Startups, Start Here: An Introduction to University Accelerators – Supporting the Earliest-Stage Ventures

March 16, 2016

Academia and Entrepreneurship: An Innovative Partnership

four entrepreneurs being coachedThe past decade has seen an increase of university investment in programs, staff, and infrastructure to support entrepreneurs of all types and companies at all stages of development. This new wave of interest is part of a broader trend of universities contributing to, and many times taking a leading role in, building sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems for today’s innovation-driven economy. To this end, universities work in partnership with federal, state, and local economic development organizations and agencies, and with public and private sponsors to create these necessary programs and infrastructure.

These investments range from establishing business incubators to launching accelerators, co-labs, and maker spaces, all of which provide varying degrees of education, coaching, and mentoring to support entrepreneurs.

Accelerators and Business Incubators: An Overview

To help clarify the distinction between accelerators and business incubators, the former supports entrepreneurs that are in the early idea or prototype stage and the latter supports entrepreneurs once a product or service has been defined and the company has been established. Accelerators help ‘accelerate’ ideas to a point where they are ready to secure initial grants and/or early seed investment. They typically have access to databases, financial modeling tools, and other resources that can be useful for market and competitor analysis, financial forecasting, and preparing for investor pitches. Physical office space is often not available in accelerators.

Incubators are a logical next step for startups and early-growth companies, although participation in an accelerator is not required. Incubators are typically a two to five year long program. Companies are chosen through an application process and the selected companies can take advantage of a variety of discounted or free services including leased office space, mentorship, workshops, legal counsel, marketing, and more.

University accelerators are different from private accelerators and can vary in terms of the focus, programs provided, and constituents served. For example, some university accelerators focus exclusively on the commercialization of intellectual property (IP) derived from university research. Some only serve student or alumni ventures, while others serve both university and community entrepreneurs. Some accelerators provide seed-funding in exchange for equity, while others provide their programs at no-charge in support of regional economic development objectives.

UCF: A Leader in Entrepreneurship

As America’s Partnership University™, UCF has a prominent role in investing in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. The university opened its first business incubator in 1989, an initiative that has grown into what is now known as the UCF Business Incubation Program (UCF BIP) with seven community-supported incubators throughout Central Florida. In 2004, UCF received support from Orange County to add another pillar program to the entrepreneurial community, and launched, what was then known as, the UCF Venture Lab.

The program has expanded and is now known as the UCF Venture Accelerator Lab (VAL). Team members provide Florida researchers and startup companies with coaching services to transform innovations into scalable businesses. Since the doors opened, VAL has served more than 1,000 entrepreneurs through educational programming, market research, workshops, competitions, and access to a network of support organizations and mentors. Support received from the VAL team has enabled clients to raise over $8 million in venture funding, with $2.5 million in SBIR/STTR awards.

To increase the services and opportunities available in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, VAL staff have led the development, funding, and project management of over $7 million in regional cluster innovation programs from the Department of Energy (DOE), the Economic Development Administration, the Department of Labor, and Space Florida.

Over the next several months, VAL team members will make guest blog appearances to provide more information on the range of programs and services available through UCF VAL and how you can take advantage of them to start and grow your venture.

To learn more about VAL’s services, contact the associate director Robin Phelps.


Robin Phelps is a director in the UCF Venture Accelerator Lab, where she actively works with the team on programs that assist researchers, startup ventures, and emerging growth businesses to strategically accelerate their growth in the marketplace. She has more than 25 years of experience in business development, strategy, and as a founding executive in investor-backed technology startup companies. Robin holds a Bachelor’s in Computer Science, a Master’s in Management, and a Ph.D. (ABD) in Public Policy where her research focuses on economic development and the growth of innovation economies.