There Is an Incubator Bubble—And It Will Pop

This week we published the third annual edition of the Xconomy Guide to Venture Incubators. It’s the only source we know of where U.S. entrepreneurs starting technology, life sciences, or energy companies can survey all of the early-stage mentoring and investment programs open to them in a single document. (You can buy the downloadable file here.)

It’s a great resource, and I wanted to take a moment to recognize and thank our Cambridge, MA-based associate editor Erin Kutz for pulling it together. Erin had a huge job on her hands this year, for one simple reason: the nation has startup fever. While the rest of the economy slowly fizzles, investors, foundations, regional economic development authorities, and other organizations have been setting up incubators, accelerators, and similar programs for startups at a blistering pace.

When we published the first edition of the incubator guide in 2009, it included 20 listings. The second edition in 2010 had 34 listings. And this year’s edition has a whopping 64—and that’s not counting incubators in Europe and other regions, or the seven programs we removed from the list because they’d changed their operating models.

In any market where the number of new businesses triples in the course of two years, you know that something unusual is going on. (And make no mistake—most venture incubators are businesses, founded and funded by people hoping for real returns, whether social, financial, or both.) You naturally begin to wonder whether a bubble is forming, in the classic sense of an episode of vertiginous growth disconnected from economic fundamentals such as market demand. And since bubbles are, by definition, unsustainable, you wonder what’s going to happen when they pop.

If you ask me, there is clearly an incubator bubble. Whatever your opinion about the existence of a bubble in the larger world of Internet startups—Sarah Lacy and Dan Primack offered interesting, opposing views on that this week—it’s hard to imagine that today’s tepid consumer and business markets have room to absorb all of the products and services offered by the hundreds of new startups that the incubators are now churning out each year.

It’s a given that only a few of the startups going through the incubators will strike it rich while the rest languish or die—that’s the nature of the startup game. What I’m saying is that without higher-than-normal success rates, many of the incubators themselves could find it difficult to stay in business.

Here’s why. Most of these operations are organized along the Y Combinator model: they provide startups with $15,000 to $25,000 in seed funding and about 12 weeks of mentorship and product development assistance, and in return they take an equity stake, usually around 6 percent. They profit when incubated startups get big and successful enough to be acquired. (As far as I know there isn’t a single example of an incubated company going public.) Doing the math, let’s say you’re the founder of an incubator and you fund 20 companies a year at $25,000 each, in return for a 6 percent stake. To achieve respectable returns on that $500,000 you laid out—let’s say a 3x return, not even figuring in your operating costs and the value of the time you put into mentoring the companies—you need one of your alumni companies each year to achieve an exit in the $25 million range (or two at half that, and so on). And that’s assuming your stake isn’t diluted by later funding rounds. It’s quite a gamble, and I just can’t see the economics being very compelling for any but the largest, best-funded, most prestigious incubators—i.e., Y Combinator and TechStars.

Indeed, the current profusion of incubators may exacerbate the very problem that incubators were invented to solve in the first place: the difficulty of getting a new company off the ground. The more startups that these programs launch each year, the harder it is for … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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52 responses to “There Is an Incubator Bubble—And It Will Pop”

  1. Interesting article, but incubators are highly local enterprises. There is a big difference between a doubling of the existing incubator stock in places like Kendall Square & San Francisco, vs. incubators starting up in places that never had one. It would be interesting to split the statistics along that dimension.

  2. Rick says:

    Interesting article but I would suggest that we do not have enough incubators in this particular space (web/app)and certainly not even close in other spaces (health, services, consumer goods, etc.). What I think maybe the test is the organization,structure and process of the current incubators. Having been in the incubator business for more than 15 years (yes, before they were cool)I can tell you that 12 weeks (or double or triple that)for a lot of ideas is not enough time to determine the success of many ideas, even in the space discussed in the article. It generally takes numerous iterations to find a fit. The same thing goes for the investment amounts. For some that may be more than enough for others that does not cover the cost of the first version they can show potential customers. I would agree that there maybe a glut of incubators in four or five areas of the US but there is a world beyond those places.

  3. “That’s quite a gamble, and I just can’t see the economics being very compelling for any but the largest, best-funded, most prestigious incubators—i.e., Y Combinator and TechStars.”

    How different are those economics than what an individual investor (angel) or VC faces? Angels take considerably less than 6% for often considerably more than $25k. And invest in fewer companies. Yet many angels make respectable returns. VCs take considerably more than 6% (for a LOT more than $25k) and some of them do okay.

    I think the incubator economics are actually quite a bit better, but it will be years before we see how they do (IPOs and mega-exits can take more than a decade, right?). For Y Combinator at least, some of the earliest companies look pretty promising.

  4. Jaffray Woodriff says:

    You are pretty tone-deaf to call them “incubators,” “accelerator” is the term.
    Paul Graham wrote about this:

  5. Lee McKnight says:


    No offense but these numbers sound unbelievably low unless you have some especially rigorous definition of what an incubator/accelerator is.

    Seems to me more like it’s taken your researchers 3 years to find 60 of them, when I suspect there are likely at least another 60 if not 200 out there you haven;t counted yet. Keep working…

    Lee McKnight

  6. My team is seeking to better integrate the Centers of Innovation to the Centers of Incubation. In Detroit it seems that Tech Town is not doing Incubation but Acceleration
    as I found out. Their Contractor E. Michigan
    U. had a small business related person call me and with my head spinning to think about who he was out of the blue and who he was connected to (I connected the dots) he asked me what was my Sales? A bit of a rude question from someone you do not know. It
    seems to me that question would be acceleration related not helping hatch a new
    venture but an existing one.

  7. Mark Bruns says:

    A bubble? What the heck have you been smokin’ cowboy?

    Venture accelerators could help with new business formation by eliminating the obvious, dumb reason for failure … failure will still happen in a competitive economy — it doesn’t have to happen for reasons that coaches, mentors saw coming. There are almost enough venture accelerators now for serious longitudinal comparative studies, e.g. best practice to facilitate serendipitous collaboration among different ventures … and some reporter who can’t keep up with more than 34 of them (i.e. all that he could find in 2010) wants to talk about a bubble? A bubble?

    Contrary to the tendency of reporters to worship large new businesses, the United States really does need to form at least 1M new businesses every year in order to be a dynamic, growth driven economy … not the overly regulated Europeanized economy we’ve become in the last 25 years … the important businesses are not the Googles, Facebooks or Groupons of the world that the media want to hype — the important businesses are the humble, wealth-generating, new-job-producing businesses that are worth between $1M and $10M.

    It would be reasonable for venture accelerators to be responsible for the formation of one quarter of all new businesses … venture accelerators should be launching 250K businesses per year; if each accelerator is responsible for launching 100 businesses, there’s room for 2500 accelerators or maybe several times that many … after all, there needs to be a degree of dynamism and creative destruction in the world of accelerators, too.

    The numbers of accelerators will generally increase over time to the degree that they help more businesses succeed — when a new idea succeeds as dramatically as yCombinator has, there will be lots of imitators, lots of failures and ultimately a much larger population of similar firms that get it right. Until this country is back on track creating new businesses every year, there’ll be room for a lot more venture accelerators.

  8. Jon Belmonte says:

    Not to be a stickler, but each company needs to sell for $35-50M, assuming they require another round or two of capital from angels or VCs in order to reach an exit (which is a pretty good assumption).

    Guessing the only way it actually works is when you get a few nice hits at $100-200M to make up for all the $10-20M wins.

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