This year’s CRoSS programme has been an experiment involving new approaches to stimulate the pipeline of ideas and create support and incentives for social science researchers considering commercialisation as a pathway to impact.

We know from previous discussions with the social science community that many researchers are not familiar with commercial or business terminology, let alone thinking about commercial opportunities for impact.

We also know that two reinforcing mechanisms are at play that make commercialisation more difficult for social sciences: a misunderstanding of what research commercialisation involves and a perceived disconnect from the ecosystem.

Social science research outputs are often less tangible than what is typically understood in science innovation (e.g. prototyping is typical of STEM subjects, where products can be tested before applications and trialled for product-market fit).

Consequently, replicability and scalability are also more difficult to achieve when it comes to specific social interventions, products and services based on social science research.

The two elements make it particularly hard for social scientists to build partnerships and get the technical and financial support typically funnelled through translational grant applications.

All this contributes to a perceived lack of institutional support and awareness around the opportunities and support available to academic researchers in the social sciences.

Breaking the mould

The Ideas Incubator programme is designed with the challenges above in mind. It wants to guide researchers through the critical steps of research commercialisation and help them understand how innovation and research ideas are brought to market.

Venture-creation training initiatives (accelerators, business competitions, etc.) usually aim to deliver hands-on training, provide exposure, and, to a certain extent, support the growth of early-stage ventures.

While we had the same ambition in mind for the CRoSS Ideas Incubator, it was important to tailor the content and the level of exposure to the needs of our researchers and to be “agnostic” about the type of projects incubated, offering a new perspective to researchers who might have had little or no exposure to commercialisation.

For this reason, the Ideas Incubator focuses on giving value to high-impact ideas from the social sciences or from multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary teams, by providing:

  • exposure to discipline-specific innovation and entrepreneurial pathway to impact
  • an introduction to tools and case studies
  • a collaborate environment with like-minded people
  • informed reflections on how the Cambridge research and innovation community can play a part in developing pathways to impact.

We also want participants to produce practical output that would be useful to them, by:

  • developing an advanced draft of their business model canvas
  • creating an action plan for the idea to move forward
  • learning how to articulate the idea’s value to different publics
  • developing a network of people in the Cambridge ecosystem.

The programme

We selected eight teams/ideas with high potential, for the first edition of the Ideas Incubator: Two of them work in social and educational interventions, two teams have AI-based ideas, two others are linked to the creative industries, one project is based on digital health, and one on food systems and cultural resilience to climate change. The composition of the teams was also very diverse, going from senior professors to PhD students. We learnt a great deal from our participants.

The programme provided a ‘safe space’ for discussing and developing early-stage ideas. It allowed participants to share experiences and challenges about their journey, get peer support from like-minded individuals, and have the flexibility to ‘bounce’ between knowledgeable mentors that provided advice that ‘felt like far more than mentoring’.

The CRoSS Ideas Incubator provided the physical and mental space, time and structure for mentoring and guidance. Participants could refine their ideas in different ways, at different levels and for different purposes: from putting forward funding proposals (Innovate UK translational funding), applying to further training and incubation (Cambridge Judge Business School, Allia), establishing grounds for key partnerships, and obtaining key stakeholder consideration (or all of those simultaneously).

For many, the work conducted during the incubation period represented a continuum of their academic work. Integrating tools and strategies typically used in commercial projects allowed a fresh perspective. It led to ‘action at a practical level’ on their academic projects. Most of the projects originated and were validated following rigorous steps typical of academic research. The above gave legitimacy and strength to the ideas. CRoSS Ideas Incubator brought about the initial stage of commercial validation, focusing on what must be done to make the work commercially attractive.

Lessons learnt

Participants defined the Ideas Incubator as a ‘change in perspective’ programme that sits effectively between shorter skill training and more extensive training programmes offered by the rich Cambridge ecosystem. They were also able to work out how to prioritise access to training offered by the ecosystem beyond the Ideas Incubator. This allowed them to take immediate next steps and keep the momentum. Follow-up actions could include, mapping the Cambridge ecosystem more systematically would also provide the opportunity to link up the programme with other formats available in the ecosystem (e.g. offerings available by incubators, accelerators and training providers).

In this respect, additional offerings from Cambridge Enterprise could include skills and/or awareness workshops for creating a business (e.g. complementing existing offerings like The Chris Abell Postdoc Business Plan Competition). That would consist of networking, pitching events, and hands-on business training. Value addition to skills training formats would come from one-to-one follow-up sessions with the trainers, enabling teams to take decisions and move forward.

Internal and external mentors were a highly valued asset of the Incubator, generously sharing their commercial experience and acumen. However, some participants felt that mentors at the interface of academia and commercialisation would be an additional asset for brainstorming ideas and obtaining further academic validation. In this respect, the role of Enterprise Champions or experienced academic entrepreneurs at Cambridge Enterprise could be revised. Capitalising on our existing network of advisors/mentors and conducting ‘structural networking’ (possibly organised around thematic areas, e.g. building a team) could provide exposure and ‘serendipitous moments’ to fine-tune ideas. Having the project/ideas published on the Cambridge Enterprise website after the incubation would facilitate networking and provide adequate visibility and legitimacy to approach stakeholders.

Travel funding (to support networking and getting team members to participate) along with small stipends/bursaries for PhD student participants (to relieve them from teaching and get specialised training as well as to get feedback for their research) involved in the projects provided a good incentive for an effective engagement, especially for early-stage ideas that still hold a lot of uncertainty.


We take stock of the following recommendations that range from the more general and high-level to the most specific about how to develop the design of our Ideas Incubator for a 2024 edition:

  • Advocate more strongly for commercialisation as a valid element of the REF in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences departments.
  • Develop role models within departments using new mechanisms (CRoSS fellows) or by strengthening existing ones (i.e. Enterprise Champions).
  • Link up more systematically the Ideas Incubator with other formats available at Cambridge Enterprise (short skills training offering, Incubator, etc.) and from the ecosystem (accelerators and incubators in the Cambridge area).
  • Offer a “map” of the Cambridge ecosystem (e.g., offerings available by incubators, accelerators, and training) that would benefit participants’ decisions on the next steps.
  • Create an expanded pool of mentors with diverse expertise and provide opportunities for structural networking (format could follow Cambridge Enterprise Impact Intros, selecting mentors by topic and providing bookable spaces).
  • Give visibility to the projects and ideas (on the Cambridge Enterprise website, for example) to support networking and legitimacy.
  • Continue to offer travel funding and small stipends/bursaries to support networking and getting team members to participate in the Ideas Incubator (for example, for PhD students working with PIs).