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Policy makers in developed economies see merit in supporting the innovative abilities of technology entrepreneurs. It is hoped that from these highly–educated entrepreneur(s), new technology and service–based firms (NTBFs) can emerge. Indeed empirical evidence suggests that it is fast-growing young firms (Gazelles) which provide the bulk of new employment growth (Henrekson & Johansson, 2010; Storey & Greene, 2010). Technology start-up incubators are one of a number of micro-policy interventions with which the state attempts to support these technology entrepreneurs to develop and commercialise their innovations. Incubators offer a range of services such as shared office accommodation, shared support services, business support (hard), business advice (soft) and network provision (Bergek & Norman, 2008). They are typically located in or near universities as they generally fall under the universities knowledge transfer remit. Incubation programmes try to contribute to enterprise sustainability and the professional and entrepreneurial development of participants through buffering, which protects participants from the external environment (for a defined period), enabling them to develop their own internal resources; and bridging, which facilitates firms in building sustainable competitive advantage through the acquisition of external resources and networks (Amezcua et al. 2013). This paper outlines the methodological and data-related challenges associated with attempting to evaluate the contribution of start-up incubator services to value-adding outputs and outcomes. Following a review of the literature in the area and a discussion on the methodological approaches adopted so far, this paper advocates the use of a theory-based evaluation (TBE) methodology as a possible solution to complex research settings such as this, where a study is unable for a variety of reasons, to meet the stringent requirements of an experimental design e.g. random assignment, establishment of counterfactuals, control groups etc. TBE will deliver findings on the contribution of the multiple factors influencing a result showing whether the incubator in this study made a contribution to an observed result and in what way? Mixed methods research designs and data analysis approaches are particularly suitable for TBE studies. An exploratory case study of the performance of a start-up incubator is used to illustrate the suggested TBE approach. Within the overall case, a nested cross-case analysis (Yin, 2009) can be conducted on participants in the incubator programme focusing on the evaluation of inputs, activities, outputs (Short –term) and outcomes (Long –term) of the buffering and bridging process. Finally suggestions are made for improving evaluation research designs in this domain.
Citation: Buckley, AP & Davis, S (2016). Evaluating the Contribution of Technology Start-up Incubators – Exploring Methodological and Data-related Conundrums. 13th European Conference for Research Methods in business and management (ECRM). London, June 9th- 10th, 2016 doi:10.21427/D7403K