Understanding the Interplay Between Startups and Accelerators for
Early-Stage Resource Mobilization
Davide Moiana, Jacopo Manotti, Antonio Ghezzi and Andrea Rangone
Politecnico di Milano, Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering,
Via Lambruschini 4B, 20156 Milan, Italy
Keywords: Accelerators, Entrepreneurial Resource Mobilization, Entrepreneurial Support Organizations.
Abstract: Startups, representing the engine of innovation and technology entrepreneurship, face the challenge of
securing resources for sustainable growth while generating innovative solutions. Startup accelerators have
rapidly emerged as prominent players in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, providing resources, mentorship and
training to startups. However, a deeper analysis of how startups approach accelerator programmes is often
overlooked in the literature. Drawing on a multiple case study of 9 AI-based startups located in Italy that
participated in different acceleration programmes, we explore how startups’ teams engage with acceleration
programs. We find that early-stage startups engage with accelerators that focus on learning and validation
mechanisms with the aim of searching for and accessing human capital, while they turn to accelerators that
focus on access and reach mechanisms with the aim of pursuing market access and scaling objectives. The
implication of these research could benefit both theory and practice by enhancing the understanding of the
interplay between startups and accelerator programs, and by offering insights to founders to align participation
with the stage and goals of their startups.
The startup ecosystem represents the heartbeat of
innovation and productive entrepreneurship (Stam,
2015). Characterized by novel business models and
innovative ideas, startups distinguish themselves for
their rapid growth and ambition to revolutionize
existing markets, often by leveraging disruptive
digital technologies (e.g., Ghezzi, 2019; Paul,
Alhassan, Binsaif, & Singh, 2023). In this rapidly
evolving context, the primary challenge for these
young enterprises is not only to devise innovative
solutions but also to acquire the necessary resources
for growth, including human, social and financial
capital (Aldrich & Auster, 1986; Freeman, Carroll, &
Hannan, 1983).In recent years, the remarkable growth
in startups and increased venture activity has been
accompanied by the rise of new intermediaries within
startup ecosystems. Among these, accelerators
emerge as a particularly influential and widely
adopted organizational form (Bergman & McMullen,
2022; Clayton, Feldman, & Lowe, 2018; Hathaway,
2016). We refer to accelerators as “fixed-term,
cohort-based programs that includes mentorship and
training components and culminates in a public event
or demo-day” (S. Cohen & Hochberg, 2014).
Originating with Y Combinator in 2005, the global
prominence of accelerators is witnessed by numbers,
with over 3000 worldwide as of 2023, over 1000 of
which are in the United States alone (Betaboom,
2023). While the importance of accelerators is widely
acknowledged, a substantial gap exists in
understanding the dynamics between startups and
these entrepreneurial support programs (Bergman &
McMullen, 2022; Crișan, Salanță, Beleiu, Bordean, &
Bunduchi, 2021).
This study contributes to prior entrepreneurship
literature in two ways. First, it observes the interplay
between the characteristics of the acceleration
program and accelerator and the intent of the
participating startups, in relation to their stage of
development. Second, it unveils the role of different
accelerators mechanisms in facilitating the Search,
Access, and Transfer of resources necessary for
startups’ sustaining growth (Clough, Fang, Vissa, &
Wu, 2019).
Moiana, D., Manotti, J., Ghezzi, A. and Rangone, A.
Understanding the Interplay Between Startups and Accelerators for Early-Stage Resource Mobilization.
DOI: 10.5220/0012614300003690
Paper published under CC license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
In Proceedings of the 26th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems (ICEIS 2024) - Volume 2, pages 688-695
ISBN: 978-989-758-692-7; ISSN: 2184-4992
Proceedings Copyright © 2024 by SCITEPRESS Science and Technology Publications, Lda.
2.1 Startups and Resource
Startups face challenges known as "liabilities of
newness”, referring to the challenges arising from
their youth such as limited size, and resource
constraints, hindering legitimacy and competitiveness
(Aldrich & Auster, 1986; Freeman et al., 1983).
Therefore, Entrepreneurial Resource Mobilization is a
pivotal aspect of entrepreneurship, focusing on
acquiring and utilizing resources efficiently to seize
entrepreneurial opportunities (Hallen & Eisenhardt,
2012). Rooted in resource mobilization theory, this
concept emphasizes the process of acquiring tangible
and intangible assets, critical for entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurial success relies on the strategic
mobilization of diverse forms of capital, including
human capital for innovation, social capital for
network-driven resource acquisition, and financial
capital for investments (Davidsson & Honig, 2003;
Lerner & Nanda, 2020; Portes, 1998).
Clough and colleagues (2019) propose three
distinct phases – Search, Access, and Transfer – that
form a comprehensive framework for understanding
how these resources are mobilized by entrepreneurs.
The Search phase pertains to the cognitive aspects
related to the aspiration-driven identification of
potential resource providers amidst uncertainty (e.g.,
Aldrich & Kim, 2012; Hallen & Eisenhardt, 2012).
The Access phase centers on convincing resource
owners to allocate their assets to the new business
endeavor, covering skills, relationships, and financial
resources (e.g., Baker & Nelson, 2005).
Lastly, the Transfer phase encompasses
negotiation and agreement between entrepreneurs
and resource owners regarding management, property
rights, and value distribution, all influenced by
transaction costs that can impact resource exchange
(e.g., Villanueva, Van De Ven, & Sapienza, 2012).
2.2 Accelerators
Accelerators offer intensive, time-limited programs,
bridging startups to vital resources and positioning
themselves as brokers within the broader
entrepreneurial ecosystem (S. Cohen & Hochberg,
2014; Crișan et al., 2021).
Accelerators substantially differ according to the
array of interventions they deliver through a diverse
range of services to startups (e.g., mentoring, training,
financial support, etc.) (Crișan et al. 2021). Therefore,
the effectiveness of startup accelerators varies
according to accelerator design, mentor interactions,
and peer networking offered. Given a set of services
provided by accelerators (Pauwels, Clarysse, Wright,
& Van Hove, 2016), research identifies four
fundamental mechanisms that accelerators enable, and
that connect services to outcomes: Validation (i.e.,
acceptance/validation of business ideas), Learning
(i.e., possibility to acquire entrepreneurial skills),
Access and Growth (i.e., access to resources and
capital), and Innovation (i.e., support to product
development). These mechanisms emerge as the
primary explanatory characteristics of accelerators,
outlining how services lead to outcomes. While speci-
fic contexts are associated with certain interventions,
such as globally recognized accelerators prioritizing
top-level tangible outcomes, an accelerator's modus
operandi may be better explained by the link between
interventions and outcomes (Pauwels et al. 2016).
The intentions of founders when participating in an
acceleration program add an additional layer of
complexity. For example, prior research examines how
startups approach accelerator programs, and how their
interaction with the temporal structure of accelerators
impact on venture development (Qin, Wright, & Gao,
2019). They discovered that startups may either try to
engage concurrently on multiple tasks leveraging the
different services offered by the program, or they focus
with intensity on a primary task at time.
Few studies investigate startup participation in
these programs from the startup's perspective,
particularly exploring how startups strategically
approach participation within a program. Therefore,
the research questions investigated in this study is
“How do entrepreneurs strategically leverage
startup accelerators participation to support their
ventures’ early-stage resource mobilization?".
3.1 Research Design
We selected startups’ teams approaches to
acceleration programs as our unit of analysis. As this
new angle of research field is mostly unexplored, we
believe that new theory can emerge (Bansal & Corley,
2011). Therefore, we adopted an empirical qualitative
multiple-case study approach, which is helpful for
theory building based on in-depth field investigation
that seek to understand certain manifestations of the
phenomenon (Eisenhardt & Graebner, 2007;
Meredith, 1998).
Understanding the Interplay Between Startups and Accelerators for Early-Stage Resource Mobilization
3.2 Empirical Setting and Case
The cases were selected by the mean of theoretical
sampling, for the likelihood they would have offered
theoretical insights (Eisenhardt and Graebner, 2007).
For this reason, we decided to focus on early-stage
startups participating in Italian accelerator programs.
For the case selection, we draw from a proprietary
database listing Italian accelerator, and from
Pitchbook, a subscription-based website covering
private capital markets such as venture capital and
private equity. To maintain consistency and relevance
in the sample, we applied the following criteria: (i)
artificial intelligence was selected as the focus sector,
in order to reduce the potential biases of
environmental heterogeneity (Eisenhardt and
Graebner, 2007); (ii) we considered only early-stage
startups born from 2020 to 2022, in order to be able
to investigate entrepreneurial resource mobilization
mechanism in an early stage of development; (iii) As
we progressed through the sampling process, a
noteworthy observation emerged – many startups
participated in multiple acceleration programs.
Recognizing the significance of the phenomenon, we
found it to be an excellent springboard for answering
to our research question. Consequently, we made the
deliberate decision to include only startups that meet
this criterion, adding depth and relevance to our
study. Once a sufficiently large initial sample was
gathered, the cases were filtered to select the most
notable examples for examination, ensuring the
alignment with the research’s design. As a result, the
final sample consisted of 9 AI-based startups: Startup
A, Startup B, Startup C, Startup D, Startup E, Startup
F, Startup G, Startup H, and Startup I.
By building on Crișan and colleagues (2021), we
categorized all the accelerator programs in which the
startups in our sample have participated into two
distinct groups, according to the type of services
offered, by relying on secondary data (e.g., websites,
with or without wayback machine). The first group of
accelerator programs places a strong emphasis on
Learning and Validation mechanisms, achieved
through dedicated efforts in team building, training
sessions, and mentorship, among the others. The
second group of accelerator programs prioritizes
Access and Growth mechanisms, typically
welcoming within their cohorts only startups that
have already identified a product-market fit and are
poised for scaling.
3.3 Data Collection and Analysis
Multiple sources of information were used, including
primary and secondary sources, such as semi-
structured interviews with founders and accelerators
C-levels – having substantial and exclusive
knowledge pertaining to the subject under
investigation (Aguinis & Solarino, 2019) – as well as
information from the startups’ and accelerators’
websites, podcasts and video-interviews, and third-
party articles (Yin, 1984). The researchers conducted
21 semi-structured interviews over two distinct
waves, with a total of 953 minutes of material was
recorded, and the results were transcribed into 288
pages. To improve the overall rigor of the case study,
as recommended by (Eisenhardt, 1989) and Yin
(1984), the final outcome of primary data was
triangulated with secondary sources.
After the data collection phase, we conducted a
within-case study analysis. The Gioia Methodology
(Gioia, Corley, & Hamilton, 2013) was adopted to
study each case according to an open coding practice,
allowing to investigate complex phenomena using
labels, thus generating theory from data (Gioia et al.,
As our data analysis unfolded, we have
recognized three different layers across which the
data could be classified according to resource
mobilization theory (Clough et al., 2019), namely (1)
search, (2) access, (3) transfer.
Subsequently, we articulated data according to
these two dimensions: on the one hand, we clustered
the data according to the two clusters of accelerators
(i.e., learning and validation, access and reach), and
then we articulated the data across the tree resource
mobilization mechanisms (i.e., search, access,
transfer). Table 1 offers a selection of categories
explaining the connection between the two
dimensions described above. We further considered
a third overarching dimensions of analysis related to
the startup approach across acceleration programs.
We adopt a narrative approach to describe our
findings (Berends & Deken, 2021), following the
different overarching dimensions we have developed.
Cluster 1: Participation in Learning and
Validation Accelerators
Search. The startup’s participating in these programs
were still in an embryonic stage, often still seeking to
ICEIS 2024 - 26th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
fill a perceived gap in entrepreneurial skills, and to
validate their business idea. As an interviewee from
Startup F reported: “On the technological level, we
were prepared, but on the business, marketing and
sales side we had no experience or expertise”.
Moreover, these startups have often objectives
related to the need of validating a concept, conducting
tests, and determining whether the business idea is
feasible and has potential utility (“we had an idea and
we wanted to see whether it could have become a
product” – an interviewee from Startup G reported).
Access. A big concern of participants within
Learning and Validation programs is to find to attract
crucial early team members. These attention securing
mechanisms were facilitated by the acceleration
programs. For example, as an interviewee from
Startup B explained: “[thanks to the acceleration
program] we hired as our first employee a human
resources expert who became our Head of People and
took care of the whole recruiting part”.
Secondly, the training services offered by
Learning & Validation acceleration programs bridges
the knowledge gap of entrepreneurs related to their
inexperience. As reported by an interviewee from
startup A, training and mentoring sessions were
provided by industry experts on “how to do the pitch,
how to open the company, and how to do due
diligence", thus reinforcing the set of skills and
knowledge of the entrepreneurial team. Moreover,
participants were supported in designing and
conducting test to validate their business model (“we
received constant training and feedback throughout
the process, receiving extensive training on what
would have been the problems and issues in the
startup world (…) it's all based on: building the idea,
training, heavy validation of what your idea is.” – an
interviewee from Startup B reported).
Third, Learning and Validation accelerators
facilitate meaningful connections with a community
of inquiry for your business. As reported by an
interviewee from Startup D: “when they feel that a
person from their network could be very useful to
your business, instead they send you an email, put you
in touch and then let you kind of continue the
Finally, startups are kicked out of the nest only in
the final stages of the program, where they often
approach investors in the Demo Day. As reported by
an interviewee from Startup F: “During the Demo
Day, we had the opportunity to be introduced to
various investment funds”.
Transfer. The main transfer mechanisms in
Learning and Validation accelerators are related to
team formation, as the acceleration program actively
nurture the collaborative processes that lead to the
creation of high-functioning teams. As an interviewee
of Startup B reported: “We were able to get to know
other people, understand each other, and be guided
in creating a team that was functional.”
Cluster 2: Participation in Access and Growth
Search. Startups that enter an Access and Growth
accelerator program are typically in a more advanced
stage of development and possess distinct objectives.
First, they are searching for valuable partners,
investors and market access. As referred by an
interviewee from Startup D:“[the objectives were]
getting money, industrial partners that allow us to
scale the market, so that gives us firepower in terms
of business development”. Many interviewees
reported that they participate in the access and growth
acceleration program with the specific aim to find a
main investor. Another common goal within these
programs is the desire to establish connections with
the aim of entering untapped markets. This goal is
often exemplified by participation in international
accelerators in order to establish international
relationships. As an interviewee from Startup A
explained: “the goal was to start getting to know the
UK market (…) in order to understand the dynamic
of a new and foreign market”.
Access. When participating in Access and Growth
accelerators, participants main concern is to be able
to access the social network of the accelerator
program. To this extent, the accelerator act as a
facilitator, performing introductions and creating
trust between the resource seeker and potential
resource holder (“Getting to large realities such as
banks and insurance companies is extremely difficult
for a start-up without someone introducing you, and
many of the larger customers we have were
introduced to us by the network of investors we have”
– an interviewee from Startup G reported. Interaction
with accelerator’s network of resource holders is also
often structured on a time basis, and accelerator
partners are often companies that sponsor the
programs to gain access to innovative ideas and
teams. As explained by an interviewee from an
accelerator program attended by many of the startups
in our sample: “Once a week there's a meeting with at
least one of the partners to put something together,
get to know each other, deepen talks, and carry on
any possible form of collaboration and interaction
with the startups.” Access and Growth accelerator
programs also facilitate the interaction with financial
resource holders. Accelerators have a network of
investors and when they see that start-ups are ready,
Understanding the Interplay Between Startups and Accelerators for Early-Stage Resource Mobilization
they are willing to make introductions. As reported by
an interviewee from Startup D:“Since we have been
in the program, we have talked with 4-5 funds that we
clearly could have talked to before, but it would have
been more difficult to get there”.
Transfer. Access and Growth accelerators act
also as resource providers, providing a financing
ticket to the startup participating in the program (“we
receive from the accelerator 100.000 euros, plus
another potential 180.000 euros of follow-on”– an
interviewee from Startup D explained). Moreover,
these accelerators also favor the transfer of other
forms of financial capital such as access to software
from crucial service providers. For example, an
interviewee from Startup A reported “[the
accelerator] have AWS as a partner, and we have
over 200.000 euros in credits, which is crucial for us
because our whole AI model is based on AWS”.
Finally, access and growth accelerators also foster
transfer mechanisms by actively supporting startups
in fundraising with external funding providers,
helping them finalizing the round.
Acceleration Approach
Our analysis reveals that start-ups try to strategically
approach participation in accelerators by taking a
more or less targeted approach to the services
provided by accelerators.
Startups participate in Learning and Validation
accelerators adopting a more comprehensive
approach to the different services offered, due to the
higher degree of uncertainty and inexperience they
face. Here, startups have the possibility to learn and
validate their business models, thus reducing the
uncertainty and refining their strategy (“In the early
stages, the added value is that it really makes you
make the effort to put yourself there and pull down the
company vision for the next one or two years.” – an
interviewee from Startup A reported).
On the other side, the results highlight how startup
adopt a more focused approach in their subsequent
participation in Access and Growth accelerators. As
reported by an interviewee of Startup E “We came
into the accelerator already with a viable product on
the market and with paying customers, so actually we
have our own road and we know what we have to do
[enlarge market access]”.
Table 1: Interplay between Entrepreneurial Resource
Mobilization mechanisms and Acceleration mechanisms.
Cluster Learning and
Access and Growth
Complete initial
team composition
Fill entrepreneurial
skills gaps
Validate business
Find investors,
partners and market
Secure funding ticket
Connect with
potential team
Connect with
community of
Build legitimacy
toward investors
Learn through
training, mentoring
programmes, and
feedback sessions
Connect with
investors, partners
and market access
Build legitimacy
toward investors
Nurture the
formation of the team
Obtain financing
ticket and perks
Receive support in
Figure 1: Empirical Model.
This research proposes a new angle to studying
accelerators by changing the unit of analysis
(Makadok, Burton, & Barney, 2018). In particular, it
observes how the process entrepreneurial resource
mobilization process evolves throughout the
Acceleration Program
Learning &
Val ida ting
Access &
Tra nsf er
ICEIS 2024 - 26th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
subsequent programs’ participation. The combination
of these findings leads us to the empirical model
illustrated in Figure 1.This paves the way for a
twofold contribution.
First, this study expands upon existing research on
the acceleration strategies employed by
entrepreneurs, by showing the relation between the
degree of focus on a limited number of services and
the early involvement in different types of
Second, this research provides a fine-grained view
of the entrepreneurial resource mobilization
mechanisms within accelerator programs, and how
they differ in the light of the startup development
Startup Approaches to Acceleration Programs
For effective participation in an acceleration program,
a startup must be capable of efficiently acquiring
resources, overcoming time compression
diseconomies arising from the compression of the
venture development process (Qin et al. 2019). This
research observes the relationship between the
characteristics of the program offered by an
accelerator and the intent of the participating startups,
observing how the efficacy of a program goes beyond
the intrinsic characteristics and set of services offered
from the accelerator (Chan, Patel, & Phan, 2020; S.
L. Cohen, Bingham, & Hallen, 2019). Startups that
participate in acceleration programs that focus on
learning and validation mechanisms (often the first
participations in acceleration programs) exhibit an
interest in leveraging all available services to
establish foster their venture development (Qin et al.,
2019). Conversely, startups later participation within
accelerators whose main focus is on access and
growth mechanisms, where startups are solely
interested in a limited range of services and have
targeted resource objectives related to market access
and scaling, are characterized by focused approaches.
Entrepreneurial Resource Mobilization
Mechanisms within Accelerators
This study contributes to the existing literature on
resource mobilization by analyzing the role of different
accelerators programs at various stages of startup
development in facilitating the Search, Access, and
Transfer of resources necessary for sustaining growth
(Clough et al., 2019). Both accelerator programs
identified in this study place a focus on the resource
mobilization phase, but the mechanisms of
entrepreneurial resource mobilization vary depending
on the type of acceleration program considered.
The search for resources by startups varies based
on their stage of development and their objectives
related to participation in the acceleration program.
Startups that take part into Learning and Validation
accelerators seek to fill entrepreneurial skills gaps,
validate their business idea, and acquire human
capital (Gabrielsson, Politis, Persson, & Kronholm,
2018). On the other hand, Access and Growth
accelerators provide support to startups during the
stages of product commercialization and company
growth (Del Sarto, Cruz Cazares, & Di Minin, 2022).
Startups that take part in these accelerator programs
are more mature and seek mainly for the social and
financial capital that can stimulate their growth
(Lerner & Nanda, 2020; Portes, 1998).
For the access stage, accelerators focused on
Learning and Validation mechanisms mainly assist
team formation and matching between human capital
requirements. Moreover, they facilitate the
development of entrepreneurial skills within with the
provision of training programs and mentoring
sessions (Davidsson & Honig, 2003). On the other
side, accelerators focused on access and growth
mechanism center on favoring the connections with
potential customers, partners and investors with the
specific aim of commercialize their products and
acquire financial resources (Shankar & Shepherd,
Finally, the degree of emphasis on the transfer
stage varies significantly among accelerator types.
being especially present within Access and Growth
accelerators, where startup receive directly from the
accelerators financial resources, or it is supported in
building agreements with external financial resources
providers (Gibbons & Henderson, 2012).
Practical Contributions
The results of our study can help founders navigating
the complex landscape of accelerator programs. Our
research emphasizes the importance of making
"conscious" participations in line with one's stage of
development and verifying the fit between sought and
offered resources. In this regard, the research argues
that the impact of an accelerator depends on the
characteristics of both the accelerators and the
participants, showing the relevance of the approach in
the matter.
Limitations and Future Developments
This study possesses some limitations. Specifically,
the limited sample size, consisting of only ten
startups, hampers the generalizability of the findings.
Additionally, this study exclusively focuses on
Understanding the Interplay Between Startups and Accelerators for Early-Stage Resource Mobilization
startups operating within the artificial intelligence
sector in Italy. Subsequent research endeavors could
investigate sectors beyond artificial intelligence and
explore diverse geographical regions apart from Italy.
Employing a quantitative approach could further
enhance the generalizability of the results.
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Understanding the Interplay Between Startups and Accelerators for Early-Stage Resource Mobilization