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Incubators and accelerators: Growing ideas for sexual and reproductive health projects

What you need to know to develop and scale your SRH innovations.

by Sarah Axelson

published 05/14/24

Ever recognized a challenge or opportunity, maybe in your clinic workflow or in the larger sexual and reproductive health (SRH) field, and wanted to fix it? Perhaps you don’t have a specific solution in mind yet, or you have an idea, but you’re unsure if it will have an impact on the problem at hand. If you’ve ever found yourself in this position, you may want to consider how an incubator or accelerator could help you develop or scale your big (or small) idea.

What are incubators and accelerators?

As a whole, incubators and accelerators are programs, usually competitive, that are designed to help organizations and ideas move to the next stage of their development. They are run by a team of people who determine the focus, time commitment, and curriculum. Innovators and entrepreneurs who are selected to participate have regular meetings with the team, attend workshops or other educational and capacity-building sessions, have access to mentors, and have an opportunity to build relationships with potential funders.

What’s the difference between incubators and accelerators?

Incubators are brief programs designed to “incubate” ideas, with the hope of building out a business model for a company or organization. They typically focus on helping folks with very early ideas engage in prototyping and early building. (And if the term prototyping is new to you, check out this blog on learning the innovation lingo.) Incubators usually do not expect participants to be full time on the project or to be an official company or organization, so the programs only last a few weeks or a few months at most. Finally, incubators often provide significant training on how to develop ideas into viable solutions. As one example, in 2015, a team of clinic providers and administrators in Colorado recognized a gap in appointment accessibility for young people. Through participation in the Innovation Next Incubator, they built and tested prototypes to improve scheduling, and were able to effectively revamp their clinic scheduling system, BC4U, to better support easy and confidential booking for youth under 25.

By comparison, accelerators are longer programs that focus on “accelerating” or scaling an existing business or idea. Accelerators are quite varied, but most are looking for ideas that have already shown some kind of traction and need help scaling. Most accelerators are longer than incubators and expect participants to be full time on their project. As with incubators, participants meet with accelerator staff and attend educational sessions. Since companies at this stage have diverse needs, the curriculum is often more expansive, and may include fundraising, marketing, product development, finances, HR, hiring, and more. Many accelerators offer a small amount of seed funding (for-profit accelerators will usually take equity). For example, an accelerator might be a great fit for a provider who developed contraceptive decision aid, tested it with a small number of patients in their clinic, and now wants to develop a plan to refine and scale the tool for use in other clinics.

Is an incubator or accelerator program a good fit for your idea? 

If you’re thinking about applying to an incubator or accelerator, here are some factors to help you determine if you’re a good fit:

  • For-profit or non-profit: This is a key factor, especially in accelerators, since the support you’ll receive around fundraising will change dramatically depending on whether you’re raising venture capital/bootstrapping or looking for grants and donations. A few accelerators will accept either type, but most are only open to one type of structure. If you are a for-profit entity, an accelerator will often ask for equity, so it’s important to think about how much benefit you will receive.
  • Location: This varies by program so it’s important to pay attention to. Some programs require you to be on-site, where they are located. Others are okay with you traveling to participate, while others are agnostic about location and allow fully remote participation.
  • Commitment: Most accelerators want at least one full-time team member (often more) on the project. They want to know you are “all in” before they invest time (and money) into your project. Incubators may be more flexible since they are accustomed to working with folks who are developing ideas. If you are not yet full-time, it’s important to look for information about this requirement.
  • Mission/solution: Many programs have a specific focus area or type of solution they are looking to support. You should identify whether their focus area is aligned with yours, or whether you can ‘make the case’ for a connection between your focus area and theirs. For example, an accelerator focused on education could still be a good fit for a sexual health product or innovation if that product is related to sexual health education. 
  • Stage: Many programs feel they have the most to offer or are the most effective with companies in a particular stage of development. They might be looking for companies that are prototyping, have launched, have users, have revenue, are scaling already, etc. Read through the program requirements and be honest about where you are to see if they will be a good fit for you. If your company is too early in development for them, file them away to apply later.

I’m ready to get started now, what are my options?

The Office of Population Affairs is currently funding six Adolescent Sexual Health Hubs to foster innovation, conduct research, and expand the evidence to support and advance equity in the Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) Program. You can learn more about all of the hubs here, or click on the individual links below.


  • In/Tend, run by Healthy Teen Network
  • youthink, run by Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles



Bottom line

Incubators and Accelerators can be incredible sources of support and information, especially for first-time founders or those new to the world of product or service development.

Sarah Axelson, DrPH(c), MSW (she/her) is the Senior Director of Innovation, Training, and Technical Assistance at Power to Decide. Sarah is passionate about the intersection of adolescent sexual health and design, and has built her career around developing and supporting innovative solutions with youth, families, and communities. To make sure that she stays directly connected to young people, Sarah also serves as an Adjunct Faculty member at George Washington University. When she isn’t working or teaching, you can find her volunteering with something related to sexual and reproductive health, daydreaming about new teaching/training tools and products (yes, that’s actually what she daydreams about), or doing something associated with dogs (which she thinks are the best thing in the world).
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