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Over the past few decades, the most compelling engineers and entrepreneurs I’ve met have tended to be working on problems that can be solved with software. Software has some great advantages but it comes with a few big drawbacks, namely it’s tied to a few standard types of input, although we are trying to impact that with some of our investments in our HCI theme.
Along with the rest of the tech ecosystem, I’m starting to see more and more entrepreneurs with a piece of hardware in their development plan. These are not your parents’ hardware products. Instead, they are software companies that happen to have a physical component in their stack – something I call software wrapped in plastic.
Adding the plastic around the software is no short order. MakerBot, FitBit, Orbotix, Sifteo, Modular Robotics, Pogoplug, Slingbox, and a slew of others have taught me that even though much of the business-side is similar to a software company, the product-side most definitely is not. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s stunning how much damage one bad component on a PCB board can do to a company’s bottom line, or how different industrial design is from software design, or even how the brains of a software person and a hardware person collide in bizarre ways.
I’ve learned how critical it is to get the right kind of help for young companies with a piece of hardware, which is why I invested in Bolt. Bolt is one of the more unique accelerator programs I’ve seen. Ben and his team have designed, developed, manufactured, and financed a long list of successful products and they’ve built Bolt around best-practices for these kinds of companies. Over 6-months, accepted companies get a long list of benefits, the most valuable of which are a full-staff of senior engineers and designers at your disposal and 24×7 access to their $1M of prototyping equipment.
If you’re a startup with a piece of hardware (or plan to have one) check out Bolt and apply to be part of their first accelerator class. Applications close in two days – Wednesday, May 22nd at midnight.
This article originally appeared online at Inc.com in an article titled Government Shouldn’t Be In The Accelerator Business. I talk more about this and lots of other topics in my recent book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City.
As a co-founder of TechStars, I’m a huge believer in the mentor-driven accelerator model. But I don’t think government should be funding these accelerators, nor do I think they need to.
A good accelerator can be run in any city in the world for $500,000. Entrepreneurs with a compelling track record and approach should be able to easily raise, or even provide this capital. As evidence of this, there are already hundreds of accelerators in the U.S., without government funding, being run as entrepreneurial ventures for profit by entrepreneurs.
When we started TechStars in 2006, the idea of an accelerator was brand new. We funded the first TechStars program in Boulder in 2007 with $230,000. There were four investors – me, TechStars CEO David Cohen, David Brown, and Jared Polis. All four of us had been successful entrepreneurs and we decided to try TechStars as an experiment to help create more early stage start-ups in Boulder. We figured out the downside case was that we’d spend $230,000 and end up attracting 20 or so new, smart entrepreneurs to Boulder.
That first program went great and has already returned over two times our invested capital with several of the companies still having future value. We ran the second program in 2008, expanded to Boston in 2009, and adopted a funding strategy for each local program which we continue to use to this day. TechStars surpassed our wildest expectations and now runs over 10 programs a year for over 100 start-ups around the United States. We’ve begun expanding internationally with our first program running this summer in London. And there are many other accelerators around the world using the TechStars mentor-driven model that are members of the Global Accelerator Network.
All of this is privately funded. We’ve never taken a dollar of government funding, nor do we plan to.
While the amount of money required to run a program has increased from the original $230,000, it’s still well under $1,000,000 per program cycle. As a result, the amount of capital we need to raise to run a TechStars program is modest, and since we run it to make a financial return, it is actually an investment, rather than an expense. And, by being focused first on the financial return as well as playing a long-term game (we expect to be running TechStars accelerators for a long time), we are very thoughtful about how we allocate capital.
If entrepreneurs can’t figure out how to fund it, why should the government do it? That just seems like a situation where capital is going to be allocated poorly and the incentives won’t be tightly aligned.
Jon Bradford and I have known one another since before the development of the Mentor Manifesto. Today we’re bringing Jon and his team at Springboard in London into the TechStars family as they re-brand to become TechStars London, our first international program. We have every confidence in them as a high-quality extension of the strong ecosystem we have already built here in the US.
Springboard has always been focused on helping entrepreneurs and TechStars’ support and expertise provides UK and European entrepreneurs the best opportunity to improve their likelihood of success. Our priority is to support great companies from the region in London (accepting applications from everywhere) and there’s no requirement or expectation that the companies will need to relocate to the US. We will build on the mentor network that Springboard has already started in London and supplement it with mentors from the broader TechStars network in the States.
Any and I are going to spend two weeks in London this summer during the program. I lived in London for a summer when I was 16, worked for Centronics (the creators of the parallel port), wrote dot-matrix font creation software for the Apple II, got paid with a Centronics 351 printer, learned how to drink a lot of beer, watched Pink Floyd The Wall for the first time, and spent a week wandering around in Paris in August when no one was there. I’ve always felt super comfortable in London and am looking forward to hanging out with the newest members of the TechStars family, while drinking a lot of beer.
If you’re working on a quantified self product or are part of a startup that would benefit from integration with Nike+, you have less than a week left to apply to the Nike+ Accelerator, powered by TechStars (deadline is February 3rd). If accepted, you will receive $20,000 in seed funding and support from TechStars, and mentorship from leaders within TechStars and Nike.
The program begins in Portland on March 18th and will be led by Managing Director Dylan Boyd and TechStars is the investor in your company. Nike offers mentors, executives, technology, access to the developer portal, API, and more.
Don’t be bashful – apply now!
When we started TechStars in 2006, one of our premises was to help build a strong startup community in Boulder. Our experience with TechStars – starting in Boulder, but expanding to Boston, Seattle, and New York – helped us understand not just TechStars’ role and impact on a startup community, but what drives startup communities over the long term. We’ve seen this dramatically accelerator around the world through the Global Accelerator Network and when I wrote Startup Communities: Building a Startup Ecosystem in Your City, much of what I used as the basis for the Boulder Thesis came from my experiences here.
Several years ago David Cohen, Jason Mendelson, and I started talking about the idea that the same principles of an accelerator model could apply to specific vertical markets or companies. TechStars Cloud, which is about to start it’s second program, was our first experiment with this. The first year was a great success, we learned a lot from it, and applied much of our learning to our first “powered by TechStars” accelerator that we did with Microsoft.
Today, Nike announced their first Nike+ Accelerator program, powered by TechStars. Ten companies will participate in a three-month, mentorship-driven program. The technology focus will be about leveraging the success of the Nike+ FuelBand, Nike+ Running and NikeFuel to support digital innovation. Based in Portland, the program is just a short drive away from Nike World Headquarters. will begin in March of 2013 and conclude in June with two investor demo days; one in Portland and one in Silicon Valley.
I’m an avid marathoner and completely obsessed with the idea of instrumenting myself to track extensive data about my health and fitness. I also believe that the best way to accelerate core technologies like what Nike has worked on is to build significant startup communities around their core products and technologies. That’s what the goal of the Nike+ Accelerator program is.
I’m excited to join the likes of Nike’s Vice President of Digital Sport, Stefan Olander, Naveen Selvadurai, co-founder of Foursquare, and Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Body and all around awesome entrepreneur, as a mentor in the program.
With over 15 successful programs under our belt and over 200 companies having gone through a TechStars program, TechStars is powering the accelerator for Nike and we’re already looking forward to the outcome of combining our own firsthand knowledge in the setting of an impressive organization. To apply, go to www.nikeaccelerator.com for details and applications. The application deadline is February 3rd, 2013. Accepted companies will be notified in late February.
If you are a startup around digital health, human instrumentation, and the quantified-self, apply now to be part of the program. I look forward to meeting you!