On 2/12/19, Brian McPeek (President, The Nature Conservancy) and I are doing an AMA about the Techstars Sustainability accelerator.
It’ll be at 1 pm MT and last for an hour. This will be the second year that Techstars is running an accelerator in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. I had high expectations when we announced the partnership in November 2017. The year one program far exceeded my expectations!
Brian and his team at TNC are a substantial force for good in our ever more complex world. Join us to hear more about how TNC and Techstars are working together to help companies get started to address some of the most challenging issues facing our planet.
And, if you are one of those companies, applications for the accelerator are now open. Please apply!
Today, Techstars announced a new initiative called Techstars Studio which will allow Techstars to source new company concepts from Techstars alumni founders, community leaders, venture capitalists, mentors, and corporate partners. The Techstars Studio will then build prototypes, test market adoption, and select the most promising concepts for launch. Techstars Studio will then launch new startups and source talent and capital from the Techstars worldwide network to run the new companies.
The goal of each Techstars Studio is to launch four new companies annually. The first Techstars Studio will be in Boulder, just like the first Techstars accelerator was in 2007. As with the expansion of Techstars Accelerators around the world (Techstars will run 41 accelerator programs in 31 cities and 11 countries in 2019), expect Techstars Studios to follow a similar expansion path.
At Foundry, we have a lot of experience with the Studio model. We are investors in PSL (in Seattle) and High Alpha (in Indianapolis). We are also investors in the venture funds associated with the studios (PSL Ventures and High Alpha Capital) as well as Techstars Ventures.
Over the past five years, we’ve looked at potentially investing in numerous studios. We think the studio model, while very attractive with the right team, resources, and network, is very difficult to execute well. We’ve been deliberate in our choices and the leaders of both PSL and High Alpha have been helpful with Techstars as they’ve gone through their thought process on how to build out a studio.
We are especially excited about the founding team of Techstars Studios. Along with the leadership of David Cohen (the co-CEO of Techstars) will be Isaac Saldana, founder of SendGrid and Mike Rowan, former VP of SendGrid Labs. We’ve worked closely with Isaac and Mike over the years and are psyched to have another chance to create something with them from the ground floor.
A number of the most successful Techstars accelerator alumni are participating as founders in residence and advisors to Techstars Studio. In addition, more than 25 corporate partners of Techstars are involved in the initiative at launch.
If you are interested in the Techstars Studio, drop me an email and I’ll route you to the right folks.
One of my favorite public events is the CU Boulder Silicon Flatirons Entrepreneurs Unplugged series. I was the co-host for the first couple of years, sharing the interview job with another Brad (Bernthal) who now is generally on his own.
On Thursday, 9/13/18 at 5:30pm, Bernthal will be interview David Cohen and David Brown, the co-CEOs of Techstars (who we often fondly refer at Foundry Group as the “the David(s).” The event will be held at the CU Boulder Law School.
If you know the David(s), I expect this will be a treat as I know Bernthal will start with their early entrepreneurial career (Pinpoint) and stick with it for a while. While many people know the Techstars story, the PinPoint story is much less well known but equally fascinating. And, if you need any hints on Q&A (which Bernthal always leaves time for), just drop me a note.
The first accelerator, YC, was founded in 2005. The second, Techstars, was founded in 2006. Wikipedia has a good summary of the history of accelerators.
Now that we are 13 years into the accelerator journey, an accelerator is a well-established construct that is part of the global startup ecosystem. They have evolved over the years, and many new approaches have been taken.
The question of the efficacy of accelerators has regularly been asked over the past decade. A number of academic papers have appeared in the past few years exploring this. I was asked if any existed the other day by an LP, so following is a list of papers I am familiar with.
If you know of any others, please put links in the comments or send me an email with the info.
Accelerators and Crowd-Funding: Complementarity, Competition, or Convergence in the Earliest Stages of Financing New Ventures?, Smith, Hannigan, and Gasiorowski, 6/13
Accelerating Startups: The Seed Accelerator Phenomenon, Hochberg and Cohen, 3/14
Accelerators and the Regional Supply of Venture Capital Investment, Fehder and Hochberg, 9/14
Swinging for the fences: How do top accelerators impact the trajectories of new ventures?, Winston Smith and Hannigan, 6/15
Investment Accelerators, Bernthal, 8/15
Do Accelerators Accelerate? If So, How? The Impact of Intensive Learning from Others on New Venture Development, Hallen, Bingham, and Cohen, 7/16
Business Incubators and Accelerators: A Co-Citation Analysis-Based, Systematic Literature Review, Hausberg and Korreck, 3/17
How Do Accelerators Select Startups? Shifting Decision Criteria across Stages, Yin and Lau, 12/17
“Technologies that have revolutionized so many sectors of the economy have the potential to transform the way we do conservation. We’re at the front end of a new ‘nature-tech’ revolution and nature stands to win big from it.”
- Brian McPeek, Chief Conservation Officer of The Nature Conservancy
As many of you know, Techstars and The Nature Conservancy have teamed up to build a tech accelerator for the planet – Techstars Sustainability. The accelerator kicks off this July in Denver and companies from across the globe are applying now through April 8th. Considering how much Amy and I love both of these organizations, we’re excited to be supporting this effort to build stronger startup ecosystem at the intersection of sustainability, nature and technology.
From the state of coral reefs to deforestation, I’ll admit that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and the work ahead is certainly not something to take lightly. But, I’m also choosing to pursue a personal path that is rooted in urgency and action. I’m inspired by entrepreneurs like Grant Canary and his team at DroneSeed (a Techstars Seattle 2016 alumni). Grant is working to innovate the future of forestry through planting trees with swarms of drones. And then there is Liané Thompson, CEO of Aquaii, who is also utilizing drone technology to build robotic fish that gather underwater data in a way that was previously unachievable.
And that’s just drones and big data. Imagine all of the enabling technologies that can be applied to build powerful solutions in soil health, aquaculture, fisheries, water markets, climate resilience, and more. I think my friend Brian is right, we are on the forefront of a nature-tech revolution – and I want to be a part of it.
If you are interested in continuing this conversation with Brian and I, join us for a live online discussion and AMA on Monday, March 26th at 4:30pm MST. We’ll be talking about the origins of this partnership, the intersection of nature and technology and the upcoming accelerator. You can grab your seat by signing up here.
For more on how The Nature Conservancy is thinking about this, enjoy this short video.
The science fiction of the last 30 years is rapidly becoming reality as technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence are becoming more real and present with each passing day. While my jetpack still seems ponderously far away and cars are becoming self-driving instead of flying, we are making progress.
In medicine, progress is methodical and incremental. As lives are literally at stake, it’s imperative to move forward in a logical and data-driven manner. The resulting regulatory requirement of clinical trials may sometimes be seen as an innovation-stifling burden, but lengthy clinical trials protect patients by ensuring safety and efficacy of therapies. The result? As real advancements are being made in biotechnology, such as engineered cells to fight cancer or using stem cells to regenerate the spine, news and hype eventually quiets during decade long timeline for these technologies to clear trials. There is a bright horizon of therapies that many of us are unaware of.
While I’m not a biotech investor, I ran into a company in Techstars Class 92 (Seattle 2017) called Silene Biotech that fascinated me. The founder, Alex Jiao, has been focused on regenerative medicine for the past decade, an area of research that still feels strongly like science fiction. The idea is to use our cells outside the body to regenerate or regrow lost tissues and organs. A buzzword in this space is “stem cells” and nowadays most people are familiar with the general concept. Stem cells can self-renew and turn into other cells, so their potential is incredible for regenerative medicine.
Currently, there is a lot of mythology and misinformation surrounding stem cells. Unlike newts which can regenerate their limbs, our bodies have limited repair mechanisms and our stem cells can only do so much. However, there are businesses purporting that a simple injection of unmanipulated stem cells can work miracles. The FDA disagrees, and without any compelling data from a clinical trial, most scientists would disagree as well.
I learned from Alex that not all stem cells are the same. Different stem cells have varying abilities to regenerate and turn into other tissues. Furthermore, we are also realizing that it takes guidance and manipulation to coax a stem cell into the correct cell or tissue for regeneration. And new technologies allow us to reprogram adult cells into more “potent” stem cells. These factors have now led to stem cell-based clinical trials to treat diseases such as macular degeneration and heart disease, with some early promising results.
There are still limitations to stem cell technology. One major limitation is that we are realizing age and environment can have a profound effect on stem cell function and even safety. Essentially, the older we are, the older all of our cells (including stem cells) become, and as a result, our bodies’ natural repair mechanisms deteriorate or stop.
Given these factors, I was excited about Alex’s notion that “backing up” our cells and stem cells could be a valuable tool for improving and extending our health in the near future. We can stop the biological aging of our stem cells by putting them in a deep freeze at an earlier age, when they have fewer mutations and damage. Banking our stem cells will then allow us to eventually generate and bank other tissues for self-use, like a population of heart cells for cardiac repair or a population of liver cells to diagnose drug toxicity. As technology moves towards a future where it’s technologically possible to engineer tissues and organs from our own stem cells, backing stem cells up today can give us the best opportunity to use them when we need them.
I love the idea of backing up my stem cells. Alex and his team are coming to Boulder to do this for me on 11/29. If you are interested in backing up your stem cells, Alex has offered to do it for a few others in Boulder when he is here. If you are interested, just email me and I’ll connect you with Alex.
The Nature Conservancy and Techstars just announced a partnership to create the Techstars Sustainability Accelerator. Amy and I were part of the public announcement this week in Denver. Both organizations are important to us so it’s a joy to be involved in having them work together.
Amy and I have been supporters of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) since we started our relationship in 1990. So has my partner Seth and his wife Greeley, who is currently a trustee on the TNC Colorado board. A key shared value of ours is protecting our planet and we are huge fans of TNC’s science-based approach.
Over the years, we’ve been personally involved in a number of projects, such as protecting the Anchor River in Anchor Point, Alaska (the town Amy grew up in until she was eight.) Amy went to Tanzania and Kenya in 2009 with TNC to increase capacity of TNC non-profit partners. We supported an Anchor Point Fellow at TNC’s Berlin office and an internship in Australia through Wellesley College. Heather Tallis, TNC’s Global Managing Director and Lead Scientist for Strategy Innovation, generously participated in our August 2017 Anchor Point Fellowship in Global Leadership Conference. Amy is currently on the TNC Global Campaign Committee and on the TNC Africa Affinity Group for Women and Girls. We also support TNC’s work with indigenous women environmental community leaders in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. TNC’s global reach makes it a very exciting organization to support.
At a TNC event at our house in June 2016, I had a conversation with Mark Tercek, TNC’s CEO, around innovation. Mark joined TNC nine years ago after a long and successful career at Goldman Sachs. One of my favorite ideas of his is that we can ensure more financial resources go toward conservation by getting the world to fully appreciate the opportunity to invest in nature. We had a good exchange about a number of creative approaches TNC taking to conservation and sustainability and I started referring to Mark as Nature’s Investment Banker.
Earlier this year, Amy encouraged me to get together with Brian McPeek, TNC’s Chief Conservation Officer, who is based in Denver. She described the conversation around technology and innovation she’d had with Brian, and suggested that I should talk to him about Techstars.
Brian and I got together with the goal of batting around a bunch of ideas around what he was trying to accomplish. Without realizing it, he was describing the domain of things that Techstars has addressed for many of our corporate partners. We left the meeting feeling like the idea of a Techstars TNC collaboration could be powerful.
Brian and his team went deep on things very quickly, understanding Techstars and how a Sustainability Accelerator would work. Even though Techstars has expanded around the world, we’ve never expanded in Colorado beyond our Techstars Boulder program, which was the very first location in which we ran an accelerator. We’ve talked about doing an accelerator in Denver, but never had a compelling reason to do it. But with Brian and TNC’s involvement, doing an accelerator in Denver became exciting to us – especially given the focus on sustainability that clearly differentiated it from what we were working on in the Boulder accelerator. It’s now a reality and Mark does a great job talking about our goals and approach in his post about The First Tech Accelerator For Sustainability.
In the tech world, founders (and investors) are always talking about changing the world, with an implication that what they want to be doing is something important, meaningful, and long lasting. In the past few years, there has been increasing dissonance between these words and what results from so-called disruptive innovations, where what we are really creating are companies that improve online ad-targeted by 1%, or create yet another mobile app that distracts our attention from the physical world. This isn’t a denigration of those companies, but rather a comment on the disconnect between the desire to change the world against the reality of working on things that time and humanity will likely forget quickly.
There’s an obvious question:“Are there opportunities to not just do good, but to have big outcomes?” I have a deeply held belief that large and successful companies can be built while solving global challenges. It’s not just a feel good thing, but a powerful approach to creating companies. And, if you take it to its natural conclusion, we ultimately are looking for for-profit companies that can be themselves sustainable and important.
For any entrepreneur interested in working on things that improve our planet, there’s now a Techstars accelerator to add to the mix of things people are doing in the world. And I’m excited to be involved in the collaboration to do this between two organizations that are extremely important to me.
There’s a tenuous balance between telling someone what to do and giving advice. It’s especially difficult as a mentor, especially if you’ve previously been a CEO and are used to being “the decider.”
As a mentor, you aren’t the decider. The CEO you are mentoring is the decider.
This dynamic is also true for many board / CEO relationships, where the board wants the CEO to make the ultimate decision. As I’ve often said, my goal as a VC is only to make one decision about a company – whether or not I support the CEO. If I do, I work for the CEO. If I don’t, it’s my job to do something about the CEO.
While this is nice in theory, it’s difficult in practice. One of my strengths is that I tell a lot of stories. One of my weaknesses is that, according to my wife Amy, my stories go on 20% too long (she is correct.) Here’s an example.
I’m at a board meeting. The CEO, which I love working with, is trying to figure out what to do about a particularly thorny issue. I tell a story. He reacts with a little more data. I tell another story. Another board member asks a question. I tell another story. This one goes on a bit too long.
The CEO looks directly at me and says, very firmly, “Will you just tell me the fucking answer for once?”
I tell him the answer.
He was looking for specific, actionable advice. I was telling him stories. If he spent enough time processing the stories, he might be able to come up with the right answer. Or, since they are stories, he might draw the wrong inference and decide to do something different from where the stories were leading him. This CEO was aware of that and, in real time was having trouble processing the point of the stories in his context.
Fortunately, this CEO was self-aware enough to ask for specific, actionable advice in a moment where he needed it.
Two mentors in one of the Techstars programs were both people who I knew well. They hated each other as a result of being co-founders of companies that had been bitter rivals.
Each company was successful, but their paths ended up being very different. These two co-founders hadn’t interacted with each other, but the CEOs of each of their companies had some rough interactions. As a result, each of these co-founders thought the other was an evil person.
Each of the co-founders was technical, extremely smart, and capable. Not surprisingly, they gravitated toward mentoring the same companies.
After a few very awkward moments, I encouraged the two co-founders to let their pasts be history and to move on. I knew them each pretty well and expected they’d like each other and get along if they had an opportunity to reset things. Being mentors to the same company gave them this opportunity.
It turned out that they loved working together. At some point, the co-founders talked about their past. They had never actually met, and each realized that their emotions were a function of the hostile relationship between the CEOs. Since they were channeling these emotions, they realized this was a self-limiting perspective.
They became friends. In a few cases, they’ve been mentors for the same company. It’s been a great example of moving beyond whatever your past is and accepting each other as a mentor in a new shared context.
Last month I took two weeks completely off the grid. As part of it, I spent some time working on my next book, Give First. As part of that, I finished up the sections on Deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. While I wrote a draft of this post over a month ago, It felt appropriate to publish this, and the next few Mentor Manifesto posts, after a wave of Techstars Demo Days that just happened.
#15 is “Be Optimistic.” It sounds simple, but it can be incredibly difficult.
As a mentor, your job is not to solve a founder’s problem. It’s to help. It’s to listen. It’s to provide feedback and data from your experience.
You can do this from many different perspectives. However, given the stress on a founder, it’s best to do this from an optimistic frame of reference.
Here’s an example of the challenge. You are a mentor to Maria, who is struggling with her co-founder Stephan, who has become unpredictable, inconsistent, and subdued. Maria feels alone, both on a day to day basis as well as in dealing with Stephan (there are only two founders in this case.)
As a mentor, you had a difficult co-founder experience in your last company. While the dynamics were different, it ended poorly with your co-founder leaving the company. While you haven’t spoken since you split up, your business was successful and acquired for a life-changing sum of money for each of you.
Your co-founder struggle is one that didn’t work out between you and your co-founder but was ultimately financially rewarding for each of you. You carry around this conflict in your head. On the one hand, you are pessimistic about where things between Maria and Stephan will end up. On the other, you know that even if their relationship fails, the company can still be a success.
You also learned a lot from your experience with your co-founder. Each of you made mistakes in approaching things during your conflict period. This hurt both of you and negatively impacted the company for a while. Your struggle with each other was public, and it ruined several other relationships with people who felt like they needed to choose sides.
Being optimistic in this context is difficult. But it can be done. Start from a positive frame of reference. Talk openly with Maria about the things that you and your co-founder did wrong as you tried to address your conflict. Be clear about how things could have turned out differently. Be introspective in your discussion and speak from experience, instead of giving advice. Remember to reinforce that even though your relationship with your co-founder ended up failing, your business was successful.
Let Maria have her experience as she tries to resolve things with Stephan. Try to be a positive influence in the mix to encourage her to do the work involved, even if they end up parting ways.