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.
Recently, Amazon’s Alexa team and Techstars launched The Alexa Accelerator, powered by Techstars, Last week, a bunch of fun skills have been integrated into Alexa. I thought I’d give some a try. Cooper, my intrepid two year old super alpha golden retriever shows up around a minute into the video when I do my favorite Alexa skill, the Woof Woof.
If you have an Alexa, give these a try.
What is the Alexa Accelerator?
What is a start-up accelerator?/What is a startup incubator?
How do I / can I apply to the Alexa Accelerator?
Who should apply to the Alexa Accelerator?/Should I apply to the Alexa Accelerator?
What is the Alexa fund?
Where will the Alexa Accelerator take place?
When are applications due for the Alexa Accelerator?/By when should I apply…
What is Techstars?/Who is Techstars?
A key ingredient of Techstars accelerator programs is our experienced and engaged mentor community. Mentors embrace the Techstars “Give First” philosophy by offering founders their time, advice, and connections. We treat mentorship seriously – you can read about it in our Mentor Manifesto and my blog series on the mentor manifesto. And, my book Give First, coming out at the end of 2017, will cover mentorship in depth.
Our global network now consists of over 5,000 mentors, including many successful Techstars alumni. As Techstars continues to selectively expand into new geographies and industry verticals, our mentors are important as ever.
Serving as a mentor is intrinsically rewarding on multiple levels. Guiding founders through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship creates a deep sense of contribution. It provides an outlet for mentors to engage in their local startup communities and keep a pulse on emerging technologies. It’s a chance to learn by teaching, and engage with a new generation of entrepreneurs. And it’s fun.
Beyond the intrinsic rewards, Techstars has been considering creative ways to recognize our mentors while deepening their relationships with founders. Today we’re happy to announce a new partnership with AngelList to offer Techstars mentors and alumni an exclusive opportunity to invest early in accelerator companies. Our first two pilot funds will be the 2017 city programs in Austin and Boston, launching on January 23rd. The AngelList funds will give mentors and alumni early investment access while providing companies with additional early stage capital.
At Foundry Group, we learned a lot by running our own FG Angels syndicate. AngelList syndicates helps enable seed stage investing at scale. We believe in the model and its power to further enhance the Techstars network.
If you are a Techstars mentor or alumni founder and would like to learn more about the Techstars AngelList funds, or an experienced entrepreneur or tech executive interested in becoming a Techstars mentor, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The day after the election, Alex Iskold (Techstars NY Managing Director) wrote a great post titled Dear Founders, I Commit to Double My Support For You and Your Startups. It’s vintage, wonderful Alex along with a series of specific things he’s going to do.
- Work even more closely with the founders to help them with their financings.
- Help founders drive up revenue, achieving profitability and independence.
- Send even more introductions, connect even more people.
- Answer every single email and every single tweet from a founder.
- Meet more founders in NYC and around the world and give feedback.
- Always iterate on my calendar and make more time for the founders.
- Speak at public events in NYC and around the world about entrepreneurship.
- Blog more about topics founders care about and want to read about.
- Publish my (long in the works) book for founders.
Today, Alex wrote a post titled Introducing Techstars Weekly Diversity and Inclusion Office Hours for Founders in NYC. Every Tuesday from 5pm – 7pm a group of Techstars employees in NY will meet with any female, minority, LGBTQ, or immigrant founder about anything. Sign up here.
In addition to Alex, other Techstars folks who will do these office hours include KJ Singh and Jillian Canning who help Alex run the Techstars NY City Program, Jenny Fielding who runs the Techstars IoT and Fintech Programs, Eamonn Carey who runs Techstars Connection, and Jenny Lawton, who recently joined Techstars as a Chief Operating Officer.
Bravo gang – I love seeing things like this just happen.
Yesterday Techstars announced the launch of Techstars Kansas City. This is a city-based horizontal accelerator similar to the ones we have in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, Austin, New York City, London and Berlin. Applications open in January 2017 and the program will run in July 2017.
I have a long history with Kansas City. I almost grew up in Kansas City, as the two cities my parents looked at when moving from Boston were Kansas City and Dallas (they chose Dallas.) In the mid to late 1990s, I was an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Kauffman Foundation working with Jana Matthews on “learning programs for high growth entrepreneurs.” During this time, Jana and I initiated a deep partnership between the Kauffman Foundation and YEO (the Young Entrepreneurs Organization). I spent about a day a month in Kansas City, during which time I developed a deep respect for the Kauffman Foundation, Ewing Marion Kauffman (Mr. K), and his value system around entrepreneurship and philanthropy.
In 2013 when Google announced that Kansas City would be the first city in the country to have Google Fiber, I bought a house in the first neighborhood that was being wired up with Google’s gigabit Internet. This was inspired by Ben Barreth, who was the first person to buy a house in the neighborhood and turn it into a hacker house. Lesa Mitchell, at that time at the Kauffman Foundation, found the house for me and did all the on the ground work for me. Later in 2013, Techstars and Sprint launched the Sprint Accelerator, which Techstars ran for three years.
As a result of this activity, Kansas City has become an important startup city in Techstars network. Earlier this year we started talking more about our long term view for our involvement in the Kansas City Startup Community and recruited Lesa Mitchell to lead the effort for us as the Managing Director of Techstars Kansas City.
I giggle with joy when I think about working with Lesa closely again. There’s a long list of things we did together when she was at the Kauffman Foundation, we share very similar visions for startup communities, and – well – she’s just dynamite.
I’m going to be in Kansas City on Monday for the Kauffman Fellows Reunion VC Summit and the 20th anniversary of the Kauffman Fellows Program. I joined the Kauffman Fellows board last month (more on that in a post soon) and David Cohen (Techstars co-CEO) and I are doing an event Tuesday afternoon about what Techstars is doing next in Kansas City. Come join us if you are in town and interested.
It’s been a while since I wrote a post deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. The last one I wrote was number 12 of 18: Know What You Don’t Know. Say I Don’t Know When You Don’t Know. Since I’m now working on the first draft of my next book #GiveFirst (or maybe it’ll be called Give First, or GiveFirst – I haven’t decided yet) it’s time to get my shit together and write the last six posts.
Throughout Techstars, we tell the founders that “it’s your company.” The implication of this is that they make the decisions about what to do. Everything they hear from mentors is just data.
A lot of mentors are successful CEOs. As CEOs, they are used to being in control. However, in the context of being a mentor, they don’t control anything. The best they can do is be a guide.
Interestingly, the best investors understand this. One of the lines my partners at Foundry Group use regular is that we only want to make one decision about a company – whether or not we support the CEO. If we support the CEO, we work for her. If we don’t support the CEO, we need to do something about this, which doesn’t necessarily mean fire the CEO.
In the context of being a mentor, you still get to make one decision, but it’s a different one. You get to decide whether or not you want to keep being a mentor. Assuming you do, your job is to support the founders, no matter what.
Ponder the following situation. The company has three founders. While one of them is CEO, it’s not clear that the right founder is the CEO. In addition, two of the founders (the CEO/founder and one other founder) are struggling with the third founder.
It would be easy to size up the situation and tell the founders what to do. But that’s not your job as a mentor. Instead, your job is to guide them to an understanding of the situation. The best mentors will invest time in each founder, keeping an open mind about what the fundamental problems are. You’ll surface the issues, guiding the founders to understand that there are real issues, what they are, help them talk about them, and help them work through them to a resolution or a better situation.
You won’t try to solve the problems. That’s not your job as a mentor. But you will be a guide. At some point, it will be appropriate, as a guide, to say what you would do if you found yourself in a similar situation. But, as a great guide, you won’t force this outcome, nor will you be judgmental if the founders go down a different path.
Remember – you get to make one decision – whether or not you want to keep being a mentor.