A New Model to Accelerate Start-Ups
The Kauffman Foundation
Just as Simon Cowell is revolutionizing the music business with his "American
Idol" television series, a group of new entrepreneurs is quietly changing the face
of the venture capital industry and entrepreneurship.
"American Idol" has proved to be a major success in identifying and establishing
entertainment stars. Its winners and contestants have sold tens of millions of
albums. The reality show also has tapped industry experts to groom and coach
the top talent in the competition.
A similar "Idol" formula is emerging among a new wave of entrepreneurs and
venture capitalists who are radically transforming the way high-tech
entrepreneurs are identified, their businesses are launched, and the growth of
their operations accelerated. The new "Idol-based" models vary in their details,
but their contest-based method of selection and subsequent grooming are a
common feature. This new approach to finding and nurturing high-tech
entrepreneurial enterprises seems to be catching on like wildfire, not only in the
United States but in Europe and other parts of the world.
We believe this is a highly significant development that has important
implications for the way many other early stage companies may be launched and
financed in the future. Here, we describe several variations of this new model of
early stage acceleration and venture investing. First, however, we provide some
context by reviewing the venture model for financing early stage firms that
dominated until the Internet bust in 2000, and the replacement of venture firms
by angel financing for early stage firms that has become important in the
The "Old" Model of Venture Financing of Early Stage Companies
Venture capitalists used to be well-known for their risk-taking abilities in starting
companies at the conceptual level. Further, when the venture capital (VC) model
was first created, the typical VC firm raised a moderate-sized fund and assisted
in the building of those start-ups in which they invested. The VC would assist not
only in the hiring of the management team, but before it was formed, the VC itself
would take an active role in the company. Often VC partners would serve
alongside founders as top managers of newly formed companies.
Today, these characteristics are no longer the norm. Current-day venture
capitalists are more risk adverse than their counterparts from twenty years ago.
Indeed, press reports have widely noted that many VCs have abandoned the
early stage market, preferring instead the safer, even if less lucrative, ponds of
second- or third-round financings. In addition, as VCs raise larger sums, they
need to deploy their funds in large increments—much larger than the amounts
early stage start-ups typically require. VCs also would be stretched too thin if
they served in management roles in new enterprises. At best, a VC is likely to
maintain only a seat on the board of directors and assist if called on for
introductions to potential business partners.
These features of the current VC market are reflected in the data. From 2000
until 2005, seed-round investments made by VCs dropped from 281 deals to just
sixty-three. Even if the stock market stays "hot," it is unlikely that VCs will return
in a big way to seed-stage investment.
The Internet Bust, the Death of the Old Model of Early Stage Venture, and
the Rise of Angels for Early Stage Financing
If VCs are getting out of seed-stage investing, who's in? Increasingly, angel
investors—wealthy individuals or groups of such people operating on their own
without the overhead of a formal management organization—seem to be
stepping up to the plate.
First identified by academics in the early 1980s, angel investors have preferred to
conduct business quietly in order to avoid unending requests for funding. In his
1983 article highlighting the important role of angels in financing high-growth
ventures at early stages, William Wetzel identified the "funding gap" covered by
angels as between $50,000 and $500,000. With the growth of
venture capital funds and a shift in their focus to larger investments at later
stages, angels are now even more useful and necessary to many start-ups.
Angels invest their own money in early stages of private, high-growth ventures
for a variety of reasons, not simply to earn the highest returns. Angels also cite
local economic growth, use of their expertise, and personal enjoyment and
enrichment as reasons for funding rapidly growing firms. Angels
tend to invest close to where they live, often within a three- to four-hour drive
from their office, with a few exceptions. The close
geographic proximity allows angels to be involved in the ventures they are
funding. Individual angels find deals through their networks and typically invest in
ventures that can leverage their industry or operations expertise.
Through the 1990s, angels typically invested in companies alone, but in the past
decade, a growing number of them have formed angel groups. These groups
conduct screening and due diligence, allow individual angels to diversify their
holdings, collect knowledge from investors with varied industry experience, and
pool capital. These groups take a variety of forms, offering
investors flexibility in choosing deals in which to invest. Increasingly, angels are
coinvesting in ventures with other angels. While the group models vary in
formality, they all facilitate a steady flow of quality deals. Growing
interest in these groups has prompted the recent formation of the Angel Capital
Association, which assembles best practices and assists communities in
establishing angel groups.
Since the bursting of the Internet bubble, angels are participating in multiple
financing rounds. Many angels saw dilution of their investments as they could not
keep up with the VCs in multiple financings during the build up of the Internet
bubble. As a result, angels in recent years have been adopting terms similar to
those in venture investments, with smaller initial placements and reserves for
investing in later rounds.
Emerging New "Idol-Like" Models of Early Stage Venture Investing
The angel model of funding companies in their early stages may have been the
"next big thing" in investment circles a decade back, but a new form of early
stage funding is emerging. Call it the "American Idol" form of venture backing or
the new "Accelerator" model, but whatever its name, the model differs from what
What is an "accelerator"? It's not your father's business incubator—which was, in
many cases, a real estate deal, with start-ups as tenants who paid for shared
overhead. An accelerator is much more; it is a full partnership. The accelerator
typically provides much more than space and common management services to
start-ups. It helps form companies as legal entities, interviews and hires the
appropriate initial management team, and lends its own management expertise.
In short, the accelerator becomes the "new company" throughout seed-stage
development. Whereas a seed-stage venture firm will assist in building the
company on an as-needed basis, and otherwise provide guidance, the
accelerator is "the company" from day one of its formation. The accelerator team
is the new company's team and assists in both business and product
development. Since it is not the norm nor is it necessary from the starting gate to
have, for example, a full-time CEO, or VP of marketing, the same management
team is assigned to many of the companies in the accelerator. At any one time
the same management team could be shared among five start-ups. Additionally,
as part of the full-service engagement, the accelerators may offer intensive boot
camps that equate to Entrepreneurship 101.
How does a company join or benefit from an accelerator? Enter American Idol.
Just as Idol contestants audition their skills before a panel of judges, start-ups
wanting the benefits accelerators provide compete for slots on the accelerator's
"team." The business idea typically is less important than the individuals. In VCspeak,
the jockey is more important than the horse. Accelerators believe that by
assembling groups of potential entrepreneurial superstars, they will hatch more
and better ideas than if they fund a series of them in isolation. Further,
accelerators appear to be concentrating on specific industries or sectors, since it
often takes a critical mass of people with similar educational and business
backgrounds to come up with cutting-edge commercially successful advances.
The Foundry, Inc., located in Menlo Park, California, was the first-known
accelerator. Formed in 1998, The Foundry focuses on medical device development
and is funded by notable VC firms Morgenthaler Ventures and Split Rock Partners.
Not only does it vet technology brought to it by outside inventors, but much of the
technology spun out of The Foundry is developed by its own in-house research
team. Additional projects originate from university collaborations. Since its
inception, The Foundry has launched more than ten medical device companies
and raised over $200 million in financing for these companies. Today, these
companies employ more than 350 people and have generated over $1 billion of
value for their founders and investors.
In addition to The Foundry, there are a handful of other accelerators: The
Accelerator Corporation in Seattle; TechStars in Colorado; YCombinator in
Mountain View, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts; YEurope; one
currently being created by Pfizer in San Diego, California; and one just
announced by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partnership with
Alexandria Real Estate. Our impression is that the floodgate has opened and
more accelerators will be created both nationally and internationally.
The Accelerator Corporation in Seattle focuses on biotechnology companies. It
has well-established partnerships with Alexandria Real Estate, Amgen Ventures,
MPM Capital, OVP Venture Partners, ARCH Venture Partners, Versant
Ventures, and the Institute for Systems Biology. Currently, roughly $22 million
has been invested in six companies by the Accelerator Corporation's investors.
The Accelerator Corporation is committed to its portfolio of companies and will
assist if needed in their later stages of financing. The newly created accelerator
at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill is modeling itself after the Seattlebased
YCombinator located in both Mountain View, California, and Cambridge,
Massachusetts, has been creating a lot of buzz. It primarily invests
in software and web development and funds two batches of start-ups each year,
one in the summer and one in the winter. The founders/companies come to
YCombinator for three months where they undergo an intensive boot camp. After
ten weeks, the companies start pitching to investors for financing. Often
companies are funded well before the ten-week mark. YCombinator has funded
thirty-eight companies thus far, one of which was recently acquired by Google.
All this is likely to be just the beginning. Closely related models are emerging at
venture capital firms and universities, which are incorporating competitions and
intensive training. For example, Charles River Ventures' CRV Quickstart Seed
Funding Program provides select entrepreneurs with a loan that will fund the
work necessary to determine if their idea is sound enough to build a company
around. CRV will provide up to $250,000 in the form of a convertible note, but it
will not hold the individual entrepreneurs liable for repayment. Highland Capital
Partners' summer entrepreneurship opportunities for university students (both
undergraduate and graduate) include a stipend, an office, and a "boot-camp for
start-ups." In London, Seedcamp provides an intensive week-long training and
networking event for twenty "teams" of European entrepreneurs and promises
investments of 50,000 pounds in each of five "winning" teams, in return for a 10
percent stake in the companies they form.
Being at the cutting edge of the economy, it is not surprising that the "seed-stage
investment industry" is in a state of constant flux and renewal. While some
pundits may be declaring the demise of the early stage VCs, some VCs and
angel investors are already displaying interest in a new form of contest-based
accelerator model of picking and grooming the next wave of potentially highgrowth
start-ups. If the recent past is any guide to the future, watch for further
growth in this new form of venture funding—until the next Big Thing in early stage
company support comes along.