March 15th, 2013 | MATTHEW KORFHAGE News | Posted In: Tech, Business

Hotseat: David Cohen of TechStars

davidcohen2David Cohen, CEO, TechStars
TechStars, which touches down next week in Portland to team up with shoe giant Nike, is pretty much Harvard for hungry tech entrepreneurs.

The Boulder, Colo., based company is one of the world's most successful business accelerators—ventures whose goal it is to link up would-be tech entrepreneurs with "angel investors," free-flowing venture capital and maybe even profits. TechStars runs three-month business programs in six cities around the U.S. and in London—but not, until now, in Portland, which remains a small part of the nationwide tech scene. 

TechStars' collaboration with Nike, the Nike+ Accelerator, is something of an excursion for TechStars. Nike is fronting a lot of the money and facilities, and requires that the products made by the startup companies in the program make use of the shoe giant’s "Nike+" software platform—the same technology behind those bangly FuelBands that track fitness data for the efficiency-crazed. 

TechStars' model, pioneered by co-founder and CEO David Cohen, is simple: TechStars takes a 6% stake in a startup company in exchange for providing $18,000 seed money, plus a whirlwind bootcamp that offers entrepreneurial mentorship and introductions to potential investors. 

To date, TechStars says its alumni startups have secured about $288 million in funding. A consortium of venture capitalists is willing to lend up to a $100,000 to any company accepted into TechStars' six non-corporate programs, no questions asked. Techstars says that ninety percent of the companies they've invested in have either sold themselves or are still operational. 

A yet-to-be-announced crop of ten companies will be joining the new Nike accelerator on Monday, March 18, likely hoping to catch some of that same fire. (UPDATE March 18: The company names can be found here.)

WW talked to TechStars CEO David Cohen about the Portland tech scene, tech financial bubbles, and whether the new venture with Nike means we'll be seeing more of TechStars in Portland. 

WW: Why does somebody starting a business need TechStars or other accelerators?
David Cohen: The venture [capitalists] we bring to the table are difficult to ever meet in a lifetime. Demo day [in which companies present their products at the end of the program] attracts 500 to 2000 investors who come to you. There’s also a long-term alumni network of the same type you have around Harvard or MIT or Stanford. 

Your accelerator program has been very successful, but many aren’t. Can there be too many business incubators out there?
Sure. People trying to help startups be successful is good, but whether or not those businesses will be successful is a different story. More than half of the accelerators that exist to date have never gotten a company funded. Time will tell.

Is there any danger of a start-up bubble and bust?
Markets fix themselves. Markets go through a cycle, they always will. There’s a lot of capital, then there’s not enough. Things get funded, then they don’t. The market calibrating and adjusting is totally normal. 

There’s plenty of money for good companies. If you’re an entrepreneur, my advice is to ignore nonsense about overfunding and series-A crunches because you can’t control it. There’s no danger in not being able to get capital if you build something amazing. The only danger is that if you’re not building something amazing, it’s harder to get capital than you’d like.

A few Portland companies—Vizify, Glider, Cloudability—are TechStars alumni, but so far only the Nike-funded program has attracted you here. Any chance of a TechStars Portland?
Obviously, there's the Nike activity, which we’re excited about. As far as our traditional programs, we certainly don’t have plans to expand to Portland or anywhere else aggressively at the moment. If you look at the last five years, you can see an arc of us adding maybe one place a year. Portland is on the list of interesting places for maybe someday, but beyond that I don’t have an answer today.

What considerations would drive you to go to Chicago, San Antonio, etc., but not to Portland?
It’s a combination of a few things. One is a market that we think is producing interesting companies. Portland checks that box and is scaling up, which is good. There’s no shortage of interesting things happening to make it an interesting target for us. I think the other thing is our relationship to the community, most notably a team that would run the program that we feel aligned with. I haven’t personally spent a ton of time in Portland. I will start to, through the Nike activity. I would hope that this could lead to getting to know the community better. That’s what happened in New York and Seattle and the other places that we are.

From an outside perspective, how would you characterize the Portland tech startup scene?
Certainly a reputation for interesting companies. There’s an awareness of stuff happening there nationally, which is half the battle. What might be lacking is just the level of noise. [Portland tech blog] Silicon Florist does a great job, but it’s not something that everyone reads in the national community. It’s not TechCrunch, it’s not Xconomy yet. As people from Portland start to travel around, it’ll mean something. Startup commuters in Portland can amplify that by really promoting the companies that are here and getting to the national stage instead of the regional stage. Basically make more noise, would be the advice I would give.

You’re running an accelerator program with Nike. What’s Nike bring to the table for a tech start-up company?
I think there’s the obvious advantage of potential distribution or some kind of business arrangement or even just promotion. Obviously that’s not promised, but being closer to Nike will sort of lead to those things because you’re working directly with their executives and mentors. It’s just close access to the company. 

But at the same time you’re not giving up any control or rights to Nike. That’s the key to how these programs work. TechStars is your investor. But the big thing is the network and the potential of Nike wanting to distribute your thing.

You’ve done something similar with Microsoft in Seattle.
It’s the same thing. It’s a “Powered by TechStars” product that we have. We’ll probably do other things like it in the future. Having Nike be invested in your brand and your success is a good thing. In Nike’s case it’s focused on Fuel and Nike+, but for Microsoft it’s focused on Kinect, the control of your environment. Different kind of company, but same kind of advantage.

There’s been some criticism that Nike or Microsoft is using these programs to farm their research and development out to startup companies—that they’re essentially using people’s work and energy without fully paying for it.
These companies are paying to cause this to happen. They’re providing funding and support, but taking no equity or ownership. That’s the only model we’ll work in. 

Obviously sure, one of these companies might try to buy your companygreat, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s an option. But there’s no right that you give to Nike or Microsoft to invest in your company. 

But I’ll also tell you they want to learn from these developers, to see what [developers] want to do with their platforms so that they can improve them. They want to be known for being friendly to innovation. But I think it’s mutually beneficial to the startup as well.

Do you think that this will be a more common model for large corporations in the future?
The general model is that corporations have a platform they want to see more activity around. They want to encourage that by funding companies and providing hands-on support. Through our executives, and through our connections to investors and mentors. I think it’s sort of a tried and true model. You’ll see more corporations doing this.

Has the Microsoft TechStars startup program in Seattle had less success because of its narrower focus?
It’s been pretty comparable to year one. Year one of Boston, year one of Boulder. The same kind of funding rate, the same kind of investment rate. We’ve found for whatever reason, programs hit their stride in year three, typically. We don’t know why that is. The network of alumni builds locally, investors come in after they’ve seen the value. It takes a cycle to build them up. Early investors come to the first demo day and then tell their friends. We hope that that accelerates as people come to know TechStars and what it’s all about. It takes a little time to get off the ground.

What kind of interest has there been from tech developers in the Nike program?
I don’t know the exact applicant count. Last time I looked it was over 300 companies. And there’s a high volume from outside the Northwest, which is a good thing for Portland. Some will likely stay, which follows a pattern we’ve seen.

How often do out-of town companies tend to stick around when they move to a city for an incubator?
If you look at the TechStars data, it’s pretty close to 50% of the companies that are not from there that stay. Who knows what will happen in Portland? In Boulder it’s usually two local companies. Eight are from somewhere else, and four of those will stay. About half is the pattern we see. If you roll that over 5 years, you end up with 20 or 30 new venture-funded companies in your city. That’s a good ecosystem.
 
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