What it's like at the elite tech accelerator where Stanford grads are launching startups worth millions
Feb 20, 2015, 00:19 IST
As a junior at Stanford University, varsity wrestler Cameron Teitelman endured dozens of hip fractures on the mat. Surgery left him bedridden. So to pass the time, he interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs in the Stanford community to figure out what made them successful.
He learned that they built a support network around themselves that allowed them to fail and bounce back faster. He envisioned a space where young people who are passionate about solving a problem can access peers, advisers, and investors for guidance.
Teitelman secured funding from the university, and, in 2009, StartX was born. The program holds three sessions a year, designed to educate and propel promising entrepreneurs in the Stanford network, including alumni, professors, staff, and (the rare) current students.
Since its inception, StartX has supported 228 startups that have raised a combined $707 million in funding. With every passing session, its network grows more robust — cementing StartX's place in the ranks among mightier incubators, such as Y Combinator and 500 Startups.
Nearly 80% of companies that have gone through StartX are still in operation (like smart-stethoscope innovators Eko Devices, pictured), and 21 companies have been acquired by companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Dropbox.
The accelerator sets itself apart from others in the Valley by not taking equity from the startups it works with, meaning founders retain ownership of their companies. It instills a level of trust, one founder tells me. They're just here to help.
On my recent visit to StartX's office in Palo Alto, California, I got to see some of the other perks that come with being a StartX-affiliated founder.
Each company receives about $100,000 in infrastructural resources, including office space, legal services, server space, and financial aid.
StartX's 13,000-square-foot office, just minutes from Stanford's campus, contains everything a founder needs. The "Coding Cave" provides a quiet space where programmers can concentrate.
The lab provides essential equipment for early-stage startups in the life science or medical-devices industries, including a Makerbot 3D printer that allows for rapid prototyping.
Mirrors hang in the "Pitch Elevator," where founders can craft and practice 10-second descriptions about their companies.
There are plenty of phone booths and conference rooms, where founders meet with mentors. Obi Felten, whose title at Google X is "Head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world," advises StartX founders.
Felten is a perfect fit for Janica Alvarez, who aims to reinvent an everyday product that hasn't been improved on in decades: the breast pump. Her company, Naia Health, is developing a portable, hospital-grade pump that gives moms real-time data on their production levels.
StartX applies a three-tier approach to its mentorship program. Each founder is assigned a lead mentor, a board of advisers filled with relevant industry experts and venture capitalists, and an "entrepreneur-in-residence," or a Stanford alum who provides on-call support.
The 38 companies in StartX's most recent session run the gamut from e-commerce and biotech to Haptical Tactics, a virtual-reality startup that is building a better game controller. Its grip technology allows users to feel motion and force more realistically during play.
Over at the Snitch office space, founder Alex Teichman blushes at the hot-glue gun resting next to his "Frankensteinian prototype." Snitch leverages the perception techniques used by Stanford's self-driving car to make a smarter security camera.
Life360, run by Alex Haro, is one of the more "mature" companies to enter StartX. The family-locator and messaging app raised $50 million in a Series C funding round last year and operates an office in San Francisco.
The founders get to know each other over the course of 100-plus workshops and community events, including a weekly game night. Moral support is one of StartX's most valuable resources, many founders tell me.
Christine Su comes to the StartX office five days a week with her four coworkers. Their company, Summer Technologies, built a grazing-management platform that allows cattle ranchers to make the most of their land through precision analytics.
Jen [Tsau] and I are female founders in agriculture and technology. You don't meet a lot of people like us," Su says. "Sometimes it's easy to feel alone. Being in the StartX community, you have a sense of shared experience with other people who are either going through the same thing or have been through it.
Su and her fellow founders recently had the chance to pitch their companies to a room full of investors who are possibly seeking additions to their portfolios. Each session culminates in this "Demo Day."
When you're a StartX-affiliated founder, "it's not a question of if you'll get funding," one young entrepreneur tells me, "but the quality of the investors."
With the fall session now ended, a new crop of founders will arrive to fill the graduates' desks. The application process is rigorous, with just 10% of candidates accepted, and includes two rounds of interviews with expert judges.
Su and her team, however, will stay in the StartX office. They're renting desks and keeping the community close.