By Fred Grier
Startup accelerators have become a prominent feature in the tech landscape in recent years, with more and more programs popping up every year. They play an important role in the startup ecosystem, fostering innovation and industry disruptors. San Diego offers a wide variety of incubators and accelerators, including StartR, a non-profit six-month accelerator program for UCSD Rady School of Management students and alumni.
To learn more about StartR’s impact and expansion, I chatted with the co-directors of the entrepreneur powerhouse. Read below to find out the accelerator’s origins, founder success stories, and how the Rady School of Management aims to develop the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders.
The Future is Female: Before the accelerator became known as StartR, it all began as a female-led experiment by Lada Rasochova and Rosibel Ochoa. Earlier in Rasochova’s career, she worked as the Senior Executive Director of Entrepreneurship and Leadership at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering. After watching “The Social Network,” a movie based on the origin of Facebook, she was compelled by the lack of representation of female entrepreneurs and obtained a grant to launch MystartupXX (now known as the Inclusion track in StartR). The accelerator was the first of its kind, providing women-inclusive startups with team building, prototype development, co-working space, mentorship, and investor introductions.
Dynamic Duo: Joining forces with Rachova was venture capitalist veteran Kimberly King, who currently serves as co-director of the StartR accelerator and is an adjunct professor at Rady. Together with their leadership, MyStartupXX quickly became one of the most prominent female-led accelerators in the country, receiving a total of $150,000 in awards from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) in a span of three years.
StartR Overview: Through the breakthrough success of MyStartupXX, the organization has evolved into several unique accelerator tracks, each targeting a specific area of interest. While every track has its own focus, all include a series of workshops featuring relevant speakers as well as an opportunity to receive guidance from program leaders and mentors.
“Founders enter with their initial idea and we help them get their business off the ground,” King said. “They incorporate the company, raise money, and many have generated revenue.”
Throughout the program, participants are provided a co-working space, lean startup workshops, tailored mentorings by experienced entrepreneurs, and access to capital resources through UCSD’s innovation ecosystem. StartR accelerates ventures of all kinds – life sciences and biotech, mobile health, high-tech, communication, media, and technology-driven consumer products, as well as social ventures. At the conclusion of the program, all StartR teams are given an opportunity to pitch to judges and investors at Rady School of Management’s Demo Day hosted annually in October.
Accelerator Tracks and Qualifications: When accepting startups, Rady’s StartR welcomes all backgrounds of entrepreneurial experience. The accelerator tracks now offered through 2019-20 include Rady, Inclusion, Impact, Veteran, and Teen. While one member must be affiliated with UCSD, interdisciplinary teams are strongly encouraged.
Rachova shared that even people who aren’t Rady alumni but are connected to someone who is, can still benefit from being in StartR. “We have a group that just finished building their minimal viable product, both co-founders had experience in startups and were eligible to be in the program since one of them was a Rady alumna. They really valued the mentorship, workshops, and cohort aspect that StartR offers,” she said.
All potential participants are encouraged to check the information carefully and welcomed to apply for multiple tracks, free of charge. Application dates, requirements, and criteria will vary between tracks.
A Day in the Accelerator: When asked what a typical day in the accelerator looks like at StartR, King shared, “We do this activity called check-ins – What are your highs, lows, what do you need? We found that founders have really valued this aspect throughout the program.”
In addition to weekly check-ins, StartR brings in accomplished entrepreneurs and industry experts to speak on a variety of subjects. As an example, King said, “Today we’re bringing in an experienced patent lawyer to teach our students the importance of intellectual property, they even get exclusive discounts in services by being in our program.”
Accelerator participants also get access to a ton of free tools and resources like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Hubspot to commercialize their technology and launch their product on the right foot.
StartR Acquisitions and Success: Since its founding in 2012, StartR has supported over 26 female-led startups, which have amassed more than $8 million in funding, and have seen successful exits like Cypher Genomics in 2015, a previous program participant. Another successful acquisition was Pet Wireless, which was acquired for an undisclosed amount in 2018. StartR has also garnered a proven track record in portfolio companies receiving seed funding and closing multiple rounds of series funding. In early 2019, LeadCrunch, a B2B marketing startup from StartR, raised about $17.5 million in two financing rounds.
Two notable San Diego-based companies from the StartR program are Aira and Alpine Labs. Aira, which raised over $15 million, uses Google glass-like technology worn by the blind that connects to remote agents who provide assistance in navigating the world around them, The Alpine Labs product, Michron, allows affordable time-lapse photography using common DSLR cameras. The company has had three successful Kickstarter campaigns, recently raising $1.2 million, the highest amount any UCSD group has raised on Kickstarter.
Looking Ahead: Although StartR has generated repeated startup success, the organization now has a goal of helping its startups go public in the upcoming years.
“We had a few companies get acquired, but I’d love to see one of our companies go public,” King said. “Looking ahead, we hope to expand our programs and increase the funding amount we can provide to each team.”
StartR’s five-year objective is to further integrate its Rady Venture Fund by working with other local community groups.
Rady Venture Fund: Rady Venture Fund is an evergreen fund that invests in seed-to-early stage companies. The aim is to provide Rady MBAs and UCSD students greater access to investment capital, education opportunities, and real-world learning experience. Tied closely to Venture Capital Management courses, students gain skills in screening investment leads, performing due diligence and investment recommendations. Typically, the fund invests between $75,000 to $150,000 range and is solely funded from individual donations through the UC San Diego Foundation. Since its founding, the fund has made five investments and has two portfolio exits, including Savara Pharmaceuticals and Manta Instruments.
San Diego Tech Ecosystem: King has spent her career in three different tech ecosystems – Seattle, Silicon Valley, and San Diego. She provided her seasoned perspective on the pros and cons of the San Diego tech ecosystem. “San Diego is a unique place because we have telecom talent and we have healthcare talent – really liked this convergence,” she stated.
As for Raschova, she said, People always try to compare San Diego to Silicon Valley, we will never be Silicon Valley, in fact we have the potential to be way better because of our small tight-knit community. People here want to see the tech ecosystem grow. The mentors we have at StartR come back time and time again; they want to give back and aren’t hesitant at all to help entrepreneurs.”
Entrepreneurial Advice: When giving advice to founders in StartR, the advice lies in the accelerator’s name. “Just start. For StartR’s social Impact track, we just tried it. We didn’t have a clue how many applications we were going to receive, we just knew there was interest. Through that, we did our best to refine the track and make it better each time.”
Building on that, King added, “Don’t hesitate. Start building it now. Ideas are worth nothing without execution; even if you fail, you’ll learn a lot. By the next time around, you’ll be able to do what you didn’t do before.”
Editor’s Note: TritonTech is an original series on UC San Diego entrepreneurs created by Fresh Brewed Tech that showcases the innovative ideas born in the halls of academia that are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond.