Monday, June 10, 2019

Conquer Accelerator startup program launches fourth season - MSUToday

Conquer Accelerator startup program launches fourth season - MSUToday


Conquer Accelerator startup program launches fourth season - MSUToday

Posted: 07 Jun 2019 12:00 AM PDT

Five startup teams will have the opportunity to take their business ventures to the next level with the Conquer Accelerator, which launched its 10-week-long program today.

Designed for both newer and established startups, Conquer Accelerator helps entrepreneurs through strategy, planning, extensive mentorship from experienced professionals and structured educational components tailored to each startup team.

The accelerator program is hosted and managed by Spartan Innovations, a subsidiary of the Michigan State University Foundation.

"Startup accelerators are marathons for entrepreneurs," said Tom Stewart, Conquer Accelerator's program manager. "Teams devote 10 solid weeks to their companies, often working until 3 a.m. thinking through challenges."

In addition to receiving up to $20,000 in seed funding, each startup can expect tailored mentorship from leaders within their respective industries, a creative co-working space at the MSU Hatch, as well as access to a network of angel and venture investors. Once companies graduate from the accelerator, they become seamlessly part of the Red Cedar Ventures investment portfolio.

"Nearly 99% of startups fail," said Paul Jaques, Conquer Accelerator's program director. "Our program strives to limit the pitfalls associated with startup failure. We provide a launching ground for emerging companies, both from within MSU's entrepreneurial ecosystem and across the state. We want to prepare these teams to hit the ground running."

Jaques, who serves Spartan Innovations as the director of student and community engagement, has been working with Michigan State student entrepreneurs for nearly a decade.

"When we launched Conquer Accelerator in 2016, we envisioned a program that empowers young entrepreneurs and puts the finishing touches on startup teams," Jaques said. "Our team is preparing these companies to provide real value to customers, while helping them scale-up and sustain growth."

2019'S CONQUER ACCELERATOR TEAMS

  • Ayuda's cost-effective software powers personal robots, helping museums develop more immersive, inclusive experiences. With Ayuda, museums can now give multi-lingual tours for a fraction of the cost.
  • GridPane is the world's first hosting control panel built exclusively for serious WordPress professionals. With a fully automated dashboard and server stack, GridPane delivers all the bells and whistles of managed WordPress hosting at a fraction of the cost. Build servers in minutes and sites in seconds, all of them fast, secure and ruthlessly efficient.
  • HealthOpX is "the Kayak of international medical travel." The company provides access to a variety of medical treatment options around the world at low cost and great quality.
  • Pairaphrase is a centralized, all-access web-based language translation management system simplifying how organizations produce translated documents. The platform also provides an interactive translation editing interface for team members and translation professionals to produce and complete translations.
  • SKOOP specializes in mobility advertising. SKOOP's electric bike taxi fleets move passengers from point A to B. Each vehicle has digital advertising displays attached to the exterior and interior. SKOOP's screens are always on the move, displaying advertising content around town and subsidizing the cost of the ride for the passenger.

"Conquer Accelerator is an integral part of our startup ecosystem," said Jeff Wesley, executive director of Red Cedar Ventures. "The accelerator is already seeing its companies succeed."

Conquer alumni, including Avidhrt and Uru Sports from the second cohort; and York Project and Golfler, which was acquired by Supreme Golf, from the first cohort, have all leveraged their Conquer experiences and connections.

Red Cedar Ventures is the venture investment arm of the Michigan State University Foundation.

Conquer Accelerator's fourth season runs through August 9. For more information about the teams, visit www.conqueraccelerator.com. Conquer Accelerator can be found on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Why the secrecy? Startups spending years in the shadows - SpaceNews

Posted: 10 Jun 2019 05:43 AM PDT

Space industry startups used to clamor for public attention. Now, many spend years in stealth mode refusing to disclose even the broad outlines of their plans.

"It's not a new phenomenon but it seems a lot of companies have gotten on board lately," said Chad Anderson, chief executive for Space Angels, which backs early stage space ventures.

LinkedIn, for example, lists 100 employees at Stealth Space Company in the San Francisco Bay Area. Employment website Indeed advertises jobs for stealth space industry technicians, engineers and mechanics. In April, a stealth company was one of three firms to qualify for a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency competition to conduct launches from different sites within weeks.

Why the secrecy?

"New entrants are emerging all the time and, unfortunately, some copy the business models and approaches of higher profile startups," said an entrepreneur whose business remains under wraps. When Skybox Imaging and Planet Labs announced plans to create small satellite constellations in 2012 and 2013, respectively, "dozens of copycats with little or no differentiation emerged," the entrepreneur said. "Fortunately for Skybox and Planet, they had raised very large funding rounds and were able to retain their leadership positions."

New startups might not be so fortunate. With the growing popularity of space industry investment, "some charismatic founders are able to raise tens of millions of dollars even to pursue copycat missions," the entrepreneur said. "Although there are some advantages to being the first mover, large funding rounds can allow less-creative fast-followers to close the gap."

The lean startup approach exacerbates the risk copycats pose. Entrepreneurs following this model test products or services on early customers and pivot if necessary, modifying their approach until they find success. "I have seen this play out multiple times where pivots end up being inspired by other startups," the entrepreneur said. "We do not want to be that kind of inspiration."

Stealth can be a useful tool for startups seeking to disrupt the business of powerful incumbents with extensive technical capacity and money, Anderson said. "You are not in a position to compete head-to-head, so you give yourself a head start."

Still, there comes a time when even the most secretive companies must emerge from the shadows. Blue Origin flew under the radar from its founding in 2000 until 2004 when Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos discussed the results of low-altitude test flights. The billionaire was able to keep Blue Origin's work secret partly because he was in the "luxurious position where he didn't need to seek external funding," Anderson said.

That model inspired others, including Gabe Dominocielo, co-founder of Umbra Lab, a Santa Barbara, California, company developing synthetic aperture radar microsatellites to offer sub-meter resolution imagery.

Umbra was able to keep a close hold on information from 2015 to 2017 partly because its founders could cover expenses. During its stealth period, Umbra founders shied away from media attention but spoke freely with curious investors and customers. By 2018, Umbra was an open secret.

"Stealth works to a point because the space community is small and there is gossip," Dominocielo said. "Offering dramatically improved performance, raising institutional capital, ordering components for multiple satellites and hiring key executives from legacy aerospace raises eyebrows."

The entrepreneur whose firm remains in stealth mode plans to avoid the limelight until the company has "a well-established and defensible position" in its segment of the industry.

It's not unusual for early stage companies working to patent technology and raise seed funding to hold information close to the vest.

"But eventually you need customers to know what you are doing," said Tess Hatch, former SpaceX mission manager and Bessemer Venture Partners investor. "Stealth at a later stage hurts rather than helps."

Investors also should be cautious of secretive companies, Anderson said. Through stealth, a company could hide shady business practices, he added, pointing to Theranos, a Silicon Valley healthcare startup that raised more than $700 million before ceasing work and settling SEC fraud charges in 2018.

Anderson cites other problems. In the beginning, it doesn't take much effort to keep quiet. "As you begin talking to suppliers, the effort to rein in the conversation and enforce nondisclosure agreements seems like a losing scenario," he said. "The more work you do, the more time and energy you spend controlling the narrative."

Stealth companies also can spend a lot time explaining their plans. "With every new customer or partner, we are starting from zero," the entrepreneur said. "We have had to really hone our ability to quickly explain our company and value proposition, but it is certainly a challenge to start from the beginning with everyone."

In addition, secrecy among investors can discourage "would-be champions because private investors can't talk to their friends and say, 'Hey, you might want to invest in the company, too,'" Anderson said.

Instead of stealth, Space Angels counsels companies it supports to foster open communications and transparency among entrepreneurs, employees and investors. "We've found a tight correlation between the level and quality of communications and the success or failure of the company," Anderson said. "Surround yourself with people who can help you through difficult decisions. If you're not open about your business model and how well it's working, you cut yourself off at the knees."


One of three companies qualifying for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Launch Challenge remains in stealth mode.

DARPA announced in April that Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit subsidiary VOX Space and a stealth company qualified for the $10 million grand prize competition to identify vehicles capable of launching satellites from different sites weeks apart.

DARPA gave a $400,000 prize to each of the three competitors, but a stealth company cannot win a federal contract or Other Transaction funding. Other Transaction agreements do not follow federal contracting rules and are reserved for research and prototype projects.

"The recipient of a FAR-based contract must be registered in Sam.gov and the award notice is posted on fbo.gov," a DARPA spokesperson tells SpaceNews. "Recipients of Other Transaction contracts also must be registered in Sam.gov, but fbo.gov posting is not required."


These articles originally appeared in the May 20, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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