Mentors, interns, staff, and partners generate collaborative culture at accelerator.
The Cleantech Open Northeast Accelerator is leading the way towards stronger ecosystems – both environmental and economic. A business briefing on April 19th allowed prospective CTONE applicants and mentors to understand how the different components of the accelerator interact. Throughout the evening, attendees became familiar with the ways in which mentors, interns, collaborating incubators, sponsors, and staff work together to foster startups at CTONE.
Tim Hoffman introducing the accelerator. Photo by Kathryn Elmes.
"Really the crown jewel and the reason why we've been successful for eleven years plus is our pool of talented mentors," NYC Metro Director Tim Hoffman explained, as he introduced the program to prospective applicants. "In some cases those mentors go on to become members of the team or enter a business relationship."
Professionals donate their time to create lasting value for companies accepted to CTONE. It is the experience that seasoned mentors can offer that differentiates CTONE from other accelerators, according to Hoffman.
“Each company will be assigned four mentors. Two generalists... and then one specialist,” he said. Specialist mentors are carefully matched with CTONE companies in order to provide assistance that that organization needs to complete the knowledge of its own team. “Finally, everyone is assigned a sustainability mentor,” Hoffman added. “Sustainability is incorporated throughout the worksheets [companies] will be working on throughout the program.”
Talented mentors contribute their time to every aspect of CTONE, from defining a startup’s customer base to marketing its products.
“How do you go to market? We will have sales and marketing professionals,” Hoffman said. “We have a finance and funding event where we bring in Wall Street analysts... to give you pointers.”
The same is true for companies worried about their financial knowledge. “We have a boot camp. It's like an MBA,” explained Hoffman. “You will be introduced to the topics that will start you off on your journey.”
John Lonczak, a lead mentor for the program, described the experience from his point of view. “It's fun to see how some of these companies evolve,” he said. “I think the mentors will help you achieve more than you might on your own in the same timeframe.”
Equally essential to the success of the accelerator is a dedicated group of interns who provide support to companies during the program. The assignments are a win-win for interns interested in finding out more about the process of starting a company and working in the field of clean technology. Several prospective interns were in attendance at Wednesday’s business briefing to find out how they could contribute their time and energy to the accelerator, bringing experience from as far away as London.
Rounding out the CTONE ecosystem, connections to local incubators offer advantages to startups, including temporary office space and access to business software applications.
Ryan Darby, the VP of Business Development at Lotik Labs, opened the program as a representative of the Samsung Accelerator, which donated its space for the business briefing, thanks to a CTONE alumni connection. “It’s been a great experience working in an environment like this,” Darby said of the incubator.
For new companies receiving support from mentors, interns, incubators, and staff, the program offers a way to address several years of work in one summer. Robert Parker, NYC Deputy Director, spoke about the impact of the program on participants. “Roughly 70 percent of the companies that have gone through the program are still in business,” Parker said. “It forces you to ask some hard questions and to do this much earlier [than you would have otherwise].”
It was evident that each speaker not only contributed a wealth of expertise to CTONE, but also an excitement about what 2017 would offer. That collegial atmosphere provides one of the most important boosts that the program can give to startups.
Kathryn Elmes, Executive Director, summarized this energy at the end of the night. “Being an entrepreneur is a lonely and scary process at times and what Cleantech Open provides you with is a sense of community,” she said. “People here are supportive, they're passionate. Don't forget, they're all volunteers.”
Business Briefing Q&A:
“How do you pick mentors?”
After mentors and startups apply to join the program, staff and volunteers at CTONE match companies with professionals who offer valuable knowledge and experience. Every business is provided with four mentors – two general advisors, a specialist who focuses on one key area, and a sustainability mentor.
“Could you introduce the process where you introduce the participants to the investors?”
A speed-meeting event introduces companies to investors. “The investors are [typically] angels,” Hoffman explained. “We try to match them with companies that would be of interest to them.”
“Is there a specific skill that everyone needs help with?"
“I would say it varies by company,” Hoffman said, noting that businesses typically experience problems with customer discovery, crafting a value proposition, and capital-intensive business plans. Elmes suggested an additional skill focus. “Pitching to an investor is not the same thing as pitching to a strategic partner, or a channel partner,” she said. “The setting is different [board rooms versus trade shows versus other], the audience is different, and the time you have is different... You need to find out how to get across the essential information that is going to resonate with your audience.”
“Do you also teach innovation? Soft skills?”
“Pivoting… comes up quite a bit,” Lonczak said. He explained that many engineers enter the program with a solution for a specific problem that only reaches a small market. With a pivot, these companies become able to claim a much wider audience.
"How much time do you spend with your mentors?"
According to Hoffman, the typical time spent with a mentor is an hour per week, although this can increase depending on the availability of the mentor and needs of the startup.
"When the program is over, what does it look like for most of the companies?"
“[Companies] stay in the ecosystem and they find the right connections,”Elmes said. This can include invitations from CTONE to continue ties to the accelerator in the role of an alumni or mentor. After graduating, companies can also make use of aligned programs, such as incubators. Parker discussed the range of possibilities for CTONE graduates, which may include international connections. “Some of the partnerships we have provide opportunities for expanding your company... in other parts of the world,” Parker said. “That breadth is hard to find when you are a company of three people trying to make sure that you don't electrocute yourselves in a garage,” he added with a smile.
By Elise Baker on in Northeast