An accelerator program equips student founders with startup knowledge, industry mentors, and grant funding - all culminating in a Demo Day event. If done correctly, it can be a launchpad for student innovation. I will help you to organize all aspects of your program's inaugural cohort.
An accelerator is a fixed-term, cohort-based program that is designed to help a group of startups make instrumental progress on their ventures. While accelerators come in all shape of sizes - from the giants like Y Combinator and Techstars down to local-level ones without the name recognition - there are some common factors that make accelerators, accelerators.
Each accelerator must have a focus. Who, specifically, are they trying to equip with their resources? This focus allows the accelerator program to really hone in on their strengths and attract ventures that can get the most out of what is provided. For universities, the theme is often "X Unviersity's Startups". Simple enough. But it's also possible to dive even deeper, creating a program around stage of venture, type of student, or industry focus (i.e. biomedical, FinTech, or social entrepreneurship) based on university's desired applicant pool.
An accelerator program inherently has a start and an end. Otherwise, it would better be classified as an incubator (link). This means that you have to prepare an application process, conduct interviews, make final selections, host a kickoff event, structure weekly programming throughout, and organize some kind of climactic event - typically a Demo Day - to complete an accelerator cohort. The exact duration of an acclerator program is flexible. At JHU, we ran them in 9-week sprints each semester. Other universities will spread them out over the course of an academic year.
One of the most valuable components of an acclerator (but often the hardest to quantify) is the cohort-based model of learning. College student entrepreneurs often have the same problems and experience the same growing pains. By being grouped together in a cohort, they are better suited to support and hold each other accountable for making progress along the way. I design my acclerator programs to help foster these connections and facilitate the students opening up their networks to each other in order to make mutual progress.
In order for a student venture to make meaningful progress - and to keep them accountable - it's crucial to assign them a mentor. An accelerator mentor needs to have relevant experience in their assigned mentees' field and be commited to helping them progress over the course of the program. This means holding regular check-in meetings, giving feedback on strategy, and opening up their network as necessary. To find out more about how I can help to start a mentorship program, click here.
Accelerator programs typically have some kind of funding component attached, but what exactly that looks like varies greatly. At Johns Hopkins, our Spark Accelerator teams only received $1,000 upon completion the program while Fuel Accelerator teams received $2,500 up front and another $2,500 at the end. Each set of teams were also able to pitch for a portion of a demo day prize pool. All of this was given as grant funding, or non-dilutive. Some accelerator programs have funding that can range into five or six figures but will require a term sheet. This can be advantageous for growth-stage startups but premature for many university student ventures.
Demo Day. The Grand Finale. This is the culmination of all the hard work that both the program managers and student startups have put in to this point. Demo Days are the opportunity for each startup to pitch their venture - usually both for non-dilutive prize money and to potential investors in the crowd. It's the responsibiltiy of the program manager to get each of the teams ready for the moment as well as ensure that there is a proper audience to receive the pitches. Typically that includes some combination of friends, family, mentors, alumni entrepreneurs, and angel investors. It's important to keep the night focused on the
All of this can be overwhelming to think about, plan, and execute. I know, I've been there. But my conclusion is that it's an incredibly worthwhile endeavor. Accelerators have the potential to serve as the cornerstone of your university's entrepreneurial ecosystem that strong student ventures can be built upon.
Get in touch with me to discuss what type of accelerator might be best for your university's entrepreneurial ecosystem.