Business accelerators have become fashionable, and for good reason. They offer aspiring entrepreneurs access to expert mentors, marketing and media resources, funding opportunities, and office space. In part three of this multi-part article series I describe my personal experiences at MassCONNECT, and highlight its respective strengths and weaknesses. The goal is to help academic research institutions learn what works and what doesn’t as they begin to construct incubator programs of their own.
Previous articles in this series:
- Building on the accelerator model – Introduction (part 1)
- Building on the accelerator model – MassChallenge (part 2)
The MassCONNECT program was founded by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, which is itself an association of more than 600 biotechnology companies, universities and academic institutions. Their goal is to connect life sciences entrepreneurs with seasoned life sciences professionals to catalyze and commercialize innovation. MassCONNECT takes an altogether different approach to the accelerator model by picking four very early stage companies to work with each session.
At the first meeting, entrepreneurs give an overview of their ideas to the entire mentor group. They are then matched with up to 6 mentor professionals. Companies can tell MassCONNECT specifically what they would like to focus on, like FDA regulation, clinical trials, business models, etc. and it is a good opportunity to tackle major questions that arise through more “traditional” business competitions such as iLab’s Deans’ Challenge or MassChallenge.
There are eight one-hour mentor team meetings scheduled for the program, once a week. Companies are also assigned a second-year MBA student intern who can help with any of the work that comes up during these meetings, and can be an incredibly valuable resource to a company that is just starting up and cannot afford to hire staff. At the end of the season the company is asked to present their pitch and show how it has changed over the past eight weeks. Each entrepreneur is then connected with a venture-capital investor for final one-on-one guidance.
MassCONNECT emphasizes that the focus is not on the pitch, but on addressing key areas for improvement, and I couldn’t agree more. This is the ideal program for defining the value proposition, building a business model, formulating a commercial strategy, and developing a sales plan. The weekly meetings are akin to board meetings in their structure and flow, and set a great precedence for scientist entrepreneurs learning the ropes of new business development on the fly. In addition to the network they help a company build, MassCONNECT emphasizes their long-term commitment to the companies they mentor through useful networking opportunities, and has a deep interest in seeing them succeed.
While their approach to entrepreneurship is both innovative and valuable, MassCONNECT ignores the infrastructure support that is needed by new start-ups to build on the topics covered at their weekly mentor meetings, and are therefore a complement to more traditional incubators rather than a standalone incubator themselves. Incubators that take this approach should direct their companies to further resources such as office/lab space, special topic courses, and business competitions that new start-ups need to seek access in parallel. Intern support is a major strength of this program and MassCONNECT should explore ways of helping their companies retain intern support beyond the 2-month sessional period currently afforded by the MassCONNECT program, and help match founders with individuals interested in assuming unmet executive functions that are needed to build a successful management team.
Overall, this is one of the strongest programs out there today – but it is heavily dependent on the quality and commitment of the mentor professionals that volunteer to be a part of this program. While I can’t speak for other teams, our session comprised some of the sharpest and most committed advisers I have met. This will likely vary significantly with geographic location, mentor pool/focus, and how rigorous the incubator program is (or can be) at vetting their mentors. With the right network however, there is no reason why smaller universities or universities that are not situated in major business hubs couldn’t leverage communication platforms to compete with much larger institutions in this space. As a mentor myself, the institution’s commitment to their entrepreneurs-in-residence, and not the size of the institution or its name, drives my decisions of where to volunteer my time – and seeing teams succeed is its own reward.