During January, the first class of Flashpoint graduates pitched their businesses at three events in Atlanta, New York City, and Menlo Park, California. I’ve written about Flashpoint before, but I find that a lot of EI2 employees still ask “So does Flashpoint compete with ATDC? Is it replacing VentureLab?” Now that we’ve seen our first results, it’s time to go into a little more detail.
Remember the Georgia Tech strategic plan? You should… it has “innovation” (EI2’s middle name!) all through it. Under Goal 3, “Innovation,” it says “Establish world-class initiatives to serve Georgia Tech, the state, and other strategic national and international partners.” Over a year ago, Steve Cross convened an innovation task force which met for several months; I was the EI2 representative. Several new programs and procedures have emerged from that task force, including GT:IPS and industry.gatech.edu. The most visible is Flashpoint.
Under the leadership of Merrick Furst (Distinguished Professor in the College of Computing), a team drawn from all across campus opened applications last summer, and accepted the first class (or “cohort”) of seventeen teams. Each team was between two and five people; at least one member of each team had to be a strong technologist. Four of the teams were based on GT research licenses, but over half had some sort of relationship to Georgia Tech (current faculty or students on teams, or active alumni, etcetera).
And we recruited nearly 40 mentors, from young entrepreneurs to experienced corporate executives to seasoned venture capitalists.
And some friends in the local venture capital community organized a small investment fund to invest in the Flashpoint teams.
And Georgia Tech rehabbed some empty space for us on the third floor of the 828 West Peachtree building (conveniently across from the Technology Square Starbucks).
And then we got started in mid-August 2011.
In my November 1 column, I wrote this about Flashpoint:
The last thought I’ll leave you with is that, as the nation’s largest engineering school, we think we’re pioneering a new discipline that Merrick has named: “startup engineering…”
It’s a long way from perfect, but it’s very different than the process of just 10 years ago. It’s an exciting time to be in this business.
That was only halfway through the process, but now that we’ve finished the first cohort, we’ve learned some things. Merrick is now using this as the definition of Startup Engineering:
Unlike for-profit accelerators, Flashpoint is primarily an educational program. The “textbooks” for the educational portion of Flashpoint were:
These books emphasize the importance of understanding your customers, distinguishing facts from opinions, and being able to rapidly iterate your business model based on market feedback. They have led to something of a “Lean Startup” cult in Silicon Valley, but they’re not only applicable to startups — they’re good roadmaps for anyone trying to create something new, including innovators inside large corporations or government agencies (or, dare I say, universities!). Well worth reading. (I suspect that Tim Israel and half the folks in MEP will say “Duh! We’ve been preaching this for years!”)
In the first book above, Steve Blank famously states that “In a startup, no facts exist inside the building, only opinions.” So we’d insist that each team spend a significant portion of each week “outside of the building” talking to potential customers. Every Tuesday, the teams and mentors would assemble for pizza around 6:00 pm, and spend the next four or five hours thrashing through what they had learned from these customers that week, and how that would affect their plans for the next week.
Then, the next Tuesday, they’d do that again. And again.
In between, there were weekly seminars and frequent one-on-one mentoring meetings. Teams spent the first several weeks trying to optimize their business models before concentrating on writing code. And the business-model work continued all the way through the end of the program during the holiday break. From mid-August through mid-December, an extraordinary amount of work got accomplished. Sometimes you’ll hear us say “Flashpoint isn’t an incubator, it’s an accelerator.” Acceleration happened.
On January 10th, the fifteen surviving teams presented their results to a standing-room-only crowd at the GTRI conference center. They did it again at Union Square Ventures in New York on January 18th. And they finished up to a crowd of over 100 Silicon Valley angels and VCs on January 26th, hosted by Andreesen Horowitz in Menlo Park. You can read some of the press coverage here. The short answer is: it worked! At least three of the teams already have term sheets, several more are in detailed negotiation with investors, and every single team attracted at least one follow-up meeting in each of the three cities.
I like to highlight the story of Pindrop Security (one of the ones with a term sheet) as an example of how “it takes a village” to create a university spinout. Pindrop:
- started with a professor in one of GT’s research centers, and
- a graduate student in the College of Computing.
- Once it appeared they would be creating intellectual property would be worth protecting, they worked with GTRC to secure patent coverage.
- They received an NSF grant with the help of our SBIR Assistance Center, then
- received Georgia Research Alliance funding
- managed through our VentureLab program.
- They licensed their GT intellectual property through GTRC.
- They won the TAG Business Launch Competition, which brought them additional funding and heightened visibility from
- the local entrepreneurial community. Paul Judge joined as chairman.
- They joined ATDC and moved into the Centergy building, then
- were selected for the first Flashpoint cohort
- and began talking to major corporate clients.
- At the end of Flashpoint, they attracted investment from local angels and
- from a highly-respected Silicon Valley venture capital firm.
Some of you will remember that, when I interviewed for this job three years ago, I presented a slide based on Jan Youtie’s work explaining how universities are becoming “knowledge hubs,” and my vision that EI2 would be the focus of that hub for Georgia Tech.
Mission accomplished. Now let’s do it again. And again.
Merrick and the team are taking a deep breath to analyze what we learned in the first cohort. Applications for the second cohort will be accepted in February at the Flashpoint web site, and the teams will assemble on campus in early June for another four-month sprint. The Flashpoint curriculum should be applicable to startups in any field, not just software. We’re actively trying to expand the focus, and would appreciate any suggestions — or nominations for the expanded mentor field.
And, for our next cohort, we are planning to add to the mix by including a small number of teams sponsored by corporations that are looking to use Flashpoint as a new way to manage disruptive innovations. If one of your clients is a corporation trying to figure out how to disrupt their existing business model (before their competition does it to them!), let me know. Flashpoint should have something new and valuable to offer. We suspect that Georgia Tech will eventually offer continuing education in “startup engineering” to companies of all sizes.
(Incidentally, Flashpoint costs money to operate. Our first premier sponsor was SAIC, and we just added United Technologies Corporation at that level, along with some lower-level sponsors listed on the Flashpoint site. We also have many corporate supporters. Let me or Christina know if you have a client who might want to be involved.)
And, internally, we’re applying the Flashpoint lessons to our EI2 startup services. Flashpoint isn’t going to replace ATDC or VentureLab. But the “lean startup” concepts and our new field of “startup engineering” will start to be used as foundations for many of the services that Nina Sawczuk’s team offers.
Launching Flashpoint was chaotic, stressful, exhausting, and occasionally contentious… just like a startup! We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve established Georgia Tech as a national player in this new field of building lean startups on a firm academic foundation. I’m proud of all the EI2 people who played a part, and look forward to getting more of you involved in the future.
As always, keep up the good work.