Where big ideas are hatched: Incubators and accelerators

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It’s been 10 years since a Harvard dropout founded a little website for college students. But Mark Zuckerberg’s most lasting achievement probably won’t be Facebook. It will be the premise that anyone with a smart idea can build a Facebook and become, well, the next Mark Zuckerberg, with or without the college degree long seen as an essential steppingstone to success.

It makes sense that Greater Boston would be at the center of it all, with more than 250,000 college students and a burgeoning tech scene.

The pathway for entry into the startup world, though not clearly marked, goes through so-called incubators or accelerators, which can help a great idea germinate into a fully formed (for the most part) company. Accelerators and incubators typically offer early-stage companies a space to work; amenities like food, drinks, and office supplies; access to a stable of experienced executives to serve as mentors; and, most important, investment funding. In return, most accelerators and incubators take a cut of a company’s equity, often at a deep discount. In Boston, incubators abound, and these five are among the most visible.

MassChallenge This is probably the most popular accelerator in Boston, in terms of investment money distributed and the number of companies participating. With support from the City of Boston and the state of Massachusetts, MassChallenge is one of the few programs that doesn’t take equity in the companies it helps grow. It has an international flavor, with support for startups coming from companies around the globe looking to catch some of MassChallenge’s civic-minded startup magic, and even a program running in Tel Aviv.

Techstars As far as credibility is concerned, Techstars is king. Started in Boulder, Colo., Techstars has programs running in New York, Seattle, Austin, and London. Boston’s program just saw a change in leadership with Katie Rae, Reed Sturtevant, and Brightcove’s Bob Mason moving on and Semyon Dukach (a former member of the famed MIT Blackjack Team) taking over. With an outstanding class of startups in 2011 that featured companies like Evertrue, Kinvey, and GrabCAD, older successes like Localytics, and new kids on the block like Jebbit, CoachUp, and Fancred, Techstars Boston has helped launch some of Boston’s most buzzed-about startups.

Bolt Bolt started as an accelerator, and it still shares most, but not all, of the same attributes. It’s really a hardware space for businesses that need power tools, 3-D printers, and welding tools to turn their ideas into a reality. The companies in Bolt get some early-stage funding and access to engineering and manufacturing experts. A big benefit of Bolt’s program is the connection it has with hardware-specific crowd-funding site Dragon Innovation. Scott Miller, who played an important role in iRobot’s growth, runs Dragon Innovation and is a partner at Bolt.

Lab Central News flash. Starting a biotech company ain’t cheap. Lab Central helps early-stage biotechs overcome the exorbitant costs of building life science companies on a small scale. Based in Cambridge, it sits in a historic building on the edge of MIT’s campus and offers a shared workspace and access to high-tech (read: expensive) equipment. Started by Johannes Fruehauf and Peter Parker, Lab Central hosts companies that are targeting the next generation of medicines and treatments and experimenting with gene therapy, DNA, and RNA.

The Start Tank This is an incubator space inside the offices of PayPal Boston and run by PayPal’s David Chang. The program inside International Place has spun out quite a few successful companies, including Wanderu, CO Everywhere, Manicube, and Gloss48. All the companies that take part in the Start Tank are supposed to have a startup idea that is aligned with PayPal’s mission.

 

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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