MassChallenge Matures: Breaking Down the Final 26 Startups & Their Accelerator Experience

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated 10/14/11. See below] And then there were 26. Startup teams competing for $1 million in cash prizes, that is. Welcome to the final stage of MassChallenge 2011.

MassChallenge, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a Boston-based startup accelerator program now in its second year. It may very well be the world’s largest incubator of its kind. The nonprofit program and business competition kicked off in May with an announcement of the 125 finalist teams (out of 700-plus entrants). After a three-month mentorship program, it is now down to 26 teams who are giving their final pitches this week. The whole competition culminates in an awards ceremony on October 24.

The goal of MassChallenge is to spur Boston-area innovation by attracting entrepreneurs and connecting them with peers, mentors, funding, and other resources. It’s one of several big efforts to rally the local startup community and make it more competitive as an innovation hub. “We are on the verge of a renaissance,” MassChallenge CEO John Harthorne told me earlier this year.

If this year’s crop of finalists is any indication, the program has become more effective at engaging founders, connecting them with mentors, structuring their mentorship, and generally managing and communicating the logistics of such a huge (and hugely ambitious) program. Startup founders I talked to in recent weeks said the program was “really well organized” and that there was “nice camaraderie” amongst the teams. That seems to have helped them with the difficult work of early-stage company building.

“Technically I’m pretty strong, but I’ve never run a startup before,” says Bruce Robie, the founder and CEO of ARO Medical, one of the final 26 teams, based in North Andover, MA. ARO has developed an implantable device to help stabilize the spine of back-surgery patients.

Robie credits MassChallenge with improving his pitching skills and introducing him to key advisors. “Working with our mentors was a really positive thing,” he says, and “each brought a different perspective”—whether it was how to talk with potential partners or how to brand the product. “I’m an engineer by training, so my ability to name stuff is not going to set the world on fire,” he says.

Roy Rodenstein, the co-founder of Cambridge, MA-based SocMetrics, another finalist, says, “I’ve been very impressed this year. Last year was pretty good, but it was the first year. It’s progressing well as far as the level of support.” Rodenstein, who served as a mentor in the 2010 program, adds that “the quality of companies is up a bit,” similar to the recent trend for other incubators like Y Combinator and TechStars.

Several other finalist teams say the program helped provide the foundation and … Next Page »

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