Bikes, Bitcoin, and the Next Billion: Techstars Boston Diversifies

Techstars has become something of a startup institution, now operating in 15 cities. The tech accelerator can still hold a surprise or two, though.

At the program’s eighth demo day in Boston—has it really been that many?—an increasingly international flavor was on display. Founders hailed from Croatia, France, Russia, Hong Kong, the U.K., and Australia, as well as Boston and San Francisco.

The diverse talent pool is a product of new managing director Semyon Dukach, the tech investor, entrepreneur, and former MIT Blackjack Team leader who’s originally from Moscow. His quirkiness and broad range of interests is reflected in the makeup of the current graduating class.

Five of the 12 companies include hardware in their products. That’s not a new trend. Look at what the companies do, though, and bigger themes emerge.

Fortified Bicycle makes “unstealable” bike accessories such as lights, locks, and storage systems. It’s also building its own bike to sell for urban use. Fairwaves is developing cheap hardware for cellular base stations; the goal is to help mobile operators “acquire another billion subscribers” in developing countries. And Magnet is making “smart jewelry” with a tactile twist, such as wrist-worn wearables with vibrations and flashing lights to keep you in touch with a loved one.

The program’s software startups are similarly all over the map. Helloblock makes developer software to simplify Bitcoin transactions for retailers (the first Bitcoin-related startup in Techstars). Codeanywhere helps software developers collaborate in an efficient way—think Google Docs for engineers. And Indico makes tools for data scientists to tap into machine-learning algorithms. The startup has just raised $3 million from local venture capitalists.

In a sign of the times, startups and investors seem to be trying out a broader range of early ideas to look for hits. It’s not just social-mobile apps, adtech and marketing software, or 3D printers anymore. Big-name accelerators are evolving and diversifying along with the rest of the industry.

Techstars CEO David Cohen told the audience that his program’s startups have raised more than $1 billion in total funding to date. And that more than 50 Techstars companies have been acquired. Some examples from Boston: GrabCAD, Senexx, Ubersense, and docTrackr.

The overall impact of Techstars, however, may be more about its network of entrepreneurs, investors, and corporate partners. If you’ve seen enough demo days—and enough startups in general—you know it’s basically impossible to tell which companies are going to succeed (see Airbnb, Dropbox). No accelerator startup can really know how big its market is, or whether its products will take off. Ideas and markets change.

But people and relationships endure. Last summer, Dukach said the key to his startup selection process was “whether the team can build a big company.” He also said he chose some companies with smaller (or no) revenues over some that had more. He was mainly trying to get founders who are “smart and listen and work really hard,” and who have the ability to persevere in tough times.

If he has succeeded at that—no easy task—look for Techstars to increase its global reach, one founder at a time.

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