Startups in the ‘Burbs: TechSandBox Plans Accelerator Outside 128

Despite all the startup accelerators and education programs out there, it’s hard to name any in the suburbs that target an older, more experienced demographic. That could be about to change.

TechSandBox, a year-old co-working space in Hopkinton, MA, is making plans to start an accelerator program that would admit about eight companies and provide funding and mentorship for three to four months. Barbara Finer, who leads the nonprofit organization, says it’s still early in the development process.

By April, she says, she’ll need commitments from investors. If it works out, she will start a separate corporation or limited liability company to manage the fund. “The challenge now is, can we get people to step up to the plate and put money into it?” says Finer, an engineer and startup guru.

The basic model would be similar to Techstars, the Colorado-based startup accelerator with programs in many cities—something like $18,000 to fund each company in exchange for a 6 percent equity stake. Companies graduating from the program could stay on in the co-working space.

Finer got a $25,000 grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to explore “what an accelerator would look like out here,” she says. And the idea makes a lot of sense: there are plenty of mid-career tech and life sciences workers outside Boston who are interested in entrepreneurship but don’t have easy access to training outside the Route 128 beltway.

“The people out here in the ‘burbs tend to have significant experience,” she says. “That experience in many cases gives them a higher probability of success—and it lends itself to helping each other.”

If done right, Finer adds, a TechSandBox accelerator could set a precedent for other suburban regions and communities looking to boost economic development and jobs through entrepreneurship. “There are more places that look like us than Boston or Silicon Valley,” she says.

Finer says she’s also working on developing “retraining” programs for executives and people with advanced degrees who are “not a culture fit to many startups.”

“I know PhDs in biology who are out of work; it’s horrible,” she says.

TechSandBox currently has 15 companies and about 25 people in residence. Most are working on software, but three of the companies have a hardware component. Other represented sectors include big data (Trilio Data), data storage (StorMagic), and health monitoring (SmartDiiet). The workspace is meant for entrepreneurs and companies with science or technology-based products. Finer is in the process of raising money to expand the facility’s maker space.

“It’s been difficult for us to raise the kind of funding we need,” she admits.

But last week, one of the facility’s sponsors, Southfield Properties, said it’s donating office space and paying for taxes and other services, in a package worth more than $120,000 for the coming year. That’s the TechSandBox’s biggest sponsorship to date.

Finer is keeping her eye on the bigger picture, and on the economic and training needs of communities like hers. Out in the western suburbs of Boston—called MetroWest by local residents—big companies such as IBM, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Boston Scientific, and EMC are “all going through extraordinarily significant changes,” she says. “If you read the tea leaves, they will have a whole lot of [technical] background people over 40 who’ll be looking for what’s next.”

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