New Seattle Accelerator 9Mile Labs Wants To Build On TechStars Model

Three startup devotees are launching a new accelerator program called 9Mile Labs in a bid to boost support for technology entrepreneurs in the Seattle area, testing demand in the burgeoning—some say bubbling—market for business incubators.

Sandy Sharma, Sanjay Puri, and Kevin Croy are technology executives with experience founding or working at about a dozen startups between them. They aim to invest in the range of $20,000 from their own pockets in each of nine to 12 business-to-business focused technology startup companies this spring, in exchange for 6 percent to 8 percent equity stakes.

They are modeling 9Mile Labs on Y Combinator and TechStars, the leaders in the crowded and growing field of startup accelerators and incubators. (Xconomy’s 2012 Guide to Venture Incubators, published last fall, listed 121 programs nationally, about twice the number cataloged in 2011.)

The debate continues in national tech and venture circles on whether an incubator bubble is forming, informed most recently by the “Series A Crunch” predicted by CB Insights.

After surveying the local market—in part through the lens of Advaiya, a strategy and marketing consulting firm serving technology companies, and headed by Sharma—the 9Mile Labs partners found “a huge supply of technologists in the Seattle area, but the support ecosystem for these aspiring entrepreneurs is very limited,” Puri says.

He points to the recent Startup Ecosystem Report 2012 that ranked Seattle No. 2 for talent and No. 4 overall. Much of that talent is at work in the region’s tech giants, wondering when and how to go out on their own, Puri says.

“We believe we are hitting the startup market in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest at exactly the right time, because as the economy starts to rebound, we will start to see people getting a little more confident about their financial situation” and being willing to leave secure jobs to launch startups, he says.

In 2012, accelerators and incubators proliferated in Seattle, with new and expanded efforts from TechStars in partnership with Microsoft and Nike (in Portland), the University of Washington C4C New Ventures Facility, Fledge, and the SURF Incubator.

TechStars, which has accelerators in five cities and the cloud, boasts lower acceptance rates than the Ivy League, and the number of applicants has steadily increased. Hundreds of entrepreneurs are rejected from each class in each city.

“What happened to the rest of them?” asks Smartsheet co-founder Brent Frei, who is planning to be a mentor for 9Mile. “I’m sure there was a bunch of chaff in there, but I’m sure there were a lot of great people and great ideas in there, too.”

Frei adds in an email: “I absolutely believe we need more vehicles to amplify the startup culture and energy… Even with the great services provided by the venture community, TechStars, and the angel groups to name a few, we’re still woefully short of mentors and avenues for increasing the number of successful outcomes.”

Chris DeVore, general partner of Founders Co-op and a managing director of the Seattle TechStars program, says via email he is “always excited to see new efforts to stimulate the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

9Mile Labs evolved in the second half of 2012 out of 9Mile Partners, a consulting firm that has helped a handful of more mature technology companies get to the next phase of growth, Puri says.

9Mile Labs plans to provide a standard suite of accelerator services, including office space at a location to be determined on the Eastside and a network of mentors—“the core of what provides value to entrepreneurs in an accelerator,” Puri says.

Indeed, the mentors’ time, advice, and, perhaps above all, connections are the fuel of an accelerator. A CEO of a TechStars Seattle company put it to me this way as the program wrapped its 2012 class last fall: “I’ve met 20 people who it would have taken two months of pestering to access, and even then, without the TechStars imprimatur, I would have been undifferentiated from the 700 other entrepreneurs they meet.”

9Mile has so far recruited about three dozen mentors, including venture capitalists, angel investors, entrepreneurs, Microsoft executives, functional experts, designers, and others who will offer strategic, technical, and operational help to startups. 9Mile wasn’t ready to share the list publicly when I talked to Puri late last month, but it includes many recognizable people in the local tech scene.

Puri says 9Mile—which takes its name from the building blocks of the “business model canvas” and hews closely to the lean startup philosophy of Steve Blank—plans a few deviations from the “tried and tested” accelerator model. The biggest of these is a financial incentive of some kind for participating mentors.

9Mile intends to begin accepting applications in January for its first cohort, which is to begin in the spring and run for three months, culminating in a demo day. The exact timeline is still being finalized. Companies can be based anywhere, but the co-founders must commit to being based at 9Mile Labs during the program.

DeVore says TechStars now benefits from its track record and national brand to attract “a deeper pool of prospective participants from a wider geographic reach into the Seattle program than other, less well-known and more regional programs.”

“If 9Mile can put together a few amazing cohorts of exceptionally talented entrepreneurs based on their unique strengths, they’ll be off to the races,” DeVore continues. “If their first few classes don’t draw strong teams—and then aren’t able to raise high-quality follow-on rounds—it will be hard to keep the program going.”

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