Techstars Pieces Together Connected Devices Accelerator with R/GA

The hardware sector, regarded by some as the black sheep of the innovation world, is enjoying a bit of renewed interest from the startup community. On Monday the folks at Techstars in Boulder, CO latched on to this rising trend, announcing a new connected devices accelerator that will be in partnership with digital marketing agency R/GA in New York.

This program, one of several niches Techstars has dipped into of late, will focus on the creation of software applications and other technologies for linked physical devices. The new accelerator emerges at a time when other accelerators such as Bolt in Boston have already embraced startups working on both hardware and the software that connects gadgets to the digital world.

The unveiling of the new accelerator is the latest effort by Techstars to work in specialized areas of innovation, following this June’s formation of the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator, created through a partnership between Techstars and education giant Kaplan.

Now it seems hardware that connects with services and apps are fashionable among startups again. The R/GA Connected Devices Accelerator, based out of R/GA’s New York campus, plans to draw upon the agency’s knowledge in design, marketing, and product development, says Stephen Plumlee, its chief operating officer.

The application period began on Aug. 19 and will continue until Oct. 11. Startups that make the cut will be notified in November with the actual program to commence in December, Plumlee says.

It is not hard to imagine why R/GA and Techstars wanted in on the flourishing connected devices segment. Many consumers already use or own gadgets—including smartphones, home appliances, and even cars—that link to data, run software, and provide services across mobile and Web networks.

“The timing for an accelerator is perfect given our history,” Plumlee says. He believes R/GA can offer startups some know-how in design and technology. For example, he says the agency worked with Nike on its FuelBand physical activity tracking device. The agency’s prototyping studio in New York, Plumlee says, can also be a resource for the startups in the program.

The accelerator will be home to 10 startups that will refine their innovations over three months. The teams may each receive up to $120,000 in funding from Techstars, in exchange for equity in the companies. The startups will also have access to 3D printers from Makerbot Industries and other equipment to develop prototypes, Plumlee says.

A new wrinkle: Next March the companies will present their work at the 2014 SXSW (South by Southwest) Interactive festival in Austin, TX, with a demo day to follow a couple weeks later in New York.

Picking a digital marketing agency to be a core part of this accelerator at first sounds odd but it starts to make sense when Nick Coronges, vice president of technology and strategy with R/GA, explains certain issues large companies and startups both can face with connected devices. With many different options (via Web and mobile) available to interact with customers, companies want to create cohesive experiences regardless of the means and which device is used, Coronges says. “Startups are faced with the same problem,” he says. “It requires not only a broad technical skill set to solve those connection issues but also requires a different way of thinking about experience design.”

Furthermore, working with physical products can be difficult for some startups, Coronges says. Development of a quick prototype and even a short production run on the prototype are only the start of process. “One of the big challenges they face is how to get a product designed for manufacturability,” he says.

Through the new accelerator, Plumlee says, the startups may have the chance to connect with his agency’s clients, which include Google, Microsoft, Nike, and Nokia. Mentors, drawn from companies such as Synapse, based in Seattle, and Astro Studios in San Francisco, will also offer their insight on product development and user experience. Though the aim is to foster innovation for connected devices, the applying startups do not have to be gadget creators. Companies developing ideas for services and communication affiliated with connected devices are also welcome to apply.

“This not going to be a hardcore, hardware accelerator,” Plumlee says.

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