Rice’s OwlSpark Creates Network of University-based Accelerators

Accelerators help startups succeed by leveraging their networks of successful entrepreneurs and investors, whose advice can be catalysts for growth.

Now, Rice University’s OwlSpark accelerator wants to create its own network, one that can help make it—and other university programs—better at boosting student-run startups.

“We plan to create a comprehensive database of university accelerators and invite these programs to join as founding members,” says Kerri Smith, managing director of OwlSpark. “The group would meet annually to share best practices, lessons learned, and network.”

Last summer, OwlSpark debuted its first class of nine startups. They included a healthtech company that can assess a patient’s condition in real time, a startup hoping to maximize parking options around Houston, and another helping people monitor their alcohol consumption at Friday’s happy hour.

As the accelerator begins putting together its second class, Smith says she wants more interaction with OwlSpark’s peers at other universities. For this, OwlSpark is working to create the National University Accelerator Network, a group of university-sponsored programs similar to OwlSpark.

To do this, Rice has received a $50,000 grant from the New York-based Blackstone Charitable Foundation, which is sponsoring a $50 million “Entrepreneurship Initiative” aimed at creating entrepreneurial ecosystems around the world. The foundation is run by the global investment and advisory firm Blackstone (NYSE: BX.)

Smith says membership in the national network of accelerators will be open to all university-based accelerator programs globally. She added that she expects their first meeting will be held in October along with the annual meeting of the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers.

Unlike for-profit accelerators, Smith says universities often don’t have funds to invest in companies. Instead, the programs raise grants and sponsorships in order to support student entrepreneurs. I had an e-mail chat with Smith earlier this week to find out more about the effort. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Xconomy: What was the inspiration to creating a university accelerator network?

Kerri Smith: While there are existing networks of business incubators and for-profit accelerators, we are not aware of any current mechanism that effectively links non-profit, university-based, startup accelerator programs.

X: What specific challenges do you believe university accelerators have that for-profit ones don’t?

K.S.: University-based accelerators face unique issues in terms of the populations they serve, which are typically student-based or university-affiliated startups. Those issues include investor engagement, community engagement, founder retention, space allocation, and financial sustainability. We’re hoping this new network will help address those challenges and present opportunities for creative solutions.

X: How is Blackstone involved with accelerators?

K.S.: The Blackstone Charitable Foundation was founded in 2007 with a mission to globally foster entrepreneurship. They want to build an elite global network of master coaches and entrepreneurial support for aspiring entrepreneurs, and in turn, high-growth businesses and industries that are most known to spark economic growth.

Each year, the foundation makes a series of targeted grants to entrepreneurial organizations that spread the ideals of entrepreneurship and benefit local communities. In coordination with its regional efforts to spur entrepreneurship around the country and the world, the foundation is creating a national and global network in which participating organizations can share best practices, methodologies, and contacts, and are connected with Blackstone’s intellectual capital and resources.

X: What will you do with the funding from Blackstone?

K.S.: OwlSpark plans to establish the National University Accelerator Network, whose purpose is to share best practices and processes, and link university-based entrepreneurial startups as well as mentor and investor networks affiliated with university accelerator programs.

We plan to create a comprehensive database of university accelerators and invite these programs to join as founding members. Rather than recreate the network from scratch, the network will leverage the existing 200-plus universities who are members of the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers and expand upon this group by identifying other universities that also host accelerator programs.

X: Will you be heading this organization? Is it based in Houston at Rice?

K.S.: At the end of year one, we expect to have launched the network with at least 50 university-based accelerators and completed the first annual conference. Rice University and OwlSpark will lead this initiative, but plan to create a steering committee to lead future initiatives.

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