San Antonio’s Geekdom Fund Aims to “Pre-Seed” Tech Entrepreneurs
Austin gets a lot of the startup spotlight in these parts, especially as the spring brings in the hordes of South By Southwest. But about an hour south, in San Antonio, boosters are working more quietly on a number of programs to kick-start entrepreneurship in South Texas.
Among those efforts is Geekdom, an Alamo City-based co-working space, which was started by Rackspace founder Graham Weston in late 2011 to be a centralized hub of startup activity in the city.
Rackspace, the San Antonio cloud-hosting company, along with its founders and employees, loom large in entrepreneurial efforts in the city. Before Techstars shifted its Texas location to Austin last year, the Boulder, CO-based program ran its cloud accelerator out of Geekdom. And the San Antonio co-working space is also host to the San Antonio Mx Challenge, the first offshoot of the HeroX competition started last year by Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the XPrize Foundation. The contest encourages entrepreneurs to use business and cultural ties between San Antonio and Mexico to convince Mexican IT startups to expand into South Texas.
Two years ago, Geekdom launched its namesake Geekdom Fund, for which tech startups apply monthly for the chance to receive $25,000. To apply, the companies must be members of Geekdom. In return, Geekdom takes a 6 percent interest in the company. The review board will next meet on Thursday to evaluate the latest batch of applicants.
The review board meets monthly to evaluate up to six proposals. The members do not have to approval any of the applications but the entrepreneurs are evaluated based on a first-come, first-served basis, says Cole Wollak, who runs the fund.
“We take up to six teams max,” Wollak says. “If there are five awesome teams, we’d do five. Most of the time, we’re funding in one meeting, two companies.”
The Geekdom fund does not offer formal programming or mentorship sessions like Techstars or Capital Factory. Wollak says the fund tries to create a collaborative community among entrepreneurs. “Geekdom is really just space and infrastructure where things can happen and the people in the ecosystem make it what it is,” he added.
After growing up in Saudi Arabia, Wollak came to San Antonio to attend Trinity University and joined Geekdom at its founding four years later. While studying for his degree in engineering sciences, he became active in the entrepreneurial community, both on campus and within the city at large.
I spoke with Wollak about his goals for the fund, the sorts of startups they are investing in, and his own entrepreneurial ambitions. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Xconomy: Tell me about the Geekdom Fund.
Cole Wollak: The Geekdom Fund started two years ago. We actually have two funds and each fund raised $200,000 for $25,000 investments each. We’re similar to Capital Factory [in Austin] but more focused on co-working space. We don’t have an accelerator track at Geekdom. I’m not sure if we’ll have another cloud program here, now that Techstars is in Austin. The fund is a source of pre-seed money, to push people over the fence to work on their startups in a full-time capacity instead of moonlighting it. We also think the fund is a bit of a stamp of approval for some San Antonio companies. It makes bringing in other investors a little easier; it gives them some pre-validation.
The process is a monthly application. Once a month, a review board will look at applications. The board isn’t those who put in the money; they are C-level executives at Rackspace who want to back companies. We have angel investors or startup executives review the applications. There is 10 minutes of Q&A for teams that have applied for funding.
X: How many companies have received investments?
CW: We have invested in 14 companies, enabling them to work on their ideas. I highly doubt that that would have happened if the fund didn’t exist. We’ve had a part in [helping] 14 more San Antonio startups be more active. Among our portfolio, they’ve raised more than $1.5 million beyond what Geekdom has put into their companies. This means these companies are continuing on and building a community.
X: Are there specific sectors you are targeting, or just that they be based in San Antonio?
CW: The main criteria is that they are San Antonio startups. The fund is there to cultivate and promote the San Antonio ecosystem. We don’t focus on any specific vertical. Recently, we added a review board member in the medtech space so we started to see a few medtech companies apply.
X: Tell me about the notable companies you’ve funded?
CW: One of the companies is called ParLevel Systems, which makes vending-machine inventory management software and hardware. They were part of Techstars Cloud’s second-year class. They’ve since gone on to raise about $1 million. Another is SportyBird, which has developed software for soccer coaches related to team organization tools and game stats.
X: How did you get involved with Geekdom? Tell me about your background in startups?
CW: I became really interested in entrepreneurship and business at Trinity. I started to get involved in three-day startup programs—the first one in San Antonio—and I helped run others after that. That’s where I met Jason Seats [the current head of Techstars Austin who used to lead Techstars Cloud in San Antonio]. I also run two other events: I co-organize San Antonio New Tech Meetup and San Antonio Pitch.
With my engineering background, I still have that itch for the technical side of stuff. I and two or three other co-founders are going to start a company related to 3-D imaging, a 3-D camera for medical applications.