Houston’s RedLabs Creates Prep Program for New Summer Accelerator

Opinion

At RedLabs, we found that having an accelerator isn’t enough to support student entrepreneurs.

A brief background: The University of Houston founded RedLabs in 2012 to serve as the hub for technology entrepreneurship by helping students either launch startups or encourage them to join startups as early employees.  Our first class joined the accelerator last spring. Six companies were formed, including students from diverse backgrounds: computer science, entrepreneurship, supply chain, petroleum engineering, and management information systems. Their ideas included a web/mobile app that could “fling” content to smart TVs, a video-sharing platform for military veterans, and a mobile app that would help landlords and tenants streamline communication. Students worked on campus from February to May, fueled by unlimited ramen noodles and coffee. At the end of the semester, we hosted the six startups in a demo day that attracted a standing-room-only crowd.

After the program ended in May, some of our student founders continued working on their ventures, while others joined startups as early employees. Inevitably, a few of them also decided that their startup would not be sustainable in its current form and moved on to the corporate world.

Since then, my colleagues and I have focused on two things: How to reach more prospective entrepreneurs—always a challenge in a university with 40,000 students—and how to make the program better, based on our first year’s experience. We found that hosting RedLabs during a period that overlapped with the spring semester wasn’t ideal because, ultimately, students have already committed much of their time to coursework, and as a result, they couldn’t dedicate as much time to building their startup as was needed.

We realized that, to make the most of the three-month accelerator experience, we had to create a preparatory program that would help students get the most out of the accelerator, which would be shifted to summer.

This program would help students overcome the obstacles that we saw stymie them during the program’s first year, and expose them to questions that are typically introduced in the first few weeks of an accelerator’s curriculum—how to develop a business model, testing assumptions, and really understanding their customer and the market problem they’re trying to solve. By doing so, students that enter the summer accelerator will have a common knowledge base ready for what needs to be done during the summer and, so, can focus more on execution rather than absorbing teaching material and listening to guest speakers.

The pre-accelerator has a structure similar to a college course: a block of time every week dedicated to a curriculum: classwork; homework; and final deliverables such as a report on their prospective market, a preliminary business model, and a final pitch that is due at the end of the semester. Their performance in the preparatory program will determine their acceptance into the summer accelerator. However, we are also willing to accept student companies that may not have gone throughout the preparatory program but are already at a stage that complements the other companies entering the summer accelerator.

Having completed the pre-accelerator, students can begin the summer program on somewhat of an even playing field. Having done the preparatory work, they can pursue, full-time, key steps to building a prototype and a company: Landing pilots with customers, building a marketable product, and developing a go-to-market strategy that makes sense. Throughout both the pre-accelerator and summer accelerator, they’ll receive guidance from our mentor network, which has doubled since the conclusion of our last class and continues to grow steadily.

Some students may decide, after the pre-accelerator program, that they and their startup idea aren’t ready for a full commitment in the summer accelerator. In these cases, the pre-accelerator experience gives students the opportunity to quickly fail and learn how to start testing the viability of an idea before committing significant resources— an important skill for startup founders and employees. We believe that the pre-accelerator experience will make these students stellar candidates for startups that are seeking early employees because they will understand the culture and expectations in a startup, which are radically different from the corporate culture that is often taught in university classes.

Starting a company while in college is an immensely rewarding experience that could fundamentally change a student’s career path. At RedLabs, we believe that we’re helping build the next generation of tech entrepreneurs in Houston. With the new combination of the preparatory program and summer accelerator, we’re one significant step closer to getting there.

Hesam Panahi is the founder of RedLabs, the accelerator at the University of Houston and a clinical assistant professor in the Bauer College of Business at the university. Follow @hesam

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