Big D’s VentureSpur Targets Innovation in Retail & Restaurants

The VentureSpur accelerator in Dallas aims to make itself the destination of innovation that reflects the city’s overall economy: retail and restaurants.

It makes sense when you’re located in the home of retailers ranging from luxury peddler Neiman Marcus to more down-market JCPenney, as well as food chains like Brinker International Restaurants, which has Chili’s Grill & Bar, and the Dave & Buster’s chain.

David Matthews, VentureSpur’s managing director and co-founder, told me in a recent interview that technology has created a lot of disruption in the retail industry in the last decade—notably increasing the share of shopping done online. Such creative destruction, he adds, is fertile ground for entrepreneurs. “I became a believer in vertical market focus for all accelerators not named Techstars,” he says.

To that end, VentureSpur has been transitioning this year to shift from being a broadly focused program to one that concentrates exclusively on startups tied to the retail and restaurant industries.

The accelerator’s pivot is among the latest of similar approaches taken by other startup groups also seeking to help companies in a particular niche. Three years ago, Houston’s Surge Accelerator was founded to focus on startups that use software to address business opportunities in energy and water.

In Austin, Incubation Station was founded two years ago for young companies working in the consumer goods arena. In other parts of the country, there are accelerators like The Brandery in Cleveland and AccelFoods in New York that emphasize particular sectors.

“Having a vertical focus gives the entrepreneurs a lot of connections” within that sector, Matthews says. “For the accelerator, it’s the ability to focus on the hair-on-fire issues affecting the industry.”

VentureSpur’s most recent class, which graduated from the three-month program in November, attracted startups from next door in Mexico as well as China and Argentina. As is typical in these programs, the accelerator takes an equity cut, in this case 10 percent, in exchange for a $30,000 investment.

Of that class, [email protected] and Hostspot have done beta projects with HobbyTown USA, while 5 Million Shoppers has done a pilot with Neiman Marcus.

VentureSpur’s growth complements an expanding e-retail sector in Dallas. Among them is Need, an online men’s shop that offers a monthly collection of clothes and accessories. The startup last month announced it was adding a second line called Foremost. Meanwhile, Mizzen+Main, a seller of moisture-wicking, wrinkle-free “performance” dress shirts for men, raised $1.2 million in August.

VentureSpur, which is funded by Dallas-based venture firm Trailblazer Capital, started two years ago in Oklahoma City, OK. In 2013, the accelerator opened a Dallas branch. In April, the two formally split into LaunchOklahoma and VentureSpur in Dallas.

At the very least, the accelerator’s specialization in retail and restaurant startups has given Matthews and his team a little more insight into what their entrepreneurs go through in refining their target market. “All the pains that startups have, we’ve experienced in our ‘startup,’” he says. “We changed where we are, who we are, how we thought about attracting applicants. This past year has been like starting over from scratch.”

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