5 Questions with Keith Camhi, Managing Director of Techstars Washington DC Powered by J.P. Morgan

Mar 28, 2022

Keith is the Managing Director of the Techstars Washington DC Accelerator Powered by J.P. Morgan. He is also the MD of the Techstars Future of Longevity Accelerator, run in partnership with Melinda French Gates’ Pivotal Ventures. Previously, Keith led Techstars’ global accelerator team as Senior Vice President of Accelerators.

Prior to Techstars, Keith founded and led the rapid growth of FitLinxx (reaching #20 on the Deloitte Fast 500) and Great Play (ranking on Entrepreneur 500 list 3x). He has raised over $50 million in venture funding, holds several patents for sensor and machine vision applications, and loves helping and investing in entrepreneurs who are solving big problems. He received a BS in Computer Science from Cornell, and was an LGO Fellow at MIT, where he received an MBA and an MS in EECS.

01. What brought you to Techstars, and what motivated you to move from your position as Sr. VP of Accelerators to Managing Director?

After a long career as an entrepreneur myself, I had transitioned to advising and investing in startups. I was drawn to Techstars based on its unmatched global network for helping entrepreneurs succeed, and the shared inspiration that entrepreneurs can change the world and create a better future, and that the odds of that happening go up dramatically with good support and mentorship.

I also felt that Techstars’ approach to investing and supporting startups globally at scale, but doing it in small nodes of 10-12 companies per class, was the best of both worlds.  Founders benefit from the connectivity to and support from the global network, and also get close personal attention from a local managing director, program team, and a curated set of mentors.  It allows Techstars to support a wide range of local and vertical startup ecosystems around the world. 

This resonated with me as both of my startups had been rollouts, and, at the time, Techstars was looking for help managing its growing footprint of accelerators.  I first managed our accelerators in Americas East and then ultimately worldwide as SVP of Accelerators.  It was an extraordinary few years of getting to lead our remarkable team of managing directors, program teams and accelerator programs around the globe.  

Regarding moving from SVP to MD, managing our global team was a wonderful experience and I learned so much from the team (now my global peer group) and got to know our incredible network of startup ecosystems around the world. Ultimately, my favorite part of Techstars though is our ability to help entrepreneurs succeed, and I enjoy spending my time rolling up my sleeves and doing that. 

When the opportunity arose a year ago to lead our DC-based Future of Longevity Accelerator in partnership with Melinda French Gates’s Pivotal Ventures, I had to leave the dean’s office for the classroom.  That program has seen extraordinary early success, and now I’m overjoyed to be able to expand our work and bring much more capacity for additional entrepreneurs in other fields to benefit from Techstars in DC, which is an extraordinary, thriving, and diverse innovation and startup hub.

02. What are you looking for in startups for this program, and what’s unique about Washington DC?

Generally, I seek entrepreneurs who are creative, strong executors, and resilient, have unique insight into the problem they’re addressing, and are passionately motivated to solve it. These entrepreneurs are able to communicate effectively so they can enlist others (customers, teammates, partners, investors) in their vision, tend to have diverse teams, and are interested in receiving and applying feedback (both because it’s a generally good founder trait and specifically because it shows that an accelerator would be a mutually rewarding experience).

For this program, we’re seeking startups that can benefit from tapping into the unique strengths of DC’s innovation and startup ecosystem. DC is a top market for educating tech talent; it has a highly diverse population and a focus on embracing and supporting diversity; it’s a hub for policy making both nationally and worldwide (making it an ideal location for startups in various regulated industries); and it’s a hub for activity in the cybersecurity and Web3 space.   

Startups in sectors that can leverage one or more of these strengths will have a substantial advantage by tapping into the rich base of mentors, investors, and talent we have in DC.  Sector focuses include: Health (longevity, digital health, medtech, caregiving, fitness and wellness), Education (learning management, distance learning, and digital workforce training), Finance (fintech, digital currency, and regulatory), Government (govtech, fedtech, and civic tech), and more.  If you have a solution that can benefit from the inherent strengths of the DC ecosystem, that addresses underserved markets, and/or improves equity and access, this program could be for you.

These strengths also caused Techstars and Pivotal Ventures to select DC as an ideal location for the Longevity accelerator as well, both as a vibrant and growing entrepreneurial ecosystem and as a hub of activity for the longevity economy including public interest groups, federal policy and research institutions, and medical research and healthcare organizations.

03. Why do you focus on diversity as an investor and how?  

I focus on creating an equitable and inclusive environment in which diverse teams flourish, and I do this both for business reasons and from personal history.

From a business standpoint, it’s pretty straightforward: talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.  That creates both an imperative to help address this gap, and a massive underserved investment opportunity for doing so. On a more personal level, fighting inequality has been core to my DNA since childhood, both from the diverse town I grew up in, and from the modeling of family. Allyship (a term I heard later on) has been organic to me throughout my life and career, and having diverse teams has always been an asset for the success of my own businesses. 

In my former SVP role at Techstars, I led efforts to diversify both our accelerator management and the founders that our programs supported.  I’m delighted to be able to do that with our growing footprint of accelerators in DC as well.  

At the highest level, the approach is also fairly straightforward: we cast a wide net in search of great startups then run a transparent and equitable process to select the best founders, and it turns out that under those circumstances, talent rises to the top and that talent happens to be diverse.

04. What are some of the biggest learnings from your career and entrepreneurial journey that you bring to being a Techstars Managing Director and supporting entrepreneurs?

I consistently find that upstart Davids can beat entrenched Goliaths if they are scrappy, customer obsessed, fast, and execution-focused. There are many details such as overcoming tech hurdles, focusing the product through rapid customer-centric iteration, selecting a focused go-to-market approach, identifying and tracking KPIs, managing cofounder relationships, building culture, raising capital, etc, that contribute to this. But ultimately, what Davids lack in resources they can more than make up for with speed, agility, and simply playing by different rules than Goliaths. 

I bring decades of startup experience and a coach’s mindset to my role as managing director. A couple of companies ago, I had an incredible VC board member who seemed like Yoda to me. He’d sit quietly and patiently through an extended back-and-forth board debate over a seemingly complicated strategic issue, and then offer some jewel of wisdom that helped us pick a path forward. With the benefit of a couple decades of hindsight, I now recognize this ability to “see around corners” as pattern recognition from his years of experience - or, “I’ve seen this movie before and I know how it ends.” While I’m no Yoda, after many years of starting and growing my own businesses, and investing in and advising countless others, I’ve seen a lot of “movies.” I love helping entrepreneurs think through their next moves, and, more importantly, bringing the resources of the accelerator and network of expert mentors to bear on that as well.

05. What does our partner J.P. Morgan bring to the accelerator?

Startups face challenges at every stage. However, financial challenges can abruptly end a startup’s vision for their product, team, or growth. J.P. Morgan has the expertise, financial solutions, and network to support the disruptors of today and leaders of tomorrow. This program represents Techstars and J.P. Morgan’s belief that diversity and inclusion are the catalysts of innovation and growth. In supporting early-stage startups, J.P. Morgan believes it can help build a future with stronger companies led by underrepresented, diverse founders.

For J.P. Morgan, it’s about changing the entire ecosystem because while talent is distributed equally, opportunity is not. Backing diverse founders leads to a reinvestment in their communities and expanding access for others. J.P. Morgan has made longstanding, large-scale investments in cities to support local initiatives, entrepreneurs, and the environment with over $30 billion committed to advancing racial equity in 2020 and $2.5 trillion towards green initiatives by 2030.

J.P. Morgan’s partnership with Techstars shows their commitment to supporting inclusive accelerators that create opportunities for diverse, early-stage founders. As a part of this partnership, J.P. Morgan will offer an integrated suite of services to founders in this accelerator that extend beyond the 13-week program. This includes, but is not limited to, access to banking, wealth management, and advisory solutions accessible through their local and commercial banking specialists.

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