Interview with John Geyer, CEO of MetLife Digital Ventures

This interview originally appeared in a report from Innovation Leader, sponsored by Techstars, “Startup Engagement: Best Practices for Large Organizations.” Read the complete report here

In January 2018, John Geyer took on an expanded role at MetLife, the Manhattan-based insurer: CEO of MetLife Digital Ventures, overseeing direct investments into startups as well as a new startup accelerator run in North Carolina, where the company has a technology campus. Geyer is also MetLife’s Chief Innovation Officer. We spoke with him about how he works with colleagues to understand new capabilities they need; how the company works with venture capital firms; and a new program modeled after E-ZPass, intended to enable MetLife to launch pilot tests and proof-of-concepts more quickly.

Making the Case

One of the four pillars of our enterprise strategy is operational excellence, and under that is a sub-pillar called external orientation. Leadership takes that seriously. It could be a customer orientation, and really understanding and having empathy for the customer. It could be orientation around competitors and the industry. And it could also be around what the next generation of capabilities will be…

The drumbeat of external orientation has been going on for a number of years, and it is now an embedded expectation in our leadership team that when you think through opportunities and challenges, you’re doing it with an external orientation.

Bringing the Business In

We interview 100-plus leaders across MetLife each year and ask them, “What capabilities would give you strategic advantage?” We do it with claims people, salespeople, underwriting people, and product people. We collect their requirements, and we share them with the VC firms and say, “Here are the things that our businesspeople are looking for. Whaddaya got?” They’ll make intros [to startups they have invested in], and my team will work with an internal group to drive proof-of-concepts to see if those emerging capabilities [can help our business].

We’ve driven more than 100 proof of concepts over the last four years, and about 30 of those have turned into commercial agreements.

In our vernacular, a pilot is when you put [something] in front of customers. A POC is proving it out within the company. Some things might be internal tools for us, like a cyber tool that can strengthen our environment. For that, we’ll do a POC to validate it.

Our Venture Capital Strategy

When it comes to startups, we made a decision as an enterprise over ten years ago that we were going to invest in the venture capital firms themselves as part of our overall investment portfolio. We invest hundreds of billions of our customers’ money so that we can pay them back when we need to. Most is invested very conservatively, but we have taken a small portion and put it into alternative investments like hedge funds, private equity, and venture capital. Today we have north of $1 billion invested in 17 of the leading venture capital firms…so that gives us a unique vantage point [about] where the markets are going, and where innovation is going.

A next evolutionary step [that] we’ve taken is that very often, one or more of these 17 venture capital firms will come to us and say, “We’ve come across this company, and we think it’s particularly strategically relevant to you.” In the past, we’d say, “We really don’t do that type of direct investing.” We didn’t spin up an internal corporate VC group [to source] deals or lead deals. But we have freed up $100 million so that when those opportunities come our way, we can participate alongside of our VC partners. The only circumstance where we’d make a co-investment is if we believe that the capability that the company has is strategically relevant to MetLife, and can create new forms of customer value. An example of that last year was Enigma, [a startup focused on extracting intelligence from data].

Launching a New Accelerator

Last year, we announced that we had entered into an agreement with Techstars to create the MetLife Digital Accelerator, powered by Techstars. They’ve been around for years, and have had a track record of success…

The term accelerator has taken on lots of different definitions and meanings. When we really looked beneath the covers of Y Combinator, and 500 Startups, and the regional ones, many of them are just about, “Hey, startups, join our network and we’ll provide you some informal coaching, plus a little seed capital.” What we liked about Techstars is it is…a defined, 13-week intensive program, where the founders have to co-locate on your campus. That’s unique and powerful, and it explains a lot of the success they’ve had. … We dedicate MetLife people from all over the company to be mentors—people that range from product to channel to operations, claims, strategy, technology…

We ran our first program with them in Cary, N.C. last fall, and graduated 10 companies. We’re recruiting 10 companies for this year’s accelerator. [Techstars] believes that each one gets better. It’s not the kind of thing you do once, declare victory, and go home.

… In the most recent accelerator, we had a range of companies [at various stages of product maturity]. A couple were really concepts that just needed to be fleshed out. Some had a very primitive minimum viable product, but three or four had a product you could put in front of customers. All of that is interesting to us. The earlier we can get in, and help shape it and direct it towards the needs of our customers, the better.

From the accelerator, we are looking to pilot in some way…with six of the ten companies that participated.

Innovation Starts in Labs and Universities

Innovation is a chain, and it starts very early with invention in labs and universities, where you have students creating new capabilities, but not necessarily thinking about commercialization. We have a very strategic partnership with the MIT Media Lab…

Some Startup Engagement Examples

We have worked with a company called Captricity [now known as Vidado], which does optical character recognition on steroids. Their technology ingests documents, even handwritten documents, with an accuracy rate that in many ways exceeds human capabilities. And in our business, there are a fair amount of paper documents still, when you’re dealing with doctors and dental records. We’re implementing it all over the company now very successfully.

Enroll Hero is a startup from our accelerator. Our mission is to help people navigate life, particularly during difficult times. When people are getting ready to retire and choosing a Medicare plan, it can be complicated and overwhelming. Enroll Hero allows you to enter profile information about yourself. It has all of the details of the different plans and options, and it presents the plan best-suited for your needs, [taking into account] your age and health and state. We piloted it with some MetLife customers, and we were very surprised at the take-up rate…

Measuring Value

From the very beginning, we looked at measuring success through two lenses. One is activity, and one is results. Often, people say, “My company only cares about results; activity is bad.” But in the world of innovation, if you don’t drive the right activities, you don’t get the right results.

For us, an activity would be saying, “We’re going to interview 120 people this year, and identify 25 POCs or pilots, and enter into 8 or 10 contracts this year. We also run internal innovation programs, like brainstorming sessions and facilitated sessions. So we keep track of how many associates we engaged, and how many managers we trained. Those are all activities.

[Results include things like] how much growth we generated, or how much efficiency. Did we improve associate engagement or enhance the customer experience. Those four measures are the four categories we measure to judge the success of the program.

Moving Faster

One of the things that has frustrated the startups and the VC world for decades is how slow large companies move when it comes to pilots and POCs. It is really the Achille’s heel…

We wanted to create an effort called Pilot E-ZPass—it became known as Pilot Onboard Process. We met with the people across MetLife in procurement, legal, regulatory, architecture—all of the different constituencies who have a say when a vendor comes in. We said, “We want an E-ZPass system for these small vendors that isn’t weighted down by bureaucracy. Everyone bought in. We rolled it out last year. [It covers both pilots and proof-of-concepts.]

From the beginning, we said we wanted it to be less than a month [to get a pilot or proof-of-concept approved]. If it’s less than a month, it’s good. It took quite a while to bring everyone along, because you want to protect the corporation. We had to really educate them about what were trying to accomplish—that we were not trying to do end-runs around important provisions of contracts. I would say it took probably a year from when we conceived of doing it to when it was fully implemented. But the first half of it was introductory meetings and selling. The last half was creating documents and getting decision rights clear.

Vita Inclinata Rings the Nasdaq Bell!

This morning, July 3, 2019, Vita Inclinata rang the opening Nasdaq bell as winners of the 2019 Rice University Business Plan Competition. Check out CNBC’s coverage:

Vita, based in Denver and Seattle, is pioneering new, innovative hardware solutions for daily safety challenges in aerospace, construction and other dangerous industries. Vita’s first product, the Load Stability System, was created to solve the deadly swinging of helicopter hoisting and sling-load systems. They are alumni of the 2019 Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars

Vita CEO Caleb Carr was joined by Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, which hosts the annual business plan competition, Col. Randall “Laz” Gordon from AFWERX, Capt. Steven Lauver from AFWERX, Ryan Helbach from Air Force Research Lab, and Warren Katz, managing director of the Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars. 


David & Brad reflect on the first six episodes of the Give First podcast

How has the Give First podcast been going? David and Brad reflect on their initial forays into podcast hosting, and come to the conclusion that, while they’re still learning, their guests are amazing. 

With six full episodes of the Give First podcast under their belts, David Cohen and Brad Feld are of the opinion that they’ll probably need to do about 20-30 to truly hit their stride as podcast hosts. But they have nothing but praise for guests so far: Wendy Lea, Paul Berberian, Troy Henikoff, Mary Grove, T.A. McCann, and Kesha Cash.   

In this episode, David and Brad discuss what they learned from each guest, their favorite anecdotes or lessons, and how each one of these extraordinary people lives Give First in their own way. Plus David tells some more of his beloved dad jokes. 

They also offer useful advice for how to get the most out of working with an idea-a-minute person—like, for example, one of these cohosts.  

How do you think these newbie podcast hosts are doing so far? What do you think of this pause for reflection? Who would you like to hear as a guest on an upcoming episode? 

David and Brad would love to hear about what you love and what you don’t. You can email them your feedback on the Give First podcast at

Companies, people, and resources mentioned in this podcast:

Edited highlights from the conversation:

Wendy Lea talks about the risks of saying no

David: The first episode was the wonderful Miss Wendy Lee. What I remember from that show is Wendy talking about the risk of saying No. Right? You have all these opportunities and you think about the risk of saying Yes, but it’s sort of stuck with me that actually not doing something is a pretty big risk sometimes too.

Brad: I’ve known Wendy now for 20 years since I first met her when she had moved to Boulder; I think she had left she left Siebel systems by then. One of the things that’s amazing when you listen to Wendy talk is the level of humility she has with her journey, which is something else that I find really refreshing. She’s always still learning. And even when she was describing the anecdote about saying No, it almost sounded like she was relearning it again, which made me smile. I really liked it.

David: Yeah. It’s been a really fantastic to have her around Techstars, on the board for many years. And  I know I learned a lot from her too. So if you haven’t caught that episode, definitely would recommend you go check it out. 

Wendy’s seen so many different things in her career, right? She’s been in the big companies and little companies and I think her perspective is super interesting.

Brad: I think the geographic perspective is useful too because her range of experiences and where she’s really spent her time. A long tour of duty in Cincinnati with Cintrifuse and then prior to that, a bunch of time in the Bay Area. And so the ability to really get a view of entrepreneurship from multiple different startup communities is powerful. 

The other thing I’d say about the episode, since it was our first, is I’ve been reflecting as I listen to each episode. When we talked to Wendy, it was literally the very first time you and I had done a podcast together. We’ve both been on lots of podcasts, but being in the hosting shoes is a totally different thing. And as I listened to it I cringed some with our own performance and sort of our stiffness around it, and my sense that we probably have to do 20 or 30 episodes before we really hit our stride. And that’s a powerful thing to remember when you’re trying something new, even if you have had a lot of success and done a lot of different things in different contexts. And so approaching this whole podcast thing with beginner’s mind—I was reminded of that when I listened to the one we did with Wendy.

David: Exactly. I say the same thing, like the sixth one was better than the first one, but probably still not good. So we’re figuring it out. 

We do have an email address: People have been sending us feedback: do more like that or less like that. Stop telling dad jokes, Cohen, they say things like that. But you know, that’s how you learn. So hopefully we’ll keep improving it. And I agree it’s going to be 30, maybe 50, before we really get our rhythm. And I’m trying to learn from the best. Right? We’re taking some notes from Harry Stebbings and doing more research about the guests ahead of time and really getting more questions to ask them. 

We’d love more feedback at

Paul Berberian on the “addictive” nature of mentoring

David: In episode two, we had Paul Berberian, who we’ve both known for a long time, about how mentoring can really feel addictive, and what mentors and mentees really get out of it without even realizing it. And what stuck with me was hearing his stories about his dad—how his dad was an entrepreneur and he just sort of was always around that. And that resonated with me because that was the same way in my family.

Brad: Paul and I worked on the very first investment I made from the prior firm I was part of, which became called Mobius Venture Capital. It was a company called Raindance.  So we both got to work together at the beginning of our journey. We were both working together today on Paul’s company, Sphero, which is Techstars company. One of the things that’s been interesting about Paul and my own experience with them working together is it’s the epitome for me of peer mentorship.

I feel like over the years I’ve learned as much from Paul as I imagined that he’s learned from me. And I can’t actually say what he’s learned from me. He’d have to be the one that says what he’d learned. But he sort of brings that across well in the podcast. He’s still an entrepreneur who is learning a lot from other mentors around him. But at the same time he provides extraordinary mentorship back. And as you get to that place where you’ve worked together for a very long time, the mentor relationship changes and it’s not mentor, mentee, but it’s just pure mentorship where you’re both interacting with each other and learning from each other on this journey through life.

David: That journey, you never know where it’s going to take you. You know, I’m fortunate enough to work with Paul also, and I talked to him for an hour yesterday. He’s an idea-a-minute guy, right? He has lots of new ideas all the time. I know you have that. I have some of that affliction as well. 

T.A. McCann on how sailing in the America’s Cup is like running a startup

David: As we got to T.A. in a later episode, T.A. McCann talked a lot about how he deals with an idea a minute and his ITINDY system. That episode was really cool, talking about sailing and what he learned from sailing, and how that influenced his thinking about being an entrepreneur. It was just really fascinating to me.

Brad: T.A. and I ran the Madison Marathon together, I don’t know, four or five years ago. It was through the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus, and it was maybe a third or a half marathon. That was where T.A. trained—he’s a swimmer and trained for a bunch of time. And I think we spent most of the four and a half hours of the marathon talking. Talking about sailing, swimming, training, discipline—the dynamics around these big goals that you have far in the future, but all the ups and downs that it takes to get you there, including the successes and failures instantiated along the way as an entrepreneur and as an investor. 

My own experience with T.A. is watching him in this very, very long view, steady, deliberate step after step after step frame without being resistant to all of the different things that come at you, which really comes out when he talks about the experience with sailing, because who the hell knows what’s going to happen? Right? It’s just crazy minute to minute. And the parallel to entrepreneurship in a lot of ways is very, very similar.

David: If you didn’t get a chance to check that one out there’s some great stories about some famous people, including severed thumbs. Yeah, I wouldn’t miss it if I were you.  

You know, the thing that T.A. blogged about that he mentioned in the show, the ITINDY—he said, Greg Gottesman, who he works with at Pioneer Square Labs, is the idea-a-minute guy. I said, yeah, I’ve got one of those guys in my world. It might be my cohost. And he has this system: ITINDY. I had never heard of it, but it’s on T.A.’s blog and it’s Important Things I’m Not Doing Yet. Meaning I want to do it someday. Have you seen that system elsewhere, and how do you recommend people deal with so many ideas?

Brad: Well, I do know T.A.’s ITINDY thing. He had to deal with me also as his investor in a company called Gist, and I have the same affliction, which is a large number of ideas all the time about different things. I have my own approach to them. It’s different than “strong opinions, loosely held,” which I think is a terrible phrase. I wrote a blog post about this recently. It’s a very different problem when you have lots of ideas, because what you’re doing when you have lots of ideas that you’re giving other people data. If you’re not being discriminating about the data that you’re giving them, it’s up to them to some degree how to prioritize them. 

People who are really good at dealing with people like Greg or me, sort of on the receiving end of those ideas, know two things. One is that it’s up to them to prioritize, which means that there’s an awful lot of things they can toss by the wayside. The other is that the vast majority of the ideas aren’t good ones. They’re ideas. They’re not assertions, they’re not truths, they’re not facts, they’re just ideas. They need to figure out how to listen to the ideas from your partner, who’s an idea-a-minute partner, or your colleague or your investor or whomever, and process it. Not toss it all away, because then you’re going to miss some absolute total gems, but at the same time not stifle or try to control it. Because the idea-a-minute person—if you say, look, I can only get one idea from you today, so I’ll pick the best idea. That doesn’t work either because then the idea-a-minute person just shuts down, and he goes and find some other place for his ideas. So I think T.A.’s approach is a really good one and it’s a good example of self management.

David: I find a lot of times that with you and our relationship, most of the ideas actually are really good. It’s just impossible to keep up with all of them. And a lot of times what happens by just capturing them and thinking about them is that you end up with a higher level concept: some idea that’s an amalgamation of all the other things.  And that those can be really powerful because you’re kind of getting at the intersection of lots of great ideas.

Brad: I think that’s well said. 

Something T.A. said to me at the very beginning of our relationship. I can’t remember if it was in the first couple of months after I made the investment, but he said something akin to: Hey Brad, I appreciate all this product feedback you’re giving me. He has a wonderful story about how we still hadn’t invested but it was just before Christmas and he had just turned me on to the latest build of Gist. And on Christmas Day I sent him like 15 emails with products, feedback. And I think it still amuses to this day. I explained to him that as an oppressed Jewish kid who never had Christmas, what I prefer to do is play with software on Christmas day when everybody else is opening presents, because that’s a really joyful thing for me to do.

And he asked me, he said: You’re giving me all this product feedback. What do you expect me to do with it? Do you want me to prioritize it? Is it important to you? How do you think about it? And I said, I’m just giving it to you. It’s stuff I see. It’s up to you to do whatever you want with it, and you’re the CEO. I trust you as a CEO to do whatever you want with it. If you don’t want me to send it to you, or you want me to send it to somebody else because it’s distracting you, just tell me where to send it. Do you want me to put in a database? I’ll put in a database. If you want me to not do it anymore, I’ll go play with somebody else’s software.

It’s that kind of approach. I think that reflects more on T.A. than on me. Early in the relationship, he came at me and said, Help me define how you want this to work so that I, T.A., understand what your, Brad’s, goals are, so that I, T.A., CEO, can then be more effective dealing with your goals. It didn’t put him in a one up or one down relationship with me, but it took control of the interaction so that he could get the best use and the best information from it.

David: Love it. Sounds familiar on some level. 

Mary Grove on the origins of Google for Startups & Startup Weekend

David: In episode four, Brad, you spent a bunch of time with Mary Grove. You’ve spent a bunch of time in your career with Mary as well. She’s now at the Rise of the Rest fund.  We talked about the power of entrepreneurship globally, growing that through Google for Entrepreneurs. I know you’ve had a really long experience with her. I’ve worked with her more recently on the Techstars Foundation and found her to be hugely additive. What were your biggest takeaways from talking to Mary?

Brad: Well, for those people out there that are fans of Startup Communities and follow the work that I’ve done with the book and subsequently the work that Techstars has done, both with startup communities and around ecosystem development, there are probably 30 or 40 people that have really influenced my thinking over the last decade on this. And Mary is near the top of the list. It’s not from huge amounts of time spent together going deep intellectually on things, but rather from observing what she has done and how she has done it, specifically in Google and around Google for Entrepreneurs. I’ve talked for a long time over the last six or seven years to people about how large corporations, tech and otherwise, can be helpful in the context of startup communities. And in 2012 when I wrote Startup Communities, I had some ideas about it that I’d say were early.

I think Techstars—through all the work that David, you’ve done, that David Brown’s done, that the leadership team of Techstars has done in all the various accelerators that we’ve done with different corporate partners—has really advanced that thinking for me. But I often go back to thinking about Mary and the context of what she did with Google for Entrepreneurs. And when I’m trying to explain to someone in a large corporation how to think about their company—overlapping with entrepreneurs and how they can be helpful and supportive and entrepreneurs-centric, but entrepreneurs-centric against the backdrop of their large organization’s goals—I often use examples that come out of things that I either observed, saw, or experienced that Mary had done and Mary and her team had done at Google for Entrepreneurs.

David: In listening to that show, one thing I remember being struck by is the gratefulness that she was trying to express. And I always think, Wow, I’m just so happy that we’ve been able to work with you and learn from you. That’s the power of this whole Give First thing, right? Maybe everybody feels like they’re doing that, but they’re getting so much more in that virtuous cycle. So I really felt that from that particular episode.

Brad: My partners at Foundry a have a specific line that we like to use when we’re talking about people, which is that we always want to work with good people. For us, “good people” is the price of admission. We like to think we’re good people, and when we don’t behave as good people, we are open to the feedback around it. But we’re really trying to work with other good people, and really we’re trying to work with awesome people.

One of the attributes of awesome people in our frame of reference is that they’re appreciative of the experiences that they get. Use me as an example. Right? I’m super appreciative of all the people I get to spend time with and work with on all the things I get to do. And yeah, sure, sometimes I have a bad day or I’m in a bad mood or I’m grumpy or I don’t behave well or I fail at something and I’m frustrated with myself or other people. But this idea of always trying to be an awesome person and surround yourself with awesome people. It comes back to the thing I said at the very beginning.  I think about Wendy: just this notion of humility, this appreciation of our time on this planet, and that we get to work with each other on these super interesting things.

David: Techstars calls it awesome people collection mode. I don’t know where we got it. If you run into an awesome person, you can collect them and get them on the team, get them in your portfolio, then you just have more awesome people that you’re around. And I agree that that feeling of thankfulness, gratefulness that you get back from them is one of the attributes that they seem to have.

When I look at the first six guests, we’ve done pretty well. We have three women that we’ve had on the show and we’ve had three men. I think that’s somewhat intentional but good balance. 

Kesha Cash on impact investing—and how mentorship got her there

David: One of those guests in episode six was Kesha Cash.  We talked with her about mentorship and the opportunity to learn from her mentors that allowed her to get into investing. She talked about the particular mentor that, much like Paul Berberian talked about Jack Tankersley, she said this person really opened the door for her to become an investor. And of course that’s had downstream impact on diversity and inclusion in the world because Kesha is now investing in so many people and creating so many opportunities herself. So that was a fun one that I enjoyed. And of course I know you’ve done a lot Brad, as well, to promote diversity and inclusion, and I think this is something that is worth a lot. 

Brad: I think in addition to the notion of promoting diversity and inclusion, I think it links directly into the idea of mentorship, and this notion that anybody who is experienced should try as part of their energy to be as inclusive as they can of other people who are trying to get into the industry that they’ve got experience in. That applies to venture capital, applies to entrepreneurship, applies to a bunch of different things. And I think that one of the central tenants of Startup Communities is this idea of being inclusive of anyone who wants to engage in any level. But more importantly, as a mentor, it’s been very powerful and very satisfying to me, both emotionally but also intellectually, in terms of my own learning feedback loop, to mentor some younger women who are trying to get into the venture community or are early as venture capitalists.

We’ve been very supportive of All Raise since they started, both functionally and financially. And one of the things that I’ve gotten to do as part of that is every, I think it’s every quarter, I get assigned by All Raise a female VC. All different experiences. They do a good job of matching them up with domains where I can be helpful from a domain perspective. And in that mentoring activity, it’s not that I’m talking to the person or trying to teach them anything or just being a network connector for them.  But it’s a committed, engaged relationship where we spend time talking about specific things that they’re struggling with, that that particular VC is struggling with, in a confidential environment. I just had one of these calls the other day, so it’s fresh in my mind. 

It reminds me of the importance of two things as a mentor. One is to listen well to the person to understand their context and their reality, because it may be very different than my own context and reality. And then the flip side is that as I engaged in this particular conversation, as I engaged in the feedback, I actually learned a bunch from the person who I was mentoring, based on some dynamics that she was encountering that didn’t ever occur to me as a middle aged white guy. So again, this idea of this feedback loop where as a mentor you can learn a lot from the mentee, especially when you open your aperture to be more inclusive of other types of people versus just people that you know, or that find you, or that you find randomly.

David: So what point, Brad, do you think we go from middle aged white guy to kind of old white guy? I mean is there a moment when that becomes very real for us?

Brad: I’m starting to feel like I’m in that shift.

David: It’s like all the injuries you get every day. Yeah.

Brad: Please don’t tell my parents, because I don’t think my mom wants to think of me as old yet.

David: Yeah. Well, but there is a moment. For me, I have this Achilles pull. Like every time I go to play tennis I’m limping around, you know, injuring myself somehow. So I’m getting there, I think.

Brad: I think that has less to do with the age spectrum and more to do with just being whiny.

David: Is that what it is? So I could work on that then. I can’t work on the age, but I can work on the whiny.

Brad: Stretch more. The age will advance a day at a time. Just stretch more.

David: Even the day is a completely artificial construct, as you know.  

Troy Henikoff on how #GiveFirst grew the Chicago startup ecosystem

David: You talk about learning from the interactions with female VCs or people dealing with different problems. I learned from Troy Henikoff, with whom we did episode three. Troy tells this amazing story—much better than I will here—in episode three about how he got so much back from an entrepreneur who viewed him as being helpful, but who he saw as being way, way more helpful to him in his career. And that articulation of it was really amazing for me, because it was about Alex White and Next Big Sound, which was a company we funded, and how Troy’s perception was that Alex had completely changed the trajectory of his life, and Alex sort of felt the same way. 

So bringing this whole thing full circle, this is the Give First podcast, right? And I think that key message that we’re really trying to get through and bring out in these stories is that by giving first there’s this cycle, it just escalates and comes back in totally unexpected ways. And I thought Troy did a great job of capturing that story with Next Big Sound.

Brad: I think Troy, he also has a couple of other good stories, one in the podcast about other people where he didn’t have an economic relationship but he’s still got back massive value that he didn’t expect. And I think this is something that comes up all the time. I think we struggle or people struggle sometimes with, well, how much energy should I put into something if I don’t know what the economically defined outcome is going to be on the front end? And there is often magic that happens when you’re willing to—across multiple people, across multiple different contexts, and over time—put your own energy into things, but without having to find that transactional construct upfront. Right? That’s the essence of Give First. 

Troy’s a great example of it, and very articulate about how that has played out in his own life.  And then he translates it into lots of 1:1 behavior, which I’ve seen and experienced and been involved in plenty of. But in some ways, even more interesting, 1:many behavior. Troy has worked very, very hard at doing content that’s unique in very bite sized chunks. If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re looking for various quick hit things—fundraising or pitching or positioning your company—Troy’s done a really amazing job, for the only reason that he experienced a ton of this and learned a ton of it from all of his experiences as Techstars MD in Chicago, and then just wanted to translate it more broadly to a bunch of people.

David: He’s still so plugged in to Techstars. He’s running MATH, but he’s still showing up, and being a top mentor, and you end up seeing him everywhere you go and he very connected to the system. So it’s a great relationship that just continues to develop over time, as the best ones do.

Brad: So, David, from the way we’ve been talking, it would seem like we actually like these people a lot.

David: You would think. I mean, we’re probably good actors.

Brad: I mean, are you just being effusive about your adulation for these people?

David: I mean, that’s why we have them on the show. We’re not going to have people on the show that we think suck, right? We’re going to have people on the show who we think you can learn from, who do amazing things but, but who represent a cross section of different points of view. 

So that is the show for today. Let us know if you like this format or not. We would love to hear: do you like this sort of banter about the past episodes or would you rather hear Brad and I tell dad jokes? Let us know your preferences.  Let us know if you have thoughts a guest who should be on the show. And you know, we’ll keep doing it until we find out nobody’s listening. That’s the plan.

Leading Student Entrepreneurial Teams Begin LaunchPad Lift Program

Recent research confirms that successful startup founders need a combination of passion and vision (soft skills) and experience (hard skills). But how do enthusiastic and driven—but young—entrepreneurs quickly gain the critical knowledge and benefits that come with experience? One proven strategy is participation in a program like LaunchPad Lift.

For the second time this year, seven of the top collegiate entrepreneurial teams from campuses across the country are participating in LaunchPad Lift, an exclusive offering of Blackstone Launchpad powered by Techstars. This eight week virtual program offers valuable outside-the-classroom instruction and mentorship on a variety of topics critical to the success of startups including goal setting, fundraising, product development and roadmapping, and more. It also provides students access to the Blackstone and Techstars networks of advisors and mentors who can provide the crucial insight and advice that young founders need.

“After seeing the tremendous impact from the inaugural Lift cohort earlier this year, we’re excited to be offering this unique and powerful startup program once again,” said Erica Lock, Vice President at the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. “As the LaunchPad network grows to reaching nearly a million students, we need smaller, more focused programs like this to offer unparalleled network-building opportunities to the nation’s top operating collegiate entrepreneurs.”

Young founders face a number of unique challenges, including student debt and increased global competition, but one of the most significant obstacles to a startup is forging connections with advocates outside the academic environment. With Lift subject matter experts and mentors from organizations like Rally and Quark Software, Highway 12 Ventures, and Shutterfly, these 20 student founders will have an incredible opportunity for dialogue and relationship-building with these extraordinarily innovative and experienced entrepreneurial advisors.

According to Alyssa Petersel, Founder of My WellBeing and Spring 2019 LaunchPad Lift participant, “LaunchPad Lift is a fantastic opportunity to gain an overview of the topics and themes most relevant to leading a successful startup. Connecting weekly with a mentor who is committed to your growth, who has experience starting and growing a startup, is a truly irreplaceable experience in gaining perspective, support and feedback, and broadening your network.”

The seven student-led teams in this fall’s Lift program include diverse participants with a wide range of backgrounds from schools in the northeast, western, and southern regions of the United States. These students’ businesses represent industries including hardware, applications, health and beauty, food and beverage, and more.

Ventures selected for inclusion in this program were chosen by a team of experts from Blackstone and Techstars. These experts looked for passionate entrepreneurs who were willing and able to learn from mentor and advisor feedback, and whose companies show great startup potential. 

Meet the ventures:

OptechVR (Syracuse) – Using a combination of technologies, OptechVR is developing a standalone virtual reality headset for use in enterprise, medicine, education, and visualization. Twitter: @optechvr

Via (University of Texas at Austin) – Via is developing an online platform to facilitate local experiences with the help of youth ambassadors. Twitter: @hiddenwanders

ROSEN (UCLA) – Rosen is a natural skincare business helping individuals feel confident and in control of their skin health. Twitter: @rosenskincare

Antithesis Foods (Cornell) – Making food better through science, Antithesis makes a high fiber, high protein, low calorie chickpea-based snack. Twitter: @grabanzos

Ridesurf (University of Central Florida) – A ride sharing app, Ridesurf helps coordinate long distance rides between two or more people. Twitter: @goridesurf

Aviate Audio (University of Buffalo) – Aviate produces Airpatch, a wireless effects dock and controller that can interface with any guitar pedal or signal chain. Twitter: @aviateaudio

May West (Montana State University) – Using milkweed seedpod, May West produces an animal product- and synthetic-free, plant-based winter coat. Instagram: @may__west

The fall 2019 LaunchPad Lift program will run for eight weeks from June 26 until August 21 and will culminate with a final event on November 7 at the Blackstone offices in New York. This premier closing event will take place in conjunction with the LaunchPad Fall Training Camp.

Stay tuned to this blog or follow @Techstars on Twitter for more information about these businesses, their student founders, and the impact of the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars.

The Blackstone Charitable Foundation and Techstars partnership increases the chances for collegiate ventures to succeed by ensuring they have the resources they need to thrive. The Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars entrepreneurship program is accessible by over 500,000 college students globally and designed to support and mentor students, staff, and alumni entrepreneurs regardless of major, experience, or discipline.

Techstars Alumni Can Apply to the $5 Million 43North Startup Competition for Free

The startup ecosystem in Buffalo, NY is on the rise. Today, Buffalo has more startups than ever, as well as a growing community of enthusiastic startup employees, customers, suppliers, mentors, and storytellers, all supporting this groundswell of entrepreneurial activity—more than Buffalo has seen in generations. VCs are noticing, too, and showing their approval with increasing investments. 

A key member of this community—and a big reason for its current momentum—is 43North, a $5 million startup competition that attracts startups to Western New York and accelerates their growth. Since arriving on the scene in 2014, 43North has invested in 44 companies, which have raised more than $220 million and created over 425 jobs in Buffalo.

All this made Buffalo the perfect city to launch our inaugural Techstars Startup Ecosystem Development Program—and made 43North the perfect partner. 

For the last several months, the Techstars team has been working hand-in-hand with 43North and the Western New York startup community to help them take their ecosystem to the next level. We started by conducting research and creating an ecosystem roadmap report, and now we’re diving into producing year-round programming, offering mentorship for Buffalo startups, and providing coaching and facilitation for Western New York mentors, community leaders, and investors.

A Special Offer for Techstars Alumni

This year, 43North is waiving the application fee to its $5 million startup competition for any Techstars alumni. Winners will receive either a $1 million investment or one of seven $500K investments—along with a year of free incubator space, a chance at a cut of $500K in follow-on funding, freedom from state taxes for 10 years, mentorship, and support for hiring, business development, and marketing.

The July 8, 2019 application deadline is coming up soon, so apply now, and use the code TECHSTARS-XQB44 to take advantage of this special offer. 

Learn more about the Techstars Startup Ecosystem Development program

Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture at Your Organization

By Carley Jacobson, Techstars Innovation Coach

At Techstars, we talk a lot about “cultural transformation” and how we can support large corporations’ core objective to become more innovative and agile.  As corporations strive to innovate in order to survive, creating an entrepreneurial culture has become a critical advantage.

The truth is, large corporations can learn a great deal from startup culture as it relates to fostering a more adaptable, nimble, and entrepreneurial mindset. The benefits and competitive advantages run deep. But what exactly is an entrepreneurial culture and how do you foster it, so that your organization can thrive?

This New Future

To better understand the how and why of fostering an entrepreneurial culture, we talked with our in-house expert on the subject, Carley Jacobson. Carley is our Innovation Coach at Techstars, and she runs Techstars Innovation Bootcamps, which are designed to stimulate cultural transformation and drive an entrepreneurial spirit.

Carley works with organizations looking to make business model shifts or explore new opportunities. “At the heart of a business model shift are shifts in customer needs and in global trends,” Carley says. “To seize these new business opportunities, organizations need to transform their cultures so they’re prepared for a new future.” These organizations may be hoping to become more entrepreneurial—more adaptable, lean, and resourceful. They can see what they want to become, but aren’t sure how to get from here to there.

Creating an entrepreneurial culture is step one in driving innovation at your organization; helping you to attract and retain top talent; managing a workforce that is entrepreneurial, global, and often remote; and truly changing entrenched systems that are no longer working for you.

The Opposite of Business As Usual

There are a lot of reasons why your corporation might feel the need for a more entrepreneurial culture. Carley pinpoints triggers like competition, new business opportunities, shifting customer or employee needs, and more. Corporate leadership may respond to these changes by creating a new vision or setting a lofty goal that will help realign the corporation with these changing situations.

“Internally, cultural transformation to a more entrepreneurial way of doing business involves shifting attitudes, relationships, and best practices to help an organization reach this new vision,” Carley explains.

Fundamentally, cultural transformation is the opposite of business as usual. It means shaking up not just what you do as a corporation, but who you are, and the attitudes and perspectives that all the people in the organization—from the CEO to the newest hire—bring to their work.

Angling For Success

If this sounds big and amorphous—it is. And it can be hugely challenging for any organization, especially a large one, to change direction in this profound way.

Carley suggests that in order for it to succeed, transformation to an entrepreneurial culture must come from many angles within the company:

  1. From the top down: This is where cultural transformation starts. Leaders must provide the will and create the space for the organization to make a shift to becoming more entrepreneurial.
  2. From the bottom up: The real shifts start to happen on a small scale, team by team, project by project, as these new entrepreneurial values are assimilated into day-to-day functions.
  3. From outside perspectives: The company brings in outside thought leaders and experts to support cultural transformation. Employees learn from perspectives that are outside the organization in order to truly understand what an entrepreneurial culture looks and feels like.

For large corporations that are facing disruption from new technology and fast-moving startups, and that want to attract and retain top talent, transformation to an entrepreneurial culture is a crucial part of the package.

Want to hear more from Carley and other experts in creating an entrepreneurial culture at your corporation? The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Techstars are partnering on a webcast: “How to Build an Entrepreneurial Culture” on Tuesday, July 23 at noon Eastern Time, featuring Carly Jacobson, Tim Sackett, and Steve Cadigan. Register, attend, learn.

Kesha Cash on impact investing—and how mentorship got her there

Strong mentorship was essential to Kesha Cash’s journey to becoming an impact investor. Her mentors Gave First to help her—and now she’s Giving First to diverse entrepreneurs through her Impact America Fund.

Kesha Cash founded Impact America Fund in 2013 with a goal of investing in software and tech enabled companies that have a positive benefit on underserved communities in America. In 2018, she was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business.

She went to Columbia Business School knowing that she wanted to start a fund that invested in diverse entrepreneurs, and it was there that she met Josh Mailman, founder of Serious Change, who became her mentor.

As an impact investor, Kesha Gives First every day. But she got to where she is today because of others, especially Josh, Giving First to her—empowering her, teaching her, mentoring her, and ultimately encouraging her to go out and start her own fund.

Companies and resources mentioned in this podcast:

Ben and Jerry’s

Columbia Business School

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health


W.E.B. Du Bois

Impact America Fund

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Nature Conservancy

Josh Mailman

Malcolm X

Serious Change LP

Social Venture Network

Sponsors for Educational Opportunity

Techstars 2018-2019 Impact Report

The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return, by Mihir A. Desai

Edited highlights from the conversation:

The best mentor relationships become two way

Kesha: I had the opportunity to meet Josh Mailman [founder of Serious Change] at Columbia Business School. His family endowed the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia and I started to work with him during my last semester at Columbia Business School.

This was, gosh, this was in 2010. I’d never met an angel investor that was interested in mission driven companies. I met Josh and Josh was a 60 year old at the time, you know, and a Jewish white man. We had this meeting and he expressed a sincere interest in moving more dollars into mission driven entrepreneurs of color based in the U.S., so we connected in many ways around that mission and I started to work with him. I volunteered during my last semester to identify companies that would fit the thesis of Serious Change. More specifically we were looking for entrepreneurs of color, and we made a number of investments together. What started out as a semester of volunteering ended up being a three year initiative within Serious Change to identify more of these companies.

Rod [Robinson, founder of ConnXus] was one of the investments that Josh and I made together. ConnXus was one of the investments that turned on the light bulb for me in regards to this thesis of there are tech solutions out there that can address inequities within systems. In the case of ConnXus, really looking at diversity and small businesses and the relationship with supply chains at large corporations is obviously very exciting. That early investment in Rod at ConnXus and a few other entrepreneurs that were using technology solutions became the thesis for Impact America Fund One. I was thankful for the continuous support by Josh Mailman and Serious Change. So that family office created space for me to learn, to grow my network, and to refine my thesis for Impact America Fund.

David: It sounds a bit like Josh was somewhat of a mentor, but like the best mentor relationships, they become two way, and I’m going to guess he’s learned a lot from you over the years as well.

The godfather of impact investing

David: Rod said it’s super clear to him that Josh, who he viewed as a pioneer of impact investing, has probably passed on a lot of knowledge and expertise to you. Talk about a little bit about that relationship that you have with Josh and maybe some things that you’ve learned from him or that he’s learned from you over the years.

Kesha: I call Josh the godfather of impact investing. He’s been at this for a very long time, before the term was sexy. We’re certainly happy that it’s a mainstream term now, but Josh and friends started this work over 30 years ago. He’s one of the cofounders of the Social Venture Network, of Investors’ Circles. It was really Josh and his colleagues, including folks like Ben and Jerry’s back in the day, saying, hey, there’s a better way to build businesses. There are ways for us to move our money that are good for society. I’m really blessed that I had the opportunity to meet Josh and work directly with someone. I learned from the godfather of impact investing about building this ecosystem and being catalytic.

Before I met Josh, I met people that knew Josh. They’re like, Josh is this radical, you know, in the best of ways. As an angel investor, he’ll sit down with someone, he’ll hear their idea and write them a check.
What I learned about Josh is that there’s a lot of thought process in writing that check. He’s really good at tapping into someone’s intentions. And we don’t always get it right, but I would say Josh has a gift for understanding the intentionality around a founder’s mission or business idea. What I’ve learned through him is that while that intentionality is extremely important in traditional business, I would say it’s even more so in impact investing. Understanding the founder’s intentionality and their reasoning for wanting to wake up every day to do this is truly important. That’s one of the many things that Josh taught me.

He’d ask me after meetings: do you think this person’s a good person? Which is a loaded statement for him because there are nuances as to what we mean by a quote unquote good person. He’s just good with people and understanding human nature.

He’s also extremely good at networking. He knows everyone across different industries. He taught me the importance of showing up at an event. Don’t talk to people you already know—you’re here to network and to do that in different spaces. When we worked in New York, we’d take trips to Harlem to visit an entrepreneur or go downtown, and it was just amazing to watch him be able to adapt to different environments and to really be present in those environments to understand what was happening from a cultural standpoint. I learned a lot from Josh about people and being present and truly understanding the atmosphere that we were in.

As for what he learned from me, you’d have to ask him about that. But he continues to be a great friend and mentor and I’m very honored to have him in my life as a mentor and as a guide through this process.

Go out and do it on your own

David: It sounded like Josh was a big proponent or fan of you launching off on your own with your next fund and activity that you’re doing now. Why would he support that? It sounded like he was a big fan of: Go out and do it on your own.

Kesha: That’s a great question. We met in 2010. After Wall Street and prior to Columbia Business School, I worked with very small lifestyle types of businesses in Los Angeles. The majority of those companies were led by entrepreneurs of color. That’s where I discovered this amazing talent that was disconnected from resources, and I applied to Columbia Business School with this idea of supporting and helping to build this ecosystem and getting more resources to diverse entrepreneurs. Right.

When I met Josh, I told him that I applied to business school with this idea. My business school essay said I wanted to raise $3 million to invest in these early stage companies. So when I met Josh, he’s like, Look, you know, you don’t have a track record. It’s gonna be really difficult for you to actually raise a fund. At this point, work with me. I have the capital, we can do deals. You go and find those deals, we’ll build it and they’ll come. The good thing about Josh Mailman is that he takes action. He’s catalytic, he takes action, he’s spent years trying to figure this out with me.

So we met and he understood my purpose and intentionality and we got to work. What started out as a, hey, come work with me for a year to identify some investments to do some deals, turned into a three year partnership at Serious Change. We got to the point where I said, Hey, I think I’m ready to create this independent fund, and he and Serious Change supported that. From our initial meeting, there was the intent that I would at some point spin off and raise an independent fund. And he held true to our handshake agreement. I’m thankful for that.

David: I mean, that’s a classic example of Give First. Knowing that he was going to train you up and then lose you—but that in another way he would get back from it because you would be carrying some of that business philosophy out into the world. Maybe even improving it a little bit.

The bottom line for impact investing

David: Any time I talk to someone who identifies as an impact investor, I like to throw out some data that we have here at Techstars, and you’ll probably identify with this.

We now have the Techstars Impact Accelerator down in Texas. We work with the Nature Conservancy. We have a farm to fork program. So we are doing more and more in quote unquote the space. As we did that, we really looked at the definitions of what we are looking for in those programs and found that 15% to 20% of what we’ve been doing all along falls pretty cleanly into this category of impact. And we pulled that cohort out. We’re investors in about 2,000 companies. So we’re talking a couple of hundred companies, maybe 200-300 companies that would meet this impact definition. And as a cohort they were performing better than the total cohort of all companies. So impact is not just about that second bottom line. It’s also about that first bottom line. And I’m sure you would agree.

Kesha: That’s true.

Rapid Fire Round

David: What’s your favorite city everybody should visit?

Kesha: New York City

David: Awesome. That’s a popular one. I think everybody wants to go there if they haven’t been there. I know why.

Kesha: I’m taking a red eye there tonight, so it’s top of mind.

David: You’ll be nice and rested tomorrow, I’m sure. How about a great book that you’ve read recently that you want people to know about?

Kesha: Oh, I’m almost finished with it. It’s called The Wisdom of Finance.

David: Any charities that you’d urge people to get involved with or take a look at?

Kesha: The Sponsors for Educational Opportunity. I participated in this organization while in college and was placed in my Wall Street position, and I think they are single handedly responsible for diversifying Wall Street. I encourage everyone to support them.

David: That’s awesome. As a thank you for being on the show, we’re going to do a donation to them, and also do one to the Techstars Foundation, which is focused on diversity and inclusion in tech, in your name, if that’s okay.

Kesha: Oh, excellent. Thank you. That’s wonderful.

David: We appreciate you coming on the show. Last one. If you have, if you could have dinner with anyone, they don’t have to be alive, who would it be?

Kesha: Hmm.

David: It’s more fun if they’re alive. But let’s imagine that you could do it at any point in history is what I mean by that.

Kesha: Given the times that we’re in right now, I want to go back and be part of the conversations with some of our great civil rights leaders. Malcolm, Martin, some of the philosophers, I’m kind of going back a little further. W.E.B. Dubois. I think we’re in cycles. You can obviously read the books, but to be able to sit down and understand the philosophy and the lessons learned from different eras in time, I think would be extremely helpful right now.

David: That’s a whole party. I’ll give it to you. We’re looking for one person, but you can have a party. That’s cool.

Kesha, thanks so much for taking the time to join us on Give First. Best of luck with Impact America. Really appreciate you joining us today.

Kesha: Thank you, David, for all that you do as well.


El Matriarcado of Argentina: Community Leader Spotlight with Belén Fernandez

Who are El Matriarcado? They are “the matriarchy” of Argentine startups, with Belén Fernandez and her women cofounders at the center, and they are growing a woman-led startup community in Mendoza, Argentina, and beyond.

Belén found startups through her husband. He was accepted into the Startup Chile program, but he didn’t speak English fluently—and as a former English teacher, she did. She joined him in the program and fell in love with the power of innovation and all things startup. She became determined to bring these back to her home in Mendoza, Argentina.

In 2014, Belén discovered Techstars Startup Weekend. It was exactly the sort of inclusive, community-led startup programming she was looking for, and she has been a force, organizing and facilitating Startup Weekend events, ever since. This year, she attended the Multinational Unsummit in Cordoba, Argentina, where Techstars gathered community leaders from Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Mexico to meet and share learnings from their journeys in community building.

Belén has co-founded incubator AgilMentor with Paula Aldeco and Luis Videla, and co-founded Mendoza accelerator Embarca with Valentina Terranova and Gonzalo Innocenti. In both cases, the founding teams are 2 women, 1 man—a “matriarchy” of women who are leading their startup scene.

Together with her co-founders and other community leaders, Belén is building an inclusive startup community in Mendoza, and they inspire startup ecosystem builders across Argentina, Latin America, and the Techstars worldwide network.

T.A. McCann on how sailing in the America’s Cup is like running a startup

T.A. McCann, serial entrepreneur and Managing Director of Pioneer Square Labs, has sailed in two America’s Cups. How are sailing and startups alike? T.A. explains.

David Cohen was super excited when he realized that T.A. McCann—founder and CEO of Senosis (acquired by Google), Gist (acquired by Blackberry) and Rival IQ, a leader in marketing analytics, as well as Managing Director of Pioneer Square Labs—was the same guy he was reading about in The Proving Ground: The Inside Story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race.

T.A. tells tales of his sailing adventures—including one harrowing anecdote involving Rupert Murdoch’s finger—and applies the knowledge he gained competing in two America’s Cups to running and growing startups.

Companies and resources mentioned in this podcast:


Pioneer Square Labs (PSL)

The Proving Ground, by G. Bruce Knecht

Rival IQ


Edited highlights from the conversation:

Sailing as a metaphor for startups:

David: If you haven’t read the book, go get Proven Ground. It’s really great. And it’s so cool that you’re in it and it’s all real. That’s really an amazing, true story, which I love better than fiction.

Any tiny little advantage is really important in sailing. Deciding what’s the risk of doing something or what’s the risk of not doing something is so important. We had Wendy Lea on recently and she was talking a lot about the risk of not doing something. When you’re coaching startups, how do you assess risk-reward in your coaching them, knowing that small things can make big differences over time?

T.A.: I’ll play with a sailing analogy a little bit. Because it does answer your question. So in the America’s Cup and the highest end of sailing, you have a very significant amount of money. Think of it like a Seed Round or a Series A. You have a hypothesis about different areas on which you can experiment that might create an advantage. And in the sailing category, that could be boat design, sail design, team design, tactics, electronics, weather, etc. Even in boat construction, you hire the best people you can. For each one of those subdisciplines you build a big gigantic Gantt chart of which experiments will take how much time. What do we expect to see? How might we test A versus B? And you start running those processes, those tests.

The difficulty at a management level is knowing how many different tests or how many swim lanes you can run, how many different experiments you need to do in order to make a decision. Is this category going to be an area of innovation? Or is it just going to be an also ran? Should I double the amount of investment in category X versus category Y?

I’ll give you an example. In 1992, we had a hypothesis that we could invent an entirely new type of sail cloth made of carbon fiber, which is a very brittle material, very light, very strong. And we went through many, many iterations where the first sail we would put up—$10,000-$15,000 worth of sail—would literally blow up in like five seconds. That didn’t work.

Keep trying, keep trying, keep trying. Ultimately create this product called Cuben Fiber that was about 20% stronger and significantly lighter than everybody else’s. One small innovation that led to a significant advantage. That was some part of us winning that 1992 America’s Cup, and in the startup mode.

I think the advice I pull out of that story is really thinking about the areas where your individual team has a hypothesis for an area of innovation. What are you going to do the same way that everybody else does? A different way? How might you design that experiment? How can you delegate the ownership of experiments to different people on the team? In a CEO or founder kind of role, your job is to think about whether you have enough capital applied to the two, three, four, eight areas of innovation that you might create an advantage around, and then managing that through some realistic timeline and decision making on which ones are going to work, which ones are not going to work, and which we’re going to invest more in—which actually has some validity around what we do at PSL as well.

David: For sure. Hey, last sailing analogy, I promise. You know, when you’re a little bit behind, your approach to risk is different. So let’s say you have a competitor that’s outflanking you. Maybe in sailing you’re going left or going right and you’re trying to figure out how to look for advantage. Have you found yourself encouraging people that you work with—CEOs, mentees—to react differently because the competition’s ahead or just stay the course and know that you can bear up?

T.A.: I built and you invested in a whole company called Rival IQ that is partially about this. If you can understand your competitors well—in the case of Rival IQ, it’s specifically around digital marketing—if you can understand your competitors well, you first choice is, can I compete or not? Right? Do I have the appropriate intellect or resources to compete? If the answer is no, you have to find a way to create a different area that they’re not spending time on.

So I think the answer for startups is to first understand your competition. If you use a sailing analogy like the 1995 America’s Cup, we were outspent three to one or so. The team that we were sailing against had boat speed on us, and so what we had to try and do, which ultimately we still failed and lost, but we had to be much, much more aggressive on tactics. We were almost always trying to create an area where they would create a foul on us, at which point we may have a chance of winning because we were just slow enough that if we could get one foul on than we might be able to make it even.

David: Fascinating. I love the way you’re thinking about that—understanding the competition versus overreacting to them, right? And being intellectually honest with whether or not you think you can bear up.

T.A.: The other part, as regards to both sailing and startups, is really thinking about fundraising. So fundraising is a strategic advantage. If I can raise more capital than you, even if I spend it slightly less well, I may still be able to create an advantage. If I get the best capital, the best investors for space A or space B, it’s much less likely for you to be able to get those kinds of people. I think about fundraising as a strategic weapon that you can utilize in your startups. And therefore, I highly encourage people to think when you’re going into fundraising mode about who is the best possible investor that you need. Do you understand the competitive landscape of the best investors? What have they already invested in, and how can you fit into that jigsaw puzzle?

That’s the same as we would have done from a sailing perspective: understand the competition. Understand how you fit into that competition.

Aligning creativity with process:

T.A.: I’m a mechanical engineer, so I like thinking about the way things work as much as what they do. And this is true about startups, too. Part of the reason I’m such a fan of Techstars and Startup Weekend and even all of us who are working on studios is there’s a whole bunch of process oriented stuff, whether it be fundraising or product development or recruiting, etc. that can be generalized or certainly got to a place that is sort of best practice level, and that can be applied to many different kinds of companies. Part of the reason I was excited about joining PSL was that they had had success, but in many ways weren’t quite sure why.

It’s like companies that have early product market fit, and you’re like, oh my gosh, it’s going great. But I don’t know exactly why. And if you don’t know exactly why, you can’t predict if it’s going to continue in the future. So part of the reason I joined PSL and was excited about it is they had great success, a limited amount of process, and I’d say a limited amount of understanding or repeatability or certainly predictability in that. So I kinda came in and I started trying to figure out for myself how this place works. What has worked well, what has not worked well? Why is this company being successful, and this other company less successful? I tried, both for myself and for PSL, to start to document that, write it down, draw a schematic, draw a flow chart, that type of thing.

In addition, we were not very consistent at talking to new founders or new entrepreneurs or new potential CEOs about how the process works. So sometimes process drives consistency, and as we add more MDs, more people, more companies, we also had to figure out how to communicate this consistently. And if we can communicate it consistently, can we start to predict how likely a company is to be successful? Meaning, can we get it out and can we get it funded and can it get good early market traction?

Greg [Gottesman, Co-founder of PSL] is so creative. He’s an idea-a-minute kind of a person. And yet that idea-a-minute can be very distracting for a company. You might have the shiny penny kind of CEO: sometimes they’re like, oh we could do this, we could do this, we could do this, we can do this, we could do this. But as you start to get scale in a company, even small scale, five, 10, 15, 20 people, that’s very jarring for a company, because they can’t keep up with all of that. You don’t know when or how each idea should be factored in with all the other things you want to do.

So it’s amazing to have creative people like Greg, and it’s amazing, especially in our world here at PSL, to have lots and lots of ideas. The trick is balancing that with: How do we take an idea and move it into validation? How do we know how to move it out of validation into creation? How do we know when to get a CEO for that? How do we know when to spin it out and how to fund it, which are kind of the main parts of our process? And so we have tension between creativity, lots and lots of new ideas, and productivity or structure by which to evaluate those ideas, know which ones to try, which ones to explore and and which ones to just put on the back burner. Or what I would call The Important Things I’m Not Doing Yet list—or ITINDY.

Rapid Fire Round

David: Favorite city that you think everybody in the world should visit.

T.A.: Outside Seattle, it would be Auckland.

David: Any favorite charity that you urge people to check out or get involved with in some way?

T.A.: I’m on the board of We provide clean water to the poorest communities in the world, and it’s a really cool company that is a nonprofit that functions very much like a for profit. Incredibly cool.

David: Awesome. We’ll check it out. Hopefully we’ll get some Give First action going there. If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or living, who would it be?

T.A.: Elvis Costello.

David: Oh, fun. Why’s that? Got to ask.

T.A.: I’m just a huge fan. He’s so creative. Smart in many, many different ways. He’s been a musician in lots of different ways and also an advocate. So a life hero and interesting person and obviously very creative.

David: We’ll end with this. How can somebody listening today give back to you and maybe to PSL for the great advice they’ve heard here today?

T.A.: I write a blog at and there’s a lot of startup stuff on there. So give me feedback on this stuff that I’ve written, and share the things that matter to you. And tell me things that you hope that I would write about in the future.

Techstars Partners With Compagnia Di San Paolo, Fondazione CRT and Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center to Grow Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Turin, Italy 


Techstars to activate a series of entrepreneurship-focused events and programming in Turin over the next three years

TURIN, Italy – June 5, 2019 – Techstars, the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed, today announced a partnership with Turinese foundations Compagnia Di San Paolo and Fondazione CRT, and the Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center, to create an international hub for innovation in Turin, Italy. Techstars is joining Compagnia Di San Paolo, Fondazione CRT, and Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center in their recently announced three-year commitment to the development of Turin as an international ecosystem for innovation and establishment as a successful innovation model throughout Italy and Europe.

Through this effort, Techstars will bring a series of innovation and entrepreneurship-focused events and programming to the region during 2019, 2020 and 2021 with the goal of building new opportunities for Italian and European entrepreneurs. These initiatives will further develop and activate the Turin ecosystem, particularly through the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) innovation hub, a historic building recently transformed by Fondazione CRT into a center of excellence for contemporary culture and innovation.

Through the partnership, Techstars will bring the following activations to the Turin community:

  • Techstars Startup Week Torinoa four-day celebration of the region’s innovation and startup ecosystem. Free, available to all interested parties, and hosted in OGR’s Officine Sud – the newly renovated hub for collaborative creativity and startups – Startup Week attendees will learn from and connect with local entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, investors, and other innovation leaders. The event is expecting over 400 local, national,  and international attendees and will take place June 25-28, 2019.
  • Techstars Summit 2019 – a week-long global summit bringing together founders, corporate leaders, mentors, investors, and others. A three-track event, Techstars Summit will join what previously existed as three separate events – Techstars FounderCon, Techstars Partner Summit, and Techstars Ecosystem Summit – into one experience spanning the week of September 22-26. Techstars Summit will bring key stakeholders and thought leaders across the Techstars network together for one week of connections, discussions, and learnings in Turin.
  • Techstars Smart Mobility Accelerator a new Turin-based accelerator program that will focus on smart mobility. Concentrated on smart infrastructure and smart cities, the accelerator will attract and source startups from across the globe. Recruitment will begin in July 2019 with the program set to announce its first class of startups in Q1 2020.

“Techstars profoundly believes that mentorship and entrepreneurship are key factors that power the future of any community. This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for Techstars to help facilitate lasting global connections in Turin,” said Jenny Lawton, Techstars Chief Operating Officer. “By partnering with Compagnia Di San Paolo, Fondazione CRT, and the Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center, we are supporting the development of the innovation ecosystem in Turin and across Italy. We’re inspired by our partners’ vision, and the commitment and resources they are bringing to the table for this initiative. Our shared efforts will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on the growth and development of the Torino community and their entrepreneurial ecosystem. ”

“We are accelerating and consolidating our support for the local and national innovation chain,” said Alberto Anfossi, Secretary General of Compagnia di San Paolo. “We intend to be drivers in developing high impact innovation processes, including those of a social nature. To this end, we have set our whole system of competence and knowledge into motion, benefitting from our close collaboration with academies and research bodies. In this way, innovation takes on a holistic aspect in which the collaboration between institutions brings about increasingly significant results. In this perspective, the Techstars brand and model makes it possible to blend the joint commitment of three great institutions in favor of a strategy that repositions our territory to one of strong innovation.”

“The partnership that begins today with Techstars joins those that have been signed over the last 12 months, to strengthen the vision of the new OGR Tech space as a gateway to global excellence and as an epicenter of a new international ecosystem dedicated to tech and business innovation,” said Massimo Lapucci, Secretary General of Fondazione CRT and Managing Director of OGR. “But this is only the beginning. In September, Techstars will organize the Techstars Summit with us here in Turin – for the first time concentrated in one single city – bringing to the OGR the best of its global network of entrepreneurs, corporate partners, and institutional actors. Today, a series of activities will begin for the next three-years, including an accelerator program on Smart Mobility, landing for the first time in Italy at the OGR. This European exclusive with Techstars is in partnership with Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center and Compagnia di San Paolo. Our international program will generate a strong impact for the support and development of entrepreneurial talent and excellence.”

“Innovation is a key element for supporting the country’s economy,” said Maurizio Montagnese, Chairman at Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center. “Our group has long been committed to promoting the growth of this ecosystem, which is increasingly central to the development of Italian businesses. Countries with a focus on innovation show greater GDP growth, while in Italy the annual capital requirement per startup is estimated at around 1 billion euro, 75 percent of which is not covered by specialized operators and by the financial segment. This partnership, which is the result of the careful and strategic vision typical of banking foundations, pursues the dual objective of making the city of Turin an international innovation hub and acting as a stimulus for the new economy of the country, thereby increasing networking between universities, businesses, young people, and investors.”       

About Techstars

Techstars is the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. Techstars founders connect with other entrepreneurs, experts, mentors, alumni, investors, community leaders, and corporations to grow their companies. Techstars operates three divisions: Techstars Startup Programs, Techstars Mentorship-Driven Accelerator Programs, and Techstars Corporate Innovation Partnerships. Techstars accelerator portfolio includes more than 1,700 companies with a market cap of $20 Billion.


About Compagnia Di San Paolo

Compagnia di San Paolo is one of Europe’s most important private foundations. Since 1992 it has granted almost € 3 billion to the territory in the areas of research and higher education, social policies, health, artistic heritage and cultural activities. Founded in 1563 and now a philanthropic agent of development even through its Instrumental Bodies, it is a hub of knowledge and competence, services and policies for projects focused on people and territories of reference.

About Fondazione CRT

Fondazione CRT is a private non-profit organization founded in 1991. It is one of the “engines” of development and growth in Piedmont and the Aosta Valley in three main areas: Research & Education, Art and Culture, Welfare and Territory. In 27 years of activity, Fondazione CRT has distributed resources totaling around 1.6 billion euro, which has permitted the realization of over 39,000 interventions. Furthermore, with a budget of 100 million euros, Fondazione CRT has completely restored the OGR. Fondazione CRT is present in international networks of philanthropy, within the EFC (European Foundation Centre) and the EVPA (European Venture Philanthropy Association), and it implements projects in collaboration with international organizations including the United Nations.

About Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center

The mission Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center lies in the research and analysis of innovative solutions in order to identify growth opportunities for our Group and customers. The Center, established in 2014, has the task of monitoring the Group’s innovation development plans and processes. With a central office on the 31st floor of Turin’s skyscraper, the headquarters of the Group, and a national and international network, the Innovation Center aims to be an enabling driver of relationships with other stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem, such as businesses, start-ups, incubators, research centres and universities. In addition, it promotes new forms of entrepreneurship in accessing risk capital. Innovation is at the core of the company’s evolution. For the Intesa Sanpaolo Group, innovation is a lever for competing in markets that are increasingly more complex and globalised.

About OGR

The OGR of Turin is a former railway workshops built in the nineteenth century on an area of 35,000 square meters, the OGR have been entirely redeveloped by Fondazione CRT with over 100 million euro and reborn on 30 September 2017 as workshops of ideas, creativity and innovation: a place open to the world for artistic experimentation, scientific, technological and industrial research, as well as food. In 2019 they will increasingly serve as international innovation hub, with spaces for business accelerators, research laboratories and a Big Data centre. They will also become the Italian “home” to BEST, the bilateral Italy US program designed to promote high-tech entrepreneurial culture in our country, with the aim of building a bridge between Silicon Valley and Turin.    


Techstars Media Contact:
Jonathan Greene

Compagnia Di San Paolo Media Contact:
Francesca Corsico
+39 011 5596937 / +39 3333869911

Fondazione CRT Media Contact:
Laura Opalio
+39 011 5065390 / +39 3371451802

Intesa Sanpaolo Media Contact:
+39 02 8796.2052

OGR ‐ Officine Grandi Riparazioni Media Contact:
Laura Cavallari
+39 011 0247208
+39 351 8071637