Dog Patch Lab—An Entrepreneur’s Kennel
Ceiling fans lolling high overhead, starfish in trawler nettings slung on one wall, funked-out wood floors, bar stools, round tables, comfy couches, a big bowl laden with fruit, huge windows overlooking the pier. No cubicles, just work areas with signs indicating where one company ends and another begins—and sometimes no signs at all. The whole place oozes creativity, hipness, young turks inventing the future.
This is the home of Dog Patch Lab, a startup incubator run by Polaris Venture Partners (Dog Patch occupies only a piece of the space I just described—more on that in a minute). Which itself is surprising, since it’s almost the antithesis of Polaris’s mainstream, East Coast image. If you’ve ever visited Polaris headquarters in Waltham, MA, the best you can say is that it’s just like all the other venture firms in the Bay Colony Corporate Center—modern, spacious, business-like.
You would not call it cool in any way.
But this is a side of Polaris we don’t see in Boston, for the simple reason that it’s in San Francisco—along the famous Embarcadero. I mentioned it briefly in my column about Boston VCs investing in social media. But, as your intrepid reporter out to bring to light new aspects of Boston’s innovation community, I stopped by on a recent West Coast trip to find out more about Dog Patch, how it works, and what its inhabitants are doing.
Polaris general partner Mike Hirshland and executive-in-residence Brian Grey set up my visit—although neither could be present for my tour. My host was Ken Thom, VP of operations for Social Media, which runs an ad network for companies making social applications. Social Media refitted the space on Pier 38, just south of the Bay Bridge, in late 2007—and now controls some 10,000-12,000 square feet. It sublets parts to other companies, mostly startups working on Facebook apps. And to Polaris.
Dog Patch, which got going about a year ago, started with four or six desks, says Thom, and then expanded to 10 desks. “Now Polaris has both of those rooms,” he says, pointing to one wing of the space that looks over the waterfront.
All told, some 70 people occupy Social Media’s space. I’m guessing about 15-20 of them are Dog Patch denizens. Hirshland says Dog Patch currently houses four startups, plus a group run by Ariel Poler, previously of StumbleUpon and other companies, and co-founder of LOLapps, a former Dog Patch puppy (more on LOLapps below, although Poler was out during my visit and so I never connected with him).
I looked in on Threadsy, which seeks to unite consumers’ s e-mail, social networks, and other online messaging services. It occupies its own little room, up a half-level from Dog Patch. It turned out Threadsy was once part of the “kennel,” but had moved to its own space. I wondered if it had been funded by Polaris (that is not a requisite—read on). “Are you guys a Polaris company?” Thom relayed. “Not yet,” was the answering shout.
Next, I stopped by a mannequin wearing an AppJet t-shirt. AppJet, you might recall, was a Y Combinator company a couple of summers ago; it offers an easy-to-use online platform for programming Web applications. Those guys seemed very busy, so I didn’t interrupt, and the mannequin would not reveal other details.
Mr. Tweet was a bit more chatty. CEO Ming Yeow Ng and chief engineer Yu-Shan Fung were out—so I spoke with Hamilton Ulmer, who claimed his title was village idiot. Mr. Tweet, he explained, is a people recommendation engine for Twitter. “We analyze who you follow and talk to, and from that we make recommendations about other people that you might be interested in following, people with your interests,” he says.
Across the aisle from Ulmer was Vikas Gupta, CEO of Jambool and former head of Amazon’s payments platform and flexible payments web service. He and three colleagues were all berthed at one table, two on each side. Five other employees work in Seattle. Jambool is best-known for its product, Social Gold, a currency/payment platform for social communities such as online games, virtual worlds, and social media sites. “Payments for the next generation of users online,” sums up Gupta.
He says Social Gold is already one of largest payment providers on Facebook and MySpace, but he declined to give any numbers. The company launched two years ago, but only raised its Series A round—roughly $1 million—about eight months ago, Gupta says. Polaris was not part of that round, which included Hit Forge, Charles River Ventures, and Bay Partners.
The last company I spoke with also had Seattle ties. I’d tell you the name, but as CEO and co-founder Kyusik Chung told me, “We’re still working on a name.”
Chung had previously worked in Seattle, for Expedia and Zillow, an online real estate service. In San Francisco, he teamed with co-founder and president David Yu, his former undergraduate roommate at Yale, who has spent most of his career in bioinformatics at Genentech.
The pair are developing technology that learns about your reading preferences and recommends books you might like. They compared it to the movie recommendations NetFlix pops up based chiefly on the movies you have rated.
Other companies, such as LibraryThing, Shelfari (bought by Amazon last year), and Amazon itself, purport to do something along these lines. However, says Chung, such sites tend to recommend popular books that don’t really reflect your true preferences. “Most of the time, it’s actually wrong,” he says. “What we have is something that really personalizes to the individual user. We actually get accurate pretty quickly. You get to find those gems—they’re never going to be on the front table at a bookstore.”
There are few things I love more than discovering a new favorite author, so I hope they get funding. Presumably, it would be from Polaris—but as I mentioned above, that’s not guaranteed by any means.
Which brings us to the terms of setting up shop in Dog Patch. There really aren’t any. A startup or someone pursuing a startup idea gets free office space, Internet connectivity, camaraderie, and the eyes and ears of Polaris folks. But Polaris doesn’t take a stake in the endeavors or even insist on first rights to fund the enterprises it houses.
Rather, says Hirshland, Polaris is practicing a kind of “open source” entrepreneurship. There’s an implicit understanding that the venture firm will have first crack at funding a promising Dog Patcher, but only as what he calls a “‘first sponsor’ goodwill thing. No economics, no rights/obligations.” It’s generally expected that the groups will move on—ideally by raising capital and finding their own space—within six months or so, but even that is loose.
So far, Polaris has backed two kennel startups—the aforementioned LOLapps, which provides tools that make it easy to create custom Facebook apps, and Plinky, a conversational Web startup co-founded by ex-Googler Jason Shellen (former Polaris technology partner Sim Simeonov is part-time CTO).
But even if Polaris never funded another resident of Dog Patch, it’s worth the cost. The lab affords an up-close and personal eye on the future to help inform the firm’s other investments. It should also help foster the good will of the entrepreneurs who pass through—making it more likely they will come back to Polaris in the future.
It’s easy to see why Polaris started Dog Patch in the new media-rich Bay Area. But I can’t help but wonder why we don’t have something like it out here in Boston. Maybe we do, and I just don’t know about it (let me know if I am missing something).
Hirshland told me previously that Polaris would be open to starting a Dog Patch East, if there was enough interest. I think all the firm would have to do is put out the call—it wouldn’t take one of those high-pitched dog whistles to bring the entrepreneurs running.