MassChallenge, With Lessons Learned, Gears Up for 2011 Startup Competition: A Definitive Debrief

1/31/11Follow @gthuang

It’s billed as the world’s largest startup competition and accelerator program, and it takes place right here in Boston. MassChallenge, coming off a successful first run in 2010, is gearing up to do it again this year—but not without some important changes and improvements to its structure.

Last year, the Boston-area nonprofit organized a $1 million global startup competition and housed more than 100 startups—across a dizzying array of sectors that included software, life sciences, cleantech, and social impact—during a three-month accelerator/mentorship program in its Fan Pier building. The program culminated in an awards ceremony in October to honor 26 finalist companies, of which 16 received money from the program (either $50,000 or $100,000 apiece).

But John Harthorne, MassChallenge’s CEO and co-founder, is hardly satisfied with those results. His goal is much bigger: to spur innovation in the Boston area, and beyond, by supporting entrepreneurs and connecting them with funding and other resources—thereby creating a large-scale spectacle that will draw more attention and more resources. “I’m convinced we are on the verge of a renaissance,” Harthorne says.

And he wants MassChallenge to be the catalyst. To that end, the program’s budget is increasing from $1.5 million last year to $2 million this year, Harthorne says. The total prize money will remain $1 million, and the extra money will be spent on improving MassChallenge’s website and its resources for entrepreneurs, as well as on hiring more technical and support staff. What’s more, this morning the White House announced the creation of a private organization, Startup America Partnership, that aims to accelerate entrepreneurship throughout the U.S.—and MassChallenge is a key partner in the effort.

In its inaugural year, the nonprofit received $500,000 from the Massachusetts state government in a one-time deal. (No state money is expected this year.) Harthorne has been busy securing the $2 million for 2011 from returning sponsors and some new investors—the overall list now includes The Blackstone Foundation, The Fallon Company, MassMutual, Johnson & Johnson’s Corporate Office of Science & Technology, Microsoft, Xerox, Foley & Lardner, and the Deshpande Foundation.

When you try to do something as ambitious as MassChallenge, of course, you’re going to get your share of criticism. Over the past few months, I’ve talked with entrepreneurs and mentors who took part in the program, and I’ve heard a lot of constructive feedback and suggestions for what could … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://tydanco.com Ty Danco

    As one of the “losing” finalists, I couldn’t disagree more with the unnamed mentor in the following quote:
    ‘One mentor I spoke with said the “losers”— finalists who didn’t receive any money—felt “really bad,” and that the competitive aspect of the program in fact threatens the supportive environment that MassChallenge is trying to create.’

    I can assure you that this would be a clear minority view by the 111 finalists who were given amazing access and opportunities, not the least of which was the connections of a peer group. That’s not to say MassChallenge can’t improve–I’ve made my suggestions at http://tydanco.com/2011/01/01/startup-competitions-5-lessons-from-masschallenge/
    But the hiring of Karl Buttner, the partnerships announced today, and the continued progress of some of the best entrants will only make the 2011 version more competitive, more relevant, and more successful.

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  • http://www.extendbio.com Laura Hales

    I agree with Ty. We were also a “losing” finalist team in the life sciences sector. We were a close-knit group and I still continue to interact with the teams I met months after the competition has ended. Of course, we all wanted the money really badly, but our group was collaborative as well as competitive. If there are indeed “losing” finalists who felt “really bad”, as this unnamed mentor described, it wasn’t the fault of MassChallenge.

  • http://www.tapwalk.com Dave Owens (TapWalk)

    Another loser’s perspective:

    I knew fromt the start that winning a cash prize was:
    1) Mathematically unlikely… there were 400+ entries, 111 finalists
    2) Not entirely within my control… it’s somewhat subjective… just like the real world fundraising that MC was designed to model
    3) Not “fair”… it’d be impossible to be so with multiple panels of judges, all of whom would have different priorities and points of view… just like the real world fundraising that MC was designed to model
    4) Not “fair”… the 111 different companies were at very different stages making it even harder to compare them
    5) Though it’s a competition, it’s not like football where you can play defense, so it shouldn’t get in the way of fun collaboration

    None of those are criticisms. They are just the reality we were operating within. Trying to “fix” any one of them would likely create worse negative side effects so I’d be hesitant to suggest anything but a couple tweaks for next year.

    Having accepted everything in that list, there was almost no way I could come away feeling “really bad”. I would have liked to win… I coud have used the money and, like most people, I’ve got an ego that greatly prefers winning.

    As the article mentions we were told many times that the prize money is a red herring… the biggest value you can get out of MassChallenge is the months of participation. But it’s up to the finalists to derive that value.