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

1/31/11Follow @gthuang

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brand-new startups. Harthorne disputes this notion, pointing out that of the 16 companies that got money, six had no previous investment, and six others had received less than $100K. (What’s more, the great majority of the initial applicants had no previous investment.) But he acknowledges that older companies do have a built-in advantage. “Younger companies have not been filtered by the world at large,” he says.

It seems to me that people will nitpick about any competition where there are “winners” and “losers.” And that raises the deeper question of whether MassChallenge’s competition format works in terms of fostering a collaborative environment for startups. 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.

“That was one of our biggest concerns,” Harthorne admits. “We were really nervous that people would be fighting each other. It didn’t pan out that way at all. From day one, we say the competition is a ruse—like a magician’s trick we use to effect the other outcomes. It helps us assemble the resources that are required. It gives us a deadline that forces [startups] to engage. The competition is like a lie we tell the world.”

Entrepreneurs I talked to generally agreed with that notion. “I realized quickly that the more I helped someone else, the more they would help me,” Sinha says. “We were competing with each other, but also hoping to apply feedback [from each other]. So the competition was not negative.” The complaints I did hear from participating startups were mostly logistical: some expectations and instructions should have been made clearer at the outset; there were so many events that it was hard to tell which ones were important; and there should be rewards for the startups that really show up and participate in the program.

But other participants told me it was hard for mentors and judges to add value, for a number of reasons—the sheer size of the program, the disparate sectors, and difficulties in communicating with each other. A couple of mentors said it would be important to provide more structure up front to the entrants and applicants; to “formalize” the structure and guidance; and to provide more checkpoints for entrepreneurs so they get their pitches and thinking straight earlier in the competition.

To that end, MassChallenge is making a strong effort to provide more structure in its mentorship programs this year. For starters, it has hired software guru Karl Büttner, the co-founder of 170 Systems, as full-time chief mentorship officer. Among his charges will be to bring in new mentors (including some younger, hungrier ones), provide better mentor-to-mentor communication, and of course facilitate meetings between mentors and startups in the program.

Lastly, I asked people about the overall size of MassChallenge, and whether it needs to be that big. After all, a more intimate setting might seem more nurturing for startups—see other mentorship programs like TechStars, Y Combinator, and Founder Institute. But it’s clear that MassChallenge is a different animal: its size is what gives it great visibility. Some entrepreneurs said it could even stand to be bigger, because that would lead to a larger pool of other relevant startups to collaborate with and learn from.

So it sounds like this year’s incubator program will be about the same size—100 to 125 teams—and the criteria for entry will be the same as last year. “This is really a game of scale,” Harthorne says. “In a pool of 100 startups, you’re bound to have five great startups. It’s a core part of our strategic model.”

The bottom line: no big overhaul for MassChallenge this year, but there will be a few refinements, centered around improving the mentorship structure and giving startups more guidance relevant to their particular sector and growth stage. This year’s program officially kicks off on March 8, and applications for the competition are due April 11. We’re certainly looking forward to seeing what comes of it all—and what kind of national impact this program will have.

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. 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.