Polaris’s Dogpatch Labs Evolving in Boston, Dublin, Closing in NY, Palo Alto
Big changes are afoot in Polaris Ventures’ network of startup incubators, known as Dogpatch Labs. The short story: Dogpatch in Cambridge, MA, is moving from its current office, subleased from Microsoft, to a nearby space in Kendall Square run by the Cambridge Innovation Center. Dogpatch in Dublin, Ireland, is ramping up. And the Dogpatch offices in New York City and Palo Alto, CA, are ramping down; in a few months, those two will be no more.
The moves are all part of Polaris’s strategy in the ever-shifting landscape of early stage investing. Over the past three and a half years, Dogpatch Labs has become something of a startup institution. The goal has been to create open communities of entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors, by providing office space and encouraging new connections and collaborations. Of course, Polaris wants to get to know promising entrepreneurs with an eye toward potential investments. But Dogpatch is more broadly interesting because it is a barometer of innovation communities in the U.S., and around the world.
Let’s start with Cambridge/Boston. As Polaris partner Dave Barrett puts it, version 1 of Dogpatch Labs Cambridge, which started in the fall of 2009, was about creating an independent space for entrepreneurs in the American Twine Building. Version 2, in the Microsoft space, was about scaling that up to 35 to 40 companies (and working alongside the TechStars Boston accelerator). Now, version 3, which will be housed at 101 Main Street, will be about “keeping it open and distributed, but focusing on integration with other communities,” Barrett says.
That would include university faculty and students—a still-not-fully-tapped well of talent for local VCs and startups. Polaris is already involved with the Experiment Fund at Harvard (through partner Alan Crane), but it could probably do a lot more outreach locally. Barrett calls the Cambridge ecosystem “really, really diverse” and “a dramatically different environment than it was a few years ago.” He cites TechStars, MassChallenge, hack/reduce, and local universities as institutions that Dogpatch seeks to complement.
The move to the Cambridge Innovation Center’s new space (which is separate from the main building at One Broadway)—happening in late February or early March—means the management of Dogpatch is shifting to CIC founder Tim Rowe and his team. (Former Dogpatch keeper Gus Weber has moved on to ESPN, joining Ryan Spoon, who left Polaris last July.) Barrett says this will free up Polaris to spend more time working with startups and less time as landlords. Meanwhile, the selection process for residents and the general vibe of the place won’t change, he says. “We talked to [Rowe] about keeping Dogpatch Labs as a separate personality, a separate space, and with a distinctly open nature,” he says.
All well and good, but doesn’t the move to CIC mean Dogpatch residents will have to pay rent instead of getting free space? Yes and no. Barrett says Polaris will subsidize the move for existing Dogpatchers—it will be free for them for an initial period—while it works with Rowe to get discounts for new residents.
Barrett sums up Polaris’s commitment locally as, “We’re getting more involved in it, not less—we’re just not as involved in real estate.”
Next up: Dublin. The Irish outpost of Dogpatch seems to be thriving, with around 30 startups and a healthy pipeline. “We want to go where we think we can really add value,” Barrett says. “We also want to go where we think there’s a void. Dublin is not dissimilar to where Cambridge was three to four years ago.” That means a ready pool of startup talent, big companies already in residence, and, in Dublin’s case, “tremendous enthusiasm on the part of the government,” he says.
So far, Polaris has invested seed money in two Dublin startups, BalconyTV and Logentries. Both are expanding in the U.S. That’s part of the Polaris plan—to help international companies set up shop on the East Coast—but Barrett says the main focus there is on helping to attract talent and build companies in Dublin.
OK, but perhaps the most eye-catching national news—stepping back a little—is that Dogpatch is closing in New York and the Bay Area. “Those markets have really developed differently than they have in Cambridge and Dublin,” Barrett says. “Palo Alto and New York City now have similar communities as Dogpatch. Many have adopted the open community philosophy. We’re not unique anymore in those markets.” (Think General Assembly, 500 Startups, Plug and Play Tech Center, and dozens of co-working and community/education spaces for entrepreneurs.)
Instead, Polaris is looking to pursue what Barrett calls a “distributed approach” in New York and Silicon Valley—working with local colleges and entrepreneurial students and faculty, as well as serving as mentors in local accelerator programs and other forms of startup outreach. All of which it already does, but it will be doing more of the above.
Part of me thinks the Bay Area operation never fully recovered from the Pier 38 shutdown in San Francisco in 2011—Dogpatch Labs’ original location. That place was a vibrant tech hub that once housed the likes of Instagram.
A final note: The Dogpatch evolution might be seen as part of a trend toward an “incubator bubble” popping. But consider that over its lifetime, Dogpatch Labs has housed some 550 entrepreneurs and 330 startups, and that companies across the network have gone on to raise more than $250 million in financing.
And since 2009, the following well-known startups have spent time in Dogpatch Labs Cambridge: docTrackr, Localytics, peerTransfer, Energesis Pharmaceuticals, and Yesware, along with up-and-comers like Apptopia, ByteLight, CraveLabs, Kibits, and Spindle. That’s just in Boston.
Maybe not household names yet, but give them a few more years.