Semyon Dukach Goes From VC Outsider to Techstars Boston Head

3/21/14Follow @gthuang

It’s a time of transition for Techstars Boston—and the local startup ecosystem.

The Boston branch of the seed-stage fund and accelerator program is getting a new managing director. He is Semyon Dukach: a fast-rising angel investor, the former CEO and current chairman of e-mail marketing firm SMTP (NASDAQ: SMTP), and a former leader of the famed MIT blackjack team.

Which is to say, you might not want to bet against him. But question him? Sure.

Dukach succeeds outgoing managing director Katie Rae, who, with help from Reed Sturtevant, has run Techstars Boston since late 2010. That was when Rae took over from original Boston director Shawn Broderick, who got the local program off the ground in 2009. Now, after three years at the helm, Rae and Sturtevant will be leaving to spend more time on their own seed-stage investment fund, Project 11, which they first talked about publicly in 2010.

Rae will retain an advisory role as chairman of Techstars Boston, while Sturtevant will remain a mentor in the program. Neither would comment on their plans for Project 11. They did note that Rohit Gupta and Tuan Pham are staying on as Techstars Boston co-directors.

Of her successor, Rae says, “I took it so personally to find someone. I wanted a long transition, and I want to continue to be a part of it. Transitions are hard, but I wasn’t going to transition unless I felt great about it.”

Dukach is “unafraid to tackle the hard issues,” she adds. “You have to be able to jump in and be very, very hands-on. This is a true labor of love. The main advice I’ve already given him is to dive in and help the companies figure out who do they want to be and how they can get there very quickly.”

The regime change is effective May 1, after the current Techstars Boston class has its demo day on April 29. Dukach has been there full-time for the past couple of months as a mentor-in-residence, but he will officially take charge with the next startup session, which will run from August 11 to November 12.

The news comes at a time when the startup accelerator model—typically three months of funding and mentorship in exchange for an equity stake—is under pressure. The general sentiment is that established brands like Y Combinator and Techstars are doing fine, but many other programs have had to specialize or come up with different structures. It’s still too early to say how things will shake out—but they will shake out. Staying in business seems to come down to having the right focus, mentors, and network.

With that in mind, the local head of each Techstars program—there are sessions in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, New York City, London, Austin, and Chicago—is crucial to the company’s overall success.

“We know that past operators and founders with real experience make the best managing directors,” says David Cohen, the founder and CEO of Techstars. “Ultimately, founders love Katie and Semyon because they are fantastic people who work tirelessly for the companies they’re involved with, but couple that with deep startup and investing experience.”

So what should people know about Dukach? The Moscow native, who came to Boston in 1990, by way of Columbia University and MIT, previously ran Fast Engines, a software company that he sold to Adero in the dot-com era. He took control of SMTP in 2002 (it’s a long story) and remains chairman of the public company today.

Dukach recently has become one of the most active angel investors in Boston. Of his 75 company investments overall—most of them made in the past two years—about 55 are based in the Boston area. They include Bolt (an accelerator-like program for hardware startups), CoachUp, CO Everywhere, Crunchbutton, Freight Farms, Ovuline, Socrative, Wanderu, and Zagster. Some are Techstars companies, some are not. He also serves on the board of Terrafugia, the Boston-area “flying car” company.

Another thing to know about Dukach is that he’s a character—he’ll tell you what he thinks. For example, … 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. Follow @gthuang

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