Lessons from TechStars’ David Cohen on Building a Startup Culture: 7 Takeaways from the Xconomy San Diego Dinner

2/3/12Follow @bvbigelow

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Seattle, Boston, New York City, and San Antonio, TX. It now gets 3,000 applications a year for 60 openings—which makes TechStars more selective than any Ivy League school. Last year, a group of venture capital firms and other investors raised $24 million that will be used to provide an additional $100,000 (in the form of debt that can be converted into stock) to each startup that TechStars enrolls.

Cohen’s San Diego visit was prompted by an invitation from Xconomy. We asked him to kick off a dinner discussion with local Web entrepreneurs and investors about the way TechStars boosted software startups in Boulder, and what it might take to re-energize the entrepreneurial community here.

Our conversation began with a wry and often-repeated observation that San Diego has a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. The entrepreneurs say what we need is more venture capital. And the VCs say San Diego needs better companies.

For Cohen, creating and sustaining entrepreneurial communities is more about the people than the money. One of the most important things to think about in San Diego, he said, is to come together as an entrepreneurial community to support talented entrepreneurs with high-quality Web startups, and “to insist that none of them fail.”

The money is secondary, Cohen said, because, “venture capitalists will find the good deals. They’ll go wherever they need to go to get them. I’m not saying you don’t have good deals [in San Diego], I’m just saying you need more of them. So if you think of it in terms of supporting the companies, the money will follow.”

To get there, however, Cohen repeatedly emphasized the importance of quality.

In Boulder, he addressed this challenge at the outset, saying he first pitched his idea for TechStars to Brad Feld, the prominent Internet VC investor and co-founder of Boulder’s Foundry Group. Together, they joined with TechStars co-founders Jared Polis and David Brown to recruit 70 prominent Web entrepreneurs, VC partners, and others they knew would provide high-quality mentoring. The mentors they recruited also agreed to coach without pay, as a way of giving back to … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • http://www.cooley.com Eric Otterson

    We have a good thing going with EvoNexus – 4 or 5 of the 7 items are already in place there. I encourage all stakeholders from new entrepreneurs to seasoned mentors and angel investors to focus efforts on makeing the companies THERE a success. Success breeds success.

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  • http://www/bingbooster.com Betsy Aoki

    Betsy from Bing here. This is a great article and I applaud TechStars for its actively expanding involvement in startup ecosystems around the US (and I’ve run into a TS affiliate in China as well,while doing my work for http://bingbooster.com !). I know firsthand there’s a great TS setup in Boston and I agree 100% that the supportive community is what makes it. Big VC, big exits, all that flashy stuff certainly helps – but the thing that truly keeps a city a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship is the drive and creativity of the people in the community. San Diego folks, just a word of encouragement – it always looks too early or not enough til suddenly everything is jumping and there are too many startup events every night :). Keep the faith!

  • http://www.aicenterca.com Ping Wang

    Great article!
    I agree we should support Evonexus – they are very well resourced. We are recommending our community to apply for it if they can, and also hope to help organize programs in conjunction with Evo. However, Evo only helps a select few. In the meantime, what about everyone else? And what about people that could use coaching to get in? or after they’re out of the short program?

    It takes a whole ecosystem, and we at Ansir (www.aicenterca.com) as one of the first tech-focused coworking and event centers in SD, aim to help fill some of it out, along with the other coworking locations (www.sandiegocoworking.com) as other “hubs” of entrepreneurial activity.

    But while all these places are nice, it’s the people – including, as Eric mentioned, the mentors and angels (and corporate sponsors) that need to step up to really make SD hum, the universities that provide talent, … and organizations, such as Xconomy (who organized this discussion) that provide the glue to keep us informed and working together.
    In short, it takes a village,…and we’re it and can all do something!

  • http://xanatemedia.com Gregg Masters (@2healthguru)

    I’ve often wondered what it’s going to take to connect the dots in San Diego. We need some ‘Bay Area vibe’ here….are we too sedate, conservative, just distracted, or all of the above? We’ve got models on both coasts, including Health 2.0 NYC, etc… The Health 2.0 aka http://Health2SanDiego.com chapter, HealthCamp San Diego, http://HealthCampSanDiego.org, have been trudging along, as well as the local Quantified Self San Diego chapter, perhaps we can convene a mega meeting and try to align the health and wellness tech innovation energies..?

    In a community that hosts best in class integrated delivery systems, an asset rich concentration of bio tech and pharma interests, as well as the ‘mothership’ of Qualcomm and their recent launch of Qualcommlife, the West Wireless Institute, and no less than our very own Dr. Eric Topol, there is no reason to not catalyze and leverage this innovation metabolism into a viable tipping point.

    just sayin!

    Gregg

  • Malcolm Bohm

    It was a great evening with a lot of positive energy. The San Diego tech community urgently needs to revamp its support structures akin to the models David Cohen has established. Right now San Diego tech start up companies are in a stranglehold of outdated, inflexible organizations that stifle the nimble needs of start ups. With the exception of Evonexus, the options that startups have in San Diego are none. We need to build mentorship amongst entrepreneurs that have relevant and recent experience.

  • https://www.wirelesshealthstrategies.com/about.html Paul Sonnier

    As William Gibson famously stated, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Information dissemination suffers from the same issue, as David’s ignorance of the promotion of San Diego being at the forefront of innovation (e.g. in wireless technology, life sciences/genomics, clean tech, and bio mimicry) illustrates. As Bruce Bigelow – and most of the respondents on this thread know – I have a 9,000 member Wireless Health group on LinkedIn, where innovation occurring in San Diego is often prominently featured and broadcast to a global audience.

    And while there are visible and obvious entrepreneurial entry points (e.g. those Gregg listed) – plus I’ve served as an entry point (and received media coverage for my efforts, though strangely not in Xconomy) – we have disparate points of entry, but not a single destination, landing pad, or clearing house for our innovation community. As I see it, this is the main gap we have. I pointed this out in my email to my 1,000 San Diego contacts earlier this week: https://www.wirelesshealthstrategies.com/SD_Enterprise_Petition.html

    I also disagree with David that this can’t happen this year or next. It absolutely can happen now if we stop talking and start doing this together. I suggest the first task is to do what David suggests (and is also an item in the “San Diego Enterprise Petition: An Appeal to Mayoral Candidates” I pointed my connections to) and that is, to reiterate, create one visible entry point that makes it easy for anyone (local or global) to view and engage our entrepreneurial resources. The examples to follow are the Boston Business Hub http://businesshub.boston.gov/ and Boulder’s Boulder.me website http://boulder.me/

    So, how do we start with this one baby step? Who leads the charge or are we too fragmented to even do this one small thing?

    Best regards,
    Paul Sonnier

    Founder, 9,000+ Member Wireless Health group on LinkedIn
    Strategic Advisor, Popper & Company
    Advisor, Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance
    Mentor, Blueprint Health (TechStars-affiliated startup accelerator)
    Co-chair, Healthcare Communications SIG at CommNexus
    Twitter: @Paul_Sonnier

  • http://fashioningchange.com/blog/kevin Kevin Ball

    I think this is a very important discussion to be having… what are the holes that need to be filled to really vitalize San Diego’s startup culture? Figuring out that rally point is key… what is the rally point that brings in not only aspiring entrepreneurs but also inspires engineers to get engaged in the entrepreneurial community, and that gets the folks with previous successes re-engaged with new and growing companies.

    We have a ton of tech talent in San Diego, but unlike in the Bay Area or Boulder only a very small percentage of engineers are in the startup scene. Most are working at big, established companies or doing freelance & service-based work.

    EvoNexus has the potential to be a great rally point, and we’re super excited to be one of the first companies in the space, but I think its greatest value is in just getting people in the broader San Diego community excited about web & mobile startups. The more we can talk it up not just in the existing startup communities but in the developer communities, the better. I don’t know if that is hosting events like Startup Weekend, the Startup Hackathon that the AI Center hosted, and Ignite talks, or just going to existing events, the more we can bring the talent that already exists in the broader San Diego area into the growing startup ecosystem, the better off we’ll be.

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