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An Accelerator, By Any Other Name…Does Not Smell as Sweet

Carl Weissman shook his head in disbelief when he got the e-mail. A couple years ago, the Cambridge Healthtech Institute in Massachusetts was inviting him to speak on a panel that wasn’t about how to start successful life sciences “incubators.” Instead, this discussion was about how to put together the same thing, but called a different name: “accelerators.”

Now, to most people, an accelerator is that thing your foot pushes down to make your car go faster. For Weissman, it was the trade name, with a capital “A,” of a Seattle-based biotech startup incubator he has led since 2003. Since his operation had successfully turned entrepreneurial dreams into a string of emerging venture-backed companies like VLST, Allozyne, and Spaltudaq, people suddenly started using the name generically. More and more like the concept so much, it has become a synonym for “incubator.”

Others seem to be just plain copying the name for themselves. In June, a group calling itself the North Shore Life Sciences Accelerator was formed in Beverly, MA. Last month, Weissman learned from the Seattle P-I that a group of software entrepreneurs was forming a local support group for their brethren, calling itself Accelerator.

None of this makes Weissman, an Xconomist, very happy. “It is annoying that ‘Accelerator’ has now become the accepted descriptor or term of art for anybody doing anything close to what we do,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “Five years ago, it was largely assumed that incubators could not work in biotech (not including medical devices). Now just five years later they are cropping up all over and many are being called Accelerators.”

It’s irritating him for a simple reason. If they fail, it might make some people think his organization is failing. Or, if Weissman’s organization succeeds, some of the shine might rub off on other outfits that don’t deserve it.

Weissman isn’t concerned that people will be confused about who to call with promising ideas for biotech companies, though. “People find us. That’s not an issue,” he said in an interview last week.

The original idea for the name of the Seattle biotech startup incubator came from Leroy Hood, the industry pioneer and president of the Institute for Systems Biology, Weissman says. At the time, the name “incubator” had to be avoided because it had the stench of failure linked to it. The word carried connotations of bankrupt real estate projects, or state economic development plans that supported biotech losers. No one had taken the name Accelerator, so it was theirs.

The organization was set up to be different from the beginning, with money from MPM Capital, Arch Venture Partners, Versant Ventures, and Alexandria Real Estate Equities. The idea was that Alexandria would provide modern lab space that’s ready to go, which may give it the inside track on tenants with serious growth potential. Hood’s Institute for Systems Biology would offer some collaboration opportunities with its faculty, and he would help vet company ideas, in exchange for getting equity shares that could someday support a lot of his group’s research. The venture firms, of course, were in it for big potential returns. (Versant and MPM have since left the syndicate, which now includes OVP Venture Partners, Amgen Ventures, and WRF Capital.)

Weissman hasn’t spoken to the people in Seattle that have since borrowed the name. I asked him whether he plans to make a polite phone call requesting that the other Accelerator in town find a new name. “We may do that,” he says.