Founder Institute, Early-Stage Startup Program, Comes to Seattle Thanks to a Gaming Connection

10/27/09Follow @gthuang

There’s a new tech startup incubator in town. The Founder Institute is accepting applications for its four-month training program, which begins in Seattle on December 7. The program is designed to mentor very early-stage entrepreneurs, with the goal of creating new companies across a wide variety of tech sectors including software, social media, consumer electronics, e-commerce, medical devices, and cleantech.

The program fits with a trend of increasing resources for entrepreneurs in the Seattle area. The Founder Institute was started by Adeo Ressi, the founder of the venture capitalist rating site TheFunded. The incubator recently completed its first session in Silicon Valley, graduating 54 companies (three of which have since rustled up outside funding), and has also announced expansions to San Diego and Washington DC.

Chris Early is leading the Seattle program. He’s a game industry veteran who was most recently general manager of Windows Gaming Technology at Microsoft. He left the company earlier this year, and caught up with Ressi around a month ago over drinks. (The two had known each other for years from the game industry.) Early suggested that Ressi should expand his program to Seattle, and it sounds like it didn’t take much convincing. “It’s been a whirlwind month putting it together here,” Early says.

As he explains, the concept behind the Founder Institute arose from what Ressi was seeing with TheFunded. “A large number of people were coming through at a pre-company stage,” and they were looking for mentorship and money to get started, Early says. So the Founder Institute provides classes on every step of the startup process, led by experienced mentors, including Derrick Morton, the CEO of FlowPlay, and Bryan Starbuck, the CEO of TalentSpring. About a third of the mentors will come from out of town, including David Kidder of Clickable.com and Bryan Thatcher of Empressr (both from New York). The ideal students are entrepreneurs with new companies—less than two years old—or just promising ideas. The goal is for every student to have a business plan and a polished pitch for their company by the end of four months.

OK, so everyone knows entrepreneurs, especially first-timers, need a lot of mentorship. But what’s different about the Founder Institute compared with incubators like Y Combinator and TechStars (see our complete list of incubators here)? Early says the program is non-residential, and classes are in the evening. That way, founders can stay in Seattle and keep their day jobs. And instead of giving up stock, entrepreneurs put in 3.5 percent of their company as warrants, which get shared by all the founders and mentors. Early argues the warrants give a fairer market price for the company. At the same time, Founder Institute is not funding these entrepreneurs; rather they pay $600 to enroll in the program, and if they receive external funding, they will pay a $4,500 course fee.

I asked Early about the increasing number of local resources for early-stage entrepreneurs—including the Seattle 2.0 website and events, nPost resources, NWEN, WTIA, MITEF, and Startup Weekend. “There’s a lot of hunger for that kind of information,” he says. “But you need a little bit more.”

As for the specific goals of the Seattle program, Early says, “I hope there are a number of very successful companies that get formed out of it. Some people question whether Seattle is as strong an entrepreneurial community [as Silicon Valley]. I don’t think that way.” He thinks Seattle definitely has what it takes, and says if the Founder Institute is successful here, he will look to do it again next winter.

Lastly, I wondered whether Early’s expertise might lead to a focus on gaming companies for the new program. “I think it will,” he says. “There’s a huge opportunity right now for social gaming startups. And to have it be successful without a large amount of funding.” It will be interesting to see whether the institute leads to new connections between the gaming community and other entrepreneurs and business people (which is something I don’t see a lot of here). Early admits that, culturally, “there’s some bravado in the gaming industry. ‘It’s the Wild West, we do it our way.’ It’s much more about how to make the game. They’re not business people.”

Next week, Early and the Founder Institute are holding an informational event at the Boeing Auditorium at the University of Washington, on the evening of Nov. 2, hosted by the UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. You can register for the event here, and apply for the full program here.

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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