Jenny Fielding Talks Plans for Next R/GA Techstars Accelerator Class

A few things have changed at the R/GA Accelerator in New York.

When it was created last summer through a partnership between Techstars and New York-based digital marketing agency R/GA, the focus was on new ideas in connected devices. But for the forthcoming class, the scope has broadened a bit to include the Internet of things.

In June, Jenny Fielding was named the new managing director of the accelerator, taking over from Calvin Chu. She spoke with me recently about her new role and what to expect with accelerator’s second class (the deadline to apply is Aug. 25).

Xconomy: How quickly did you have to get up to speed after joining the accelerator?

Jenny Fielding: I am heads-down talking to companies. It’s been quite a roll-in. I started on this project five weeks ago and I’ve already talked to more than 200 companies. My background is in digital media; I was heading up the venture group at the BBC. My perspective on hardware, devices, and the Internet of things is I come at it from a content and data-oriented side. The hardware is a component of it, but it’s really about the transfer of information through that device.

That’s what I have a lot of experience in, investing in, and helping to build business models around. That was my interest in doing something in the hardware space and devices.

XC: What do you hope to bring to this next class of the accelerator?

JF: Being in the hardware scene is a great place to be right now. If you look at how crowdfunding has transformed the industry in the last few years, what I’m calling hardware 2.0, that’s blown it open for lots of people that couldn’t get into hardware.

In New York, we’re seeing lots of interesting companies leverage the things that New York is historically really good at. We have a history of manufacturing here and fashion. All of those things make for a great breeding ground for hardware and device companies. I’ve been in California for the last few years; coming back to New York where there is momentum around this industry is what drew me to it. We’re seeing companies like Canary, who raised a lot of money on Indiegogo, really set up shop in New York and makes some progress.

More established players like MakerBot, Adafruit, and Quirky are all New York-based.

I’m looking to … focus on not just the hardware side, but the building of the business. What’s kind of amazing about the R/GA program is that you have access to R/GA clients, who are mentors. [We’ll be] focusing on partnerships that the startups can leverage with those clients and having exposure to them.

XC: How have things changed in the realm of hardware and connected devices? How has 3D printing helped in creating prototypes?

JF: There’s a company called SOLS, which does 3D printed orthotics. You have companies that wouldn’t have been able to get started so quickly if they didn’t have access to 3D printing. The ability to prototype, the ability to quickly turn around on [printed circuit] boards—it’s all transformed in the last few years. That’s this new wave of hardware.

Costs have come down; the maker movement has helped put these resources in the hands of everybody. People that were tinkerers can actually start proper businesses and it’s not so expensive. There’s a company in Brooklyn called the BotFactory and they have the tools so you can create your own [printed circuit] boards. Usually you have to send the boards off, and it would cost a few thousand dollars, and you’d have to wait. Now you create your own. You don’t have to be a big company and buy a big machine for hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can do it in your home. That’s been really critical.

The resources now available to entrepreneurs, whether it is something like the BotFactory or 3D printers, the time and cost of prototyping has come down to a level that we’ve never seen before.

XC: What will be different with the forthcoming class at the R/GA Accelerator?

JF: From a thematic point of view, last time they were really focusing on connected devices. This time we’ve opened that up to Internet of things. We’re looking at a number of companies that are connecting hardware, but are not necessarily creating a physical product. We’re still going to take 10 companies, and it will be a similar format.

We’re adding a lot more founders as mentors. I think the best way to learn is from people who’ve done it. Some of the mentors have recently gone through the early stages of funding or running a company. Adam Sager, the CEO of Canary, is now one of our mentors. The advice he’s going to be able to provide to companies that are thinking about crowdfunding is going to be very different than some of the other mentors. I’m pretty excited to have entrepreneurs that are living it.

XC: Are there untapped opportunities in the Internet of Things that you’re hoping to see startups pursue with the accelerator?

JF: Because costs have come down, we’re seeing a lot of me-too products. There are a lot of companies doing everything from controlling different devices in your home to security; it’s unclear how many of them will be able to thrive. I am pretty bullish that there is still a lot of opportunity in that space.

We are seeing a lot of consumer-oriented startups apply to the program, and we are interested in consumer products. I think there’s huge opportunity on the businesses-to-business side, which is not such a sexy play. Companies working on infrastructure, that are working to make factories more efficient, or working in agriculture. Those things are especially great for R/GA to work with, because those are the people who need stories told. They’re the ones that need to make brands that are a little bit different.

If your big competitor is General Electric, you’ve got to differentiate yourself in a meaningful way.

We’ve been talking to lots of companies in the Midwest, in the heartland areas, and that’s exciting for us. As much as we’re happy to have companies from New York and San Francisco, the reality is there are a lot of resources for people already in those places.

Yesterday I spoke to a company innovating in Indiana. There’s probably not a ton of resources there in terms of capital, and there’s not a lot of accelerators. If we can help a company like that, I feel like we’re doing something great.

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