That the world is full of great ideas yet only a very few become reality is an enduring and sobering truth. Novice entrepreneurs need meaningful advice, resources and funding to bring their ideas to fruition. The MassChallenge provides just that as the single largest accelerator program and startup competition in the world. Using the power of competition to create urgency and aggregate high-impact teams and resources, the MassChallenge strengthens and accelerates its finalists by providing them high-quality mentorship and connecting them to potential team members, advisors, customers and sponsors.
Akhil Nigam is the Founder and President of the four year-old MassChallenge based in Boston, Massachusetts. Born in India, he attended high school in Zimbabwe where he earned a scholarship to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. Later, Akhil joined his degree in Electrical Engineering from Cooper Union to an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Before business school, he was employee number five at a high growth startup focused on software, Internet technology, and IT services. In this role, he helped the firm grow to a 100 employee footprint across the US, India, and Singapore in just five years. Akhil has also evaluated investment opportunities across a variety of industries while in the private equity practice at Bain & Company and Fidelity Strategic Investments.
Lou Killeffer: Akhil, what exactly is a start-up accelerator?
Akhil Nigam: A startup accelerator is designed to accelerate the growth of selected startups within a set time period; in our case, within four months. During that time we connect our startups with everything they need to succeed immediately: active mentorship, a community of entrepreneurs, access to funding, media, office space and other resources. In essence it’s a four-month boot camp for startups and their founders.
LK: How did you begin and why? What prompted your belief that such an enterprise was needed, much less might succeed in its mission?
AN: The epiphany came to John Harthorne (Co-founder & CEO) and I in 2009 when we were working at Bain & Co. together and at that moment everyone’s focus was on the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression. Risk was in flight everywhere and the whole economic system came to a standstill with no one risking or even lending any capital.
Our basic belief is that startups and entrepreneurs are the source of the majority of value creation in society, whether it’s through new products and services, jobs or wealth, and we need to focus society more towards value creation rather than just financial engineering. Too many people and organizations are taking slices of the pie, without creating more pies. We wanted to help return entrepreneurs to the center of the equation and provide them with all the resources needed to catalyze their growth. Our competitive format creates an urgency allowing us to identify and aggregate the highest-impact teams and resources. And our no-strings attached policy attracts entrepreneurs who’re reluctant to give equity to other startup accelerators, creating a uniquely risk-free environment that actually encourages taking risks.
LK: Why Massachusetts? Why Boston? What if any role did the Harvard/MIT/ academic nexus play?
AN: Boston is America’s hub of innovation. It was only logical to start MassChallenge in the Commonwealth. Both Mayor Menino and Governor Patrick are enthusiastic supporters of innovation and see early-stage startups as drivers of economic growth and jobs. With Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Northeastern, Boston University, Babson, and more, Boston’s a generator for inspired students with ideas that can change the world. Boston also has all the ingredients needed to turn these ideas into viable businesses: angel and VC capital, startup infrastructure, startup founders, and the executives who’ve done it before and can act as mentors to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
LK: What’s the private sector’s role? What’s the state’s role?
AN: If we’re to revive today’s economy, it’s important to create collaborations between the public and private sectors. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and our sponsors, including companies like Fidelity and Verizon, not only provide funding, they’re active mentors of our startups and help connect them with what they need to succeed. It’s really about the whole ecosystem coming together – government, corporations, and academic institutions, to help nurture and grow the innovation economy. MassChallenge is a platform where each of these constituents can come together to share their unique strengths collectively to create something stronger than they ever could of acting alone. Here the sum’s truly far greater than the parts.
LK: Can it happen elsewhere in America?
AN: Absolutely. People all over America have amazing ideas and need access to resources to make their dreams a reality. MassChallenge helps bring the pieces of the puzzle together. Pieces that can include government support, access to investors, corporations, executive talent, early customers, and like-minded entrepreneurs. The competition model curates the very best startups and through the accelerator all the resources needed by a high growth startup come to the entrepreneur instead of the entrepreneur having to go and hunt them down. I think this will prove critical to driving the economic engine. In America, entrepreneurship is our competitive advantage and we should be doing everything we can to enable and support it.
LK: What was the single hardest part of launching the MassChallenge?
AN: The hardest part was getting the initial support we needed to launch. It’s really a crazy concept, right?. One hundred and twenty-five separate startups, all in one space, with no equity taken whatsoever. However, now that we’re launched our growth has been astronomical.
LK: What advice do you have for aspiring applicants?
AN: My advice is to identify the problems you face in your own life and think about how to alleviate those problems. More often than not, there are people experiencing the same pains all over the world and seeking solutions. Yours could be the one they’re looking for. My only other advice is just go for it. It’s often been said that “entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down”. So be it. If you wait for every condition to be perfect before you start, you’ll never get started.
LK: How difficult has it been to recruit judges, mentors and sponsors?
AN: MassChallenge has been called a “watering-hole” for innovation. If you have 128 brilliant entrepreneurs in one space, a lot of interesting people will want to get to know them, mentor, and even sponsor them. We’re been very successful in recruiting the best judges, mentors, and sponsors to help our entrepreneurs win.
LK: Akhil, I must say, your list of sponsors is remarkable. How tough is it getting them started and keeping them involved?
AN: From day one our sponsors have been consistently engaged and dedicated to helping our startups succeed. They’re one of the key ingredients of success and some of our earliest sponsors took a leap of faith with us on what was then an unproven concept. We ourselves of course are just like any other startup where we have to go raise money every year; so it is a recurring sales process. With our continued success, a lot more people are becoming sponsors. One of the draws it seems is that our startups are either creating new industries or making old industries obsolete and the sponsor community loves the opportunity to be the first ones to gain access to these new insights and dynamics.
LK: How do you all measure success?
AN: We measure all of our success on how happy our startups are. At the end of every Accelerator season we ask all the startups to rank how satisfied they are with the program, which gives us a net promoter score (NPS). Our NPS has traditionally run even higher than the score loyal Apple users grant Apple. And as impressive as this sounds, we’re dedicated to improving it every year. We also make sure to measure how our alumni are doing every six months in terms of employees, revenue, and funding raised.
LK: You all use the remarkable line, “Join the Start Up Renaissance”. Is there really a renaissance underway; is the Mass Challenge leading it?
AN: Lou, I do believe there’s renaissance underway. We envision a creative and inspired society in which everyone recognizes that they can define their own future, and is empowered to maximize their impact. Every year, the startups that enter the MassChallenge become more and more diverse. We’re literally giving entrepreneurs the courage to take risks and attempt to turn what others may perceive as crazy dreams into tangible realities. MassChallenge is open to any idea from any industry from anywhere in the world with no strings attached. There are great entrepreneurs all around the world and we want to attract them and make it possible for them to launch new organizations that will improve the world for everyone.
LK: Are there “best practices” that you all see at the Mass Challenge that you believe can be applied elsewhere to innovation in general?
AN: Yes. We’ve learned a lot about innovation in the past few years. One critical best practice is that innovation and great ideas happen when people share ideas with one other. We throw a lot of events where people can meet and share their thinking. Through each one of those interactions entrepreneurs learn new things that shape their own ideas.
When an entrepreneur first comes in here their ideas are just hypotheses. We tell them to test their ideas in discussions with real people. People generally think of innovation as happening in an isolated environment, the solitary working alone and not talking to anyone. But your idea will change and it will improve – I guarantee it – by presenting it and refreshing it through discussion and dialogue. Just look at some of the most dynamic new companies today. Google wanted to be a search engine for corporations, Facebook wanted to be an online directory for colleges. Each of these ideas was shaped and improved by meeting and talking with real people, who became real users, and then customers. We’ve even designed our physical space to promote and maximize interactions between people. When know when we increase the number of “collisions” between smart people great things happen.
A second best practice for innovation that sounds obvious but too often gets overlooked is execution. Most people think their ideas are special. But in reality a lot of people have a lot of good ideas. The critical difference lies in execution. As an entrepreneur you will never have enough time, money, or people to get the job done but you must become resourceful and learn to prioritize, get the resources you need, and keep the ball moving forward everyday.
Finally, perhaps the key best practice is resilience. To be an entrepreneur you have to be resilient. Stay focused on what is important and why you are doing it even when people do not believe in you.
LK: What’s next? Where do you all go from here?
AN: Every year we get more and more international startups. This year we attracted applicants from 40 countries. We’ve even launched a program in Israel. We’d like to continue increasing our reach to ensure we’re attracting the very best entrepreneurs from around the world. We also want to continue increasing the suite of resources that are available to these startups There are a lot of entrepreneurs who still have not heard about MassChallenge! We’re looking to continue helping the next generation of innovators.
LK: Akhil, who do you admire today in terms of innovation expertise and execution?
AN: I’ve always admired and will continue to admire Desh Deshpande. His tireless dedication to using entrepreneurship and innovation as catalysts for sustainable change in the United States, India and Canada is absolutely inspiring.
LK: Akhil, thank you very much. Your story is inspiring. Congratulations on all you’ve done and all you have ahead of you and the MassChallenge.
AN: Thanks, Lou. I’ve enjoyed it very much.