As a techie, business leader and mentor, what could be better than identifying the next generation of exciting new startups and guiding their entrepreneurial creators? So when I was offered the opportunity to be a judge MassChallenge's first year in the UK, I didn't have to think twice about accepting.
MassChallenge is the world's largest startup competition and incubator that has helped over a hundred startups a year since launching in 2010. With a mission to build a society where everyone has the skills and inspiration to forge their own path, MassChallenge started in Boston (the Mass is short for Massachussetts), and expanded to Israel in 2013. The UK launch is building on this success and hoping to tap into the very different startup cultures that exist in Boston, Israel and London to open entrepreneur's eyes to the wider world around them.
The competition is open to what are considered to be "early stage" startups; defined as having raised under £300,000 of investment and have annual revenue of under £600,000. Applications are first judged online and offered feedback, before the top applications are invited to pitch in-person to a panel of judges in London, from which the very best will be offered a place on the accelerator programme.
As the objective of MassChallenge is to support first-time entrepreneurs with no strings attached, it provides four month programmes including mentorship, office space, education, and a network and community as well as cash prizes, and in particular doesn't take any equity from the startups.
Comparing startup cultures
While the goals and reach of MassChallenge make it interesting on its own merits; I am particularly drawn to the mix of startup cultures that it makes possible. For most people, the word "startup" conjures a generic image of young people working long hours building some frothy, hyped-up social app and making a lot of money when it's inexplicably bought by a large company, but outside of Silicon Valley you get some very different startup cultures.
Before you even leave the United States, you get very different mindsets in cities like Boston and Seattle than in Silicon Valley. There's less hype and more grounded entrepreneurs who are more focused on overturning conventions and bringing real value to real people. This is the environment Mass Challenge was started in by two consultants at Bain who quit their jobs in order to better use their time helping entrepreneurs rather than making money advising large corporates. It's a mentality that runs deep at MassChallenge, as evidenced by the number of current and past applicants from the energy, cleantech, healthcare, life sciences and social impact sectors.
Meanwhile, when you take a look at the Israeli startup scene (the second-largest in the world after Silicon Valley by some measures, notably because of the investments of companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and more) you find that a major feature is highly-focused startups around extreme technical challenges in networking and software, which are often acquired by the tech giants for their expertise.
London is different again, with many London startups working in the financial technology (FinTech) sector, leveraging London's position as a global capital market hub. It's another very healthy startup scene, with Bloomberg estimating that the tech sector in and around London is growing faster than California's, and over a quarter of all London's growth accounted for by the digital sector.
MassChallenge offers the possibility of bringing together the diverse startup cultures of Boston, Israel and London, connecting these entrepreneurs with potential investors and team members. That's why I'm so excited about judging these startup applicants: the most successful ones will be offered the chance to go far beyond their home environments, and see what opportunities lie in the wider world beyond.
What do the judges do?
MassChallenge has grown from 446 applicants in 2010 to over 1,700 in 2014, and with only 128 places in the accelerator programme the judges have to identify the applicants with the highest potential and which are most likely to benefit from the accelerator. We use the competition framework to provide a sense of urgency and to encourage the applicants to outdo what they thought would be possible.
The first round of judging involves assessing an online application to identify the most interesting companies, after which all are provided with feedback before the best few are invited to pitch in person to the panel of judges. Following this, those judged to have the highest potential against criteria of impact, feasibility and execution are invited to join the accelerator programme.