Viewing Startup Incubators From Inside-Out
- by Matthew Brodsky
Raj Jeyakumar, WG’13, and Bredesen (Brett) Lewis, WG’13, did not wait long to leverage their trial-by-fire experiences in the 2013 Wharton Business Plan Competition. As BPC semifinalists, they had proof that they had been tested.
“It meant that we had refined our idea down,” Jeyakumar says of their startup, Skillbridge, an online platform connecting high-caliber “fractional workers” with employers looking for freelance professionals.
That proof helped them gain acceptance into two competitive, prestigious, Boston-based startup programs: Summer@Highland and the MassChallenge Startup Accelerator. For current students or recent grads, Highland offers an $18,000 no-strings-attached stipend and free office space. Anyone with a seed- or early-stage startup can apply to MassChallenge, and those who gain entrance to this “world’s largest accelerator program and startup competition” vie for a share of $1 million in cash awards, as well as thousands more in sponsor grants.
The incubators offer these Wharton MBAs an opportunity to mingle with a diverse group of fellow entrepreneurs. At Highland, participants represent nine schools, and both programs include participants with different backgrounds—including plenty of techies and engineers with soldering irons and magnifying glasses.
“We’re amongst some very impressive people,” Lewis says.
Besides the “next stage” in startup recognition afforded by splitting time in both programs, as well as the potential financial benefits, the Skillbridge team is receiving invaluable support in the form of mentorship and feedback. They have access to “super senior people”—CEOs and heads of corporate recruitment—who would otherwise be challenging to reach, says Lewis. In other instances, they are able to pick the brains of people who were in their shoes not too long ago. When we spoke with them, Jeyakumar and Lewis, were excited about an upcoming lecture by Scott Griffith, the CEO of ZipCar.
As part of Highland, they also connected with law firm WilmerHale. Jeyakumar can discern a night-and-day difference in meetings with prospective clients. An HR person on the other side of the table normally raises technical red tape on legal issues. Now, Skillbridge can name them as their corporate counsel and assure that their consultants are legally able to work for the corporation without the company taking on any risk.
Prominent Whartonites have helped Jeyakumar and Lewis along the way, including Andy Hunt, WG’10, co-founder of Warby Parker; David Bell, the Xinmei Zhang and Yongge Dai Professor; and fellow Wharton BPC participants (and eventual winners) Jean-Mathieu (Jim) Chabas, WG’13, and Venkat Jonnala, WG’13, of ZenKars.
Both incubators end by the fall, by which time Jeyakumar and Lewis should know if Skillbridge has appeal or not. If so, by the end of this year, they plan to have raised their angel round of investing.
“We feel comfortable given the networks and programs we’re in, we can get in front of most investors. So it’s about shoring up the pitch,” Jeyakumar says.
Editor’s note: Read more about Skillbridge’s experiences during the Wharton BPC in our past article, “The Business Plan Competition Experience.” And continue to follow their exploits through Lewis’ blog on the Wharton Blog Network.