Jotting down The Next Big Idea on a cocktail napkin might be the first step toward building a new and innovative company, but the gulf between that and actual profitability is a wide one. One local company is making its mission to help provide Westchester and Hudson Valley entrepreneurs the skills and connections they need to get from napkin to NASDAQ.
Accel7, named for the seven Hudson Valley counties it was founded to operate within, is a start-up accelerator that works with early-stage companies and their founders to help develop them into not only viable but profitable businesses — in as little as three months.
The White Plains-based 501(c)(3) is partly funded through Empire State Development and grew out of the Hudson Valley Center for Innovation so, while new, the organization already has more than 15 years of experience supporting local businesses, and more than 40 combined from its directorial staff.
Coming off Accel7’s first three-month cohort of local business leaders, Managing Director Danny Potocki, a Harvard grad and adjunct professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Iona College, agreed to give us a crash course in startup development.
Westchester Magazine: So what is Accel7’s core focus?
Danny Potocki: We focus on conscious-driven, impact-driven, early-stage companies — and early stage here means a team that is really like two to five people. They are just focusing on their core idea and they’re looking to bootstrap that, build that, and grow that into a launch company and a launch product — something to put out into the market with users and partners and clients.
There’s a lot of firsts in that: first clients, first partners, first users. We’re helping them build that up and then launch that.
Accel7 offers one- and two-month entrepreneurial boot camps as well as six-month grow advisory services for more developed companies entering their seed stages, but the hot ticket item is your three-month cohorts. Can you tell us a little about why these sessions have been so popular?
The new accelerator program helps these early-stage companies with two main things. The first is what they call a “minimum viable product.” That’s the first product that they’re building, that they’re trying to get out there with their first customers, first clients, first partners.
Secondly, we call it a “path to money.” These early teams can fundraise and build that way from investors — I think that’s what most people think about when they think about early companies — but also it’s just as viable and sometimes even better to try to build revenue. Maybe that’s taking loans from a local bank, maybe that’s actually generating market revenue from [early] users, maybe it’s a strategic partnership. That path to money could be different for each team and we want to coach them and advise them with that in mind.
What we do with the boot camp is say, Okay, let’s go a little earlier in this cohort or group of founders and identify the real solid ideas and potential companies there. And let’s work with professionals and small businesses to welcome them into this boot camp because they struggle with growth as well and acceleration. If we can identify the right ideas at that level, and then potentially put them into our cohort program for the three months, we can regenerate those conscious driven, impact driven startups with the methodologies that we have.
Accel7 is very much a local organization. What made your team decide an accelerator belonged in Westchester as opposed to more popularized tech hubs like Manhattan or out in Silicon Valley?
All the people that we bring in the door to help these startups — right now that’s around five core partners — we’re now talking about 25 to 30 people that are all hands-on with our cohorts. The cohort we’re currently running is five early stage companies: they are all based in this region. Two of them came from New York City to be in this region. (One of them is from the Upper West Side the other one is from Brooklyn.) We think that’s a big deal.
The live/work/play aspect that Westchester County is all about, the economic development that’s been happening here, all the buildup on the Rivertowns, our good friends in New Rochelle and White Plains that we’re partnering with — they love to see this movement in the market.
Our localism and our local effort are to build partnerships and clients with these teams in the immediate area. Let’s partner with local organizations here like White Plains Hospital, that we have some history with and collaboration with, and match our startup capabilities with the needs and requirements of those local, corporate nonprofit — government, schools, hospitals — organizations, and answer those needs. We can still scale big startups that way.
Your focus is specifically on organizations that are looking to provide wellness, mobility, and even sustainable food and energy solutions. How did that specificity come about?
We believe that in a place like Westchester [that is growing rapidly] and when we have tons of movement from Brooklyn and Queens and New York City up to places like Kingston, Rhinebeck, and the Catskills, there’s a lot of emphasis on “How do we sustain and how do we build a stronger community as the market’s growing, as services are growing, cities are growing?”
There’s a lot of redevelopment that is happening in New Rochelle and Yonkers. We think that’s a great opportunity to say, “Okay are there gonna be less cars on the road? Do we want more people to have bike share? What does that look like? Can we use technology to help solve that challenge or phenomenon?” If its grown within a 45 to 50-mile radius, we would love to have that fresh carrot on someone’s plate by the next day in this micro-market.
Can you give us some examples?
One of our startups, Lessonbee, is focused on building a platform to help with sex and health education in the public schools in the region. New York State says every public school now needs to offer sex and health education for every single student. Teachers need something like Lessonbee to facilitate this in the classroom when they’re not trained on this across the board. We believe that’s a big opportunity in a local market to help the 32 component districts in Westchester County.
Capri Technologies, Inc. is a financial literacy platform for girls between the ages of 14 and 18. If we want to talk about leadership and empowerment, home economics and financial health and future job creators and all those dynamics, financial literacy is a big gap in what’s happening in local communities.
The banks want to educate more folks with that; the business association wants to get involved as well. We see these as great opportunities to bring more people together to solve these challenges.
Accel7 is starting to wrap up its first year of operations and you’re finishing up the first cohort now, while accepting applicants now for your second, and also expanding into a secondary office up in Rhinebeck.
What’s something you’ve learned from this hands-on work in the Hudson Valley with this first cohort that you want to bring forward into the next batch of startups?
I think there’s potentially a couple things there, but one of the most important is the first cohort really allowed us to learn and improve how we can help early-stage founders specifically in this area. We learned that founders are willing to come from other places like New York City and Brooklyn to Westchester and the greater Hudson Valley to work on the businesses themselves.
I think one other key element to the expansion is there is a real strong focus on public/private or nonprofit partnerships. We’re currently working with municipalities in the northern Hudson Valley and southern Hudson Valley — in Westchester — to launch new offices with new services, and this will coincide with the launch of the fall 2019 cohort.
We’re looking for 10 companies to run two separate cohorts in those two locations, and we’re going to be recruiting nationwide to bring [partners] to this area, which I think is a really important component to that.
How do you decide which companies you wan to help get to market? How do you choose which ones end up in your cohort?
We’re always improving our processes, but we’re involving more people in our internal team. There’s an advisory committee that helps with the vetting and selection of anyone that’s coming into the cohorts in the fall. That’s a best practice that we wanted to establish.
We have methods internally that really prioritize what we call and what is industry-known as ESG: “Environmental, Social, and Governance.” Environmental would be sustainable food and energy, agriculture, and solar energies and natural resources, things like that. The S is any social goodness, so education and wellness and healthcare are huge. [And governance is kind of self-explanatory.]
We also have to prioritize who exactly is an early company. If folks are just coming with an idea, that’s okay but we can help if they’re a little further along in that process. We want people to be “working from here and doing business anywhere.” So we’re not saying you have to be from here, like born and raised, but we want to have you here during the program and to reside after as a part of this economic development.