Before the pandemic hit the world in February 2020, most startup accelerators and incubators were functioning with in-person program sessions that lasted from three months to six months.
Beginning in 2020 March with mixed, confusing and often conflicting federal and state mandates many accelerator programs closed or converted to virtual online formats. Along with the shift in program format, came an abrupt drop in business formations as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Employer Identification Number applications. The numbers of applications increased dramatically starting six weeks into the pandemic shutdown. During the third quarter of 2020 the highest number of applications were recorded since 2004 when record keeping began.
Prior to 2020 startup accelerators were organized as on-site programs. Their formats were similar: sixteen to twenty-four months duration in a physical open office, meetings with cohorts and mentors followed by a concluding Demo Day. The 2020 pandemic changed everything. During 2020 most Demo days shifted to virtual formats. As the pandemic spread, most face-to face programs converted mid-session to virtual programs and accelerators scrambled to reorganize.
Some of the larger accelerators such as 500 Startups, TechStars and Y Combinator have created online programs and prep-accelerator programs which are open to all interested founders. Many startup accelerators were created as online programs while a few saw the need prior to 2020 and converted to a virtual format or created hybrid programs with several concluding weeks at the accelerator’s offices and live Demo Days.
Some of the many advantages of virtual programs:
- Program costs are reduced by minimizing or eliminating office space
- Applications are often on a continuous rolling basis
- A more diverse cohort can be assembled from around the world
- Founders do not have to relocate and can continue working on building their companies
- A larger and more diverse pool of mentors are available online.
- Founders can more easily choose mentors that are a fit form their goals
- Investors can more easily review pitches throughout the length of the program.
- Founders can move at their own pace with the potential to accomplish more within the time frame of the program.
- Founders and mentors relationship can being easily maintained after the close of the formal program
- Demo Day can be opened up to a larger group of investors, the media and other interested parties
The primary negative to virtual programs is the comradery and cross fertilization of ideas gained from working day to day with other cohorts. The substitution of online forums is not as engaging. Many accelerator managers see this drawback as a real but minor price to pay.
Many of the virtual accelerators operate with formats similar to traditional in-person
A number of startup accelerators existed as fully-operating virtual programs prior to 2020. None could have known of the coming global pandemic. This is a short list of accelerators who for whatever the reason were ready for the world-wide shift to fully online communications. The fact that the internet exists at all during this unprecedented period is indeed a very fortunate thing. Without the internet the death and disruption would have surely been far worse. Working from home would have been impossible. Shopping online would not have existed.
LEANSTACK 90-DAY STARTUP
Leanstack began as an immersive online accelerator program in 2010. They have mentored thousands of teams from 27 countries 100% virtually. The program is fee based (US$3,000 in 2021 with discounts available). There is a selection process. The program combines entrepreneurial education, online tools teamwork training, innovation workshops, hackathons and “startup weekend” experiences. Coaches and mentors from around the world provide one-on-one coaching to help steer your product development to avoid common pitfalls experienced by startups. Leanstack offers a freeFoundations Course which provides an overview of their Continuous Innovation Framework. Founders can discuss your business model during an introductory diagnostic session. Emphasis is given to creating desirable, viable and feasible products. As its name implies, the sessions are compressed into a 90 days time frame and terminate in a Demo Day typical to the majority of startup accelerators.
Created as a Zoom-based accelerator in 2016, as a hybrid program that now operates entirely online. They offer seven programs fee-based programs each with a different emphasis:
- Masterclass Hacking Uncertainty -- downloadable sessions with schedule Q&A sessions in mid-June
- Strategic Persuasion Workshop -- a a fee-based intensive personalized workshop to improve communication skills
- Startup Program - Online - a a fee-based selected 8 week accelerator/incubator hybrid program for founders to create an effective strategy, create traction and a marketing plan
- Business Innovation - Online -- a a fee-based selected 4-week programs designed for founders and managers with a viable startup idea who seek clarity and refinement of the project
- Early Stage Startup Program -- a a fee-based selected 12-week customized program for startup founders and managers refine their visions and communication skills
- Growth Stage Startup -- a fee-based selected 8 to 12 week program for functioning startups looking for seed-stage funding and coaching held in offices in Los Angeles, on site in Los Angeles
- Influencer Masterclass -- a fee-based selected program to help founders develop their personal brand and profile, on site in Los Angeles
Organized as an online accelerator in 2017 after realizing then that there were hundreds of talented founders that could not for various reasons relocate for several months.
The program is synchronous and extends for 13 weeks. Founders convene online throughout the program in a manner similar to Techstar’s established in-person programs (which are primarily virtual now). Programs operate on US Mountain Time Zone. The time frame is convenient for founders in North and South America but not as convenient for others around the world. The program is dubbed “remote-first” because founders are brought together for a brief period to build cohesion within the cohort. The mentor relationships developed during the course of the program are easily continued after Demo Day.
Techstars Space Accelerator 2021
Techstars Space Accelerator 2021 program focuses on the next generation of commercial space technology companies and related frontier technologies. It is run in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, Arrow Electronics, and Israel Aerospace Industries North America.
In 2021 this program will run virtually as well.
Pioneer is a fully remote accelerator started in 2016 to locate emerging talented and ambitious founders with early stage companies or ideas for products. They provide a four week program of mentorship providing the basics for starting a successful business. Participants are selected using a tournament process in which founders compete for the places in each accelerator session and funding. The goal is to find, fund and mentor founders from underserved parts of the world. Founders give up 1% of their company to join the remote program. The accelerator won’t give them cash but will help founders incorporate their startups using Stripe Atlas, give them guidance and substantial perks. Upon exiting the program, Pioneer has the option of further funding a company in exchange for increased equity. A new tournament starts every four weeks.
Open Water Accelerator
Open Water has a different form of accelerator format. Instead of providing monetary grants or charging fees, each of the twenty selected early stage startups are provided a compatible team of engineers and designers to develop a twelve week action plan. Working remotely the team helps the startup convert their ideas into a market fit. In exchange for this investment, the accelerator takes a 5% equity stake in the startup. The program terminates with a Demo Day and introductions to next round investors.
Founded in 2016 as an on-line accelerator that does not require equity from the startup founders and is accessible from anywhere in the world. Founders can participate regardless of the stage of the startup, from an idea through pre-seed.
Three programs are offered:
- Pre-Accelerator Program -- A 30-day self-paced course to develop a minimum viable product (MVP) with the goal of increasing revenues to $1 million and access to pre-accelerator cohorts
- Pre-seed Accelerator Program -- A 90 to 120-day self-paced course for startups with a minimum $50K raised with the goal of increasing revenues to $1 million
- Series A Seed Accelerator Program -- A 90 to 120 day self-paced course for startups with a minimum of $250K raised with the goal of increasing revenues to $10 million
Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (University of Chicago)
Sponsored by the University of Chicago, Argonne National Labs and Fermi National Accelerator Lab as an online portal of workshops is free. Educational content related to entrepreneurship through acquisition is available. Programs last for 24 weeks. Founders gain guided support from experts in venture capital, business formation and intellectual property laws.
- Founders gain access to the Polsky Center’s extensive network of investors
- Founders participate in regular goal-setting meetings and educational training on a variety of essential business development topics.
- Founder receive support in sourcing business talent to help a scientific team launch from a lab,
- Founders receive support in pursuing early-stage sources of funding, such as grants, seed funding, and through the George Shultz Innovation Fund which will invest up to $250,000.
Polsky Center has several types of support programs for startup and established small businesses. Applications are on a rolling basis.
Expara Virtech Global Accelerator
Established by Expara Venture Capital from headquarters in Singapore, the program is one of several available from this established venture capital firm. Unique to the startup ecosystem is its focus on a specific worldwide problem- the Covid-19 pandemic. The program is 12 weeks and is open to entrepreneurs and startups involved in services and products to address the issues caused by specifically the current Covid-19 pandemic and potential future pandemics. Areas of focus are:
- New and improved means of virus detection
- New tools to share information
- Solutions to protect people from and slow the spread of disease
- Improving the quality of life and work during and after a pandemic
Expara Venture Capital’s worldwide network of investors and mentors is available to assist participants. Founders will have access to Expara Academy resources. One-on-one virtual mentoring sessions are available with experts in each field of endeavor. Funding of up to US$50,000 is available from a dedicated fund. Additional funding may be available during the pitch sessions or at or after Demo Day
Launched in 2017, Startup-O is not an accelerator in the traditional definition. It is a platform for startup assessments leading to investments and venture funding by a network of worldwide funds. The structured online assessment program helps the venture funds associated with the platform to discover and invest in promising post revenue tech startups.
The investment decisions are made with the help of a transparent ranking algorithm based curation process along with the traditional fund due diligence. Its approach allows founders to get evaluated by other seasoned entrepreneurs who have gone down this path before them. This gives the most deserving startups:
- access to a global capital and a network of successful experienced industry leaders.
- Top ranked startups get funded with Pre-series A funding by venture funds.
- There is no equity dilution upfront and thousands of dollars in travel and lodging are saved with online participation
Applications are open for the sessions starting in June.
Is an independent traditional startup accelerator program headquartered in Singapore and operating virtually. The program is open to startups from any country. The alumni include businesses from ten countries. The program extends for 100 days divided into intensive eight weeks of master classes, investor meetings and pitch coaching with mentors. The final month of the program includes a Demo day with a curated group of investors and partners.
When founders join Accelerating Asia’s program, they also join the portfolio of previous startups which includes over founders from 25 companies. The program is run entirely online currently which is actually how it has been operated since its formation because it is difficult to involve alumni that are remotely located.
Applications open April 2021 for the accelerator program. If selected founders are eligible for funding up to US$150,000.
Accelerate Asia operates a pre-accelerator program called Amplify by Accelerating Asia.
It is a few based program with 400 minutes of basic training divided into 6 modules. Virtual sessions are available for questions and answers from the Accelerating Asia team. Founders have the opportunity to pitch to the investor network. Perks like cloud storage, business formation apps and marketing assistance worth $16,000 are offered. Applications open April 2021.
Part of the SOSV accelerator family of venture funds and accelerators, dlab was founded in 2018 to assist startups involved in decentralized and blockchain technologies to raise capital and resources. The fully-remote accelerator program operates from an on-site studio in New York City.
In exchange for equity, dlab provides pre-seed capital, dlab supports startups through a proven recipe of scheduled review and feedback sessions, mentor interactions, and customized hands-on assistance with product architecture and design, user experience, business development, and fundraising strategies. Programs are between 90 and 180 days. Cohort groups are formed by specialities. Less than 5% of the applicants are selected to enter the program. Further assistance is provided by SOSV with follow-up funding, a global network of alumni and $500,000 in services from partners and infrastructure providers.
Startup School is a free online program and global community of founders launched in 2017. Started by Y Combinator as a pre-accelerator for that is accessible to a broad range of ambitious people contemplating building a startup or with just an idea. Startup School attracts a worldwide group. Only 31% of the participants are from the US.
The program does not have a time frame for completion but sessions tend to last 8 to 10 weeks and participants can work at their own pace. Each selected team gets access to more than $100,000 worth of use from cloud services: Amazon, Google and Digital Ocean plus Stripe, Brex, Segment, and other SaaS firms.
Completion of Startup School does not guarantee an offer to participate in a Y Combinator program. Typical 45% of the graduates go on to join their community of companies.
The first quarter of 2021 is coming to a close. There is no reason to believe that the energy gathered by the startup space during 2020 will abate. Many of the traditional startup accelerators have been forced to complete sessions online or adapted existing to a virtual model. Those that have been running virtual programs benefited from experience. Many believe the standard will become a hybrid model with most of the recruiting, selection process, coaching and mentorship parts of the program will continue to be virtual. The economies far outweigh the cohort bonding from in-person exchange. Most, if not all, of the participants are comfortable with virtual communications from a social as well as professional viewpoint. If 2020 is any gauge, 2021 will be another record year for innovation and building of new companies.