Q&A: TechStars CEO David Cohen sees Microsoft Kinect as a startup engine

TechStars CEO David Cohen on the Microsoft campus today for the Kinect Accelerator Demo Day.

After three months of work, putting in long hours to hone their technologies and business plans, eleven startups will be making a pitch more than 100 investors in Redmond this afternoon. It’s Demo Day — the traditional capstone event for the TechStars startup accelerator program.

The difference this time: The startups are all basing their businesses on Microsoft’s Kinect sensor, and they’ve come from around the world to develop their companies inside Microsoft for the past 90 days.

It’s the culmination of the first Microsoft Accelerator for Kinect program, operated in partnership with TechStars.

GeekWire attended a preview event this morning, and we’ll have highlights from the startups in a follow-up post. But first, here are excerpts from our conversation with TechStars CEO David Cohen at the event.

The Kinect Accelerator program seems unusual in the context of TechStars.

It is. It’s the first time we’ve done a corporate partnership under our ‘powered by’ program. Our core programs — we have five geographies, New York, Boston, San Antonio, Boulder and Seattle — really focus on software and Internet broadly. Microsoft has been a longtime supporter of TechStars a sponsor and mentors, contributing technology to our companies. So when they approached us about the idea of running a program like TechStars but focused on Microsoft ecosystem products, it was very interesting to us, and we jumped at the opportunity. So this is a Microsoft accelerator powered by TechStars, meaning that we’re operating it, it’s our best practices, our systems internally, our employees, but it’s really heavily supported by Microsoft and focused in this case on Kinect technologies, but we’re doing more with them over time. We’re doing an Azure-focused program starting later this year, so we expect there will be more things like that.

Is the end result an investment in some of these companies? 

From our perspective, we (TechStars) are investors in all of these companies. That’s what we do. We’re investors. We’re not doing this to be a consultant. We’re doing it to try to get interesting companies that we’re investors in. We’ll present the companies today and we’ll use our efforts and our connections to try to get these companies funded to the extent they want to be funded. There’s a few that are bootstrapping off revenues. But most of them will look for funding. So that’s the idea of today. And we’ll continue that through our network nationally. And for many of them, that will be the outcome, hopefully. And then they’ll go from there and try to build a business, so that’s just the beginning.

From what you’ve seen of the projects, what do you think of Kinect as a technology for startups to base a business on? 

It was really interesting. I’m an investor in a lot of things that have to do with human-computer interaction. I’m an investor in Oblong, which is the Minority Report stuff. Literally it’s those guys. I’ve just always been interested in moving past the keyboard and mouse. When Kinect came out, it introduced a low-cost device for the first time to the masses of developers. It’s been stunning, the number of businesses that have been created just around that one thing. We got 500 applications from around the world. These are startups that are trying to build their companies on Kinect technology. If you just imagine that each of those have a few people as a startup, that’s thousands of jobs. It’s really interesting how one innovation can drive so much activity.

What are your general impressions of the end result of the Kinect Accelerator companies? 

Across the board they’ve come a long way they’ve come a long way. It’s just been 90 days. The group is so bonded. I went to a dinner last night, and they’re all standing up, very emotional about this being their last dinner together. Talking about reunions. It’s become a peer group, which is one of the things we try to accomplish. In terms of the business, you’ve got some real businesses here. As an investor that has a fund outside the context of TechStars, I’m looking at some of these businesses for my fund. That’s the goal, to see interesting business come out of it. They won’t all be successful, but I think a lot of them have a pretty good shot.

Previously on GeekWire: Inside the Kinect Accelerator: Startups camp out at Microsoft in pursuit of next big thing