When Andy Sack handed the reins of Techstars Seattle to angel investor Chris DeVore in an emotional farewell last October, it was thought to be a routine move that would continue the traditions of the long-running startup incubator. After all, Sack and DeVore were longtime friends and business partners, dating back to their time together co-founding the Seattle Internet company Judy’s Book.
But five months into his tenure as managing director of Techstars Seattle, DeVore is making his mark with a new team, a new philosophy and, most importantly, a fresh $2.7 million fund that will bankroll the next four classes of startup companies through 2019.
DeVore sat down with GeekWire today to talk about the new fund, pointing out some of the “usual suspects” that stepped up to support the organization: Madrona, Maveron, Vulcan Capital, Trilogy and Bezos Expeditions.
But DeVore also broadened the pool of investors by inviting some of the organization’s key mentors to participate as investors as well, allowing them to put more “skin in the game” and more closely align with the mission of TechStars Seattle. Backers include Seattle entrepreneurs such as Whitepages founder Alex Algard, Porch CEO Matt Ehrlichman, Dwellable co-founder Adam Doppelt. Moz CEO Rand Fishkin, Tune CEO Peter Hamilton and many others.
DeVore also is reshaping the structure of the organization, hiring University of Washington grad Jaren Schwartz to lead the program management.
The new blood is designed to bring a fresh focus to Techstars Seattle as it opens applications and looks to welcome its sixth class this summer.
“We are looking at Techstars as less of a school where people apply, and are admitted, and more like an elite sports team where we have a network of recruiters — mentors and investors and the community more broadly — we really want them to think that this is a chance to build a dream team once a year in Seattle with the best local startups and really pushing the best of the geography, from Vancouver down to Portland, into the program.”
Interestingly, DeVore, who previously worked for Sapient and Patagonia, was not a shoe-in for the role at Techstars Seattle. He had to be interviewed and selected by Techstars co-founder David Cohen.
And with a growing portfolio of companies at his venture fund, Founder’s Co-op, DeVore also had to make sure he could take on the challenge.
“Over the last five to seven years, since we started Founder’s Co-op, I have decided that this is the work I want to do, which is to build great companies and build the ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest,” said DeVore. “Between the fundraising for the fund and Startup Hall and the work with the city, all of this to me, in my head, all fits together. My job is to help the most talented entrepreneurs in the geography build the biggest and best companies that they can, and I just felt this was another important piece to that puzzle.”
With the fresh funds, DeVore was able to boost the annual budget going forward from $515,000 to $675,000, reducing its dependence on outside sponsors and bolstering the programming. That also means he now has the flexibility to expand the class size to 11 or 12 companies if he so chooses. Historically, the TechStars Seattle classes have largely been limited to 10, with each company trading six percent in equity for $18,000 in cash and hours of mentorship.
Now located in the University of Washington’s Startup Hall, Techstars Seattle is still awaiting a breakout success. Seattle area startups such as Remitly, Apptentive, Bizible and Shippable are gaining momentum, but the program has yet to produce a blockbuster exit that really could catapult the organization to new heights.
DeVore, of course, is looking to make sure those big-time exits happen. And he’s taking a new approach to how Techstars Seattle selects its companies, and thinks about success.
As Techstars has grown globally with programs spread from London to San Diego, DeVore said that Techstars Seattle needs to define itself better.
“We need to stand for something in the Techstars network,” he said. “And I think it has to stand for a certain kind of excellence, the kind of excellence that this geography is known for.” That means choosing the best of the best in areas such as cloud computing, enterprise software, consumer marketplaces, life sciences and artificial intelligence.
In the past, Techstars Seattle has recruited teams from across the globe. And while that won’t change under DeVore’s watch, he wants to find entrepreneurs who are committed to building their companies in the Northwest.
“That is the opportunity to both develop the best of what we have in the ecosystem and, frankly, import amazing teams who not only want to be in Techstars, but they want to be in Techstars Seattle and build their business in Seattle,” he said. “If we can give them … an excuse to pull up stakes of wherever they are — and be like ‘I’m moving my whole show to Seattle because I got into Techstars’ — that is a once-in-a-year opportunity for us to add some richness and diversity to our local entrepreneurial pool.”
As the new era begins at Techstars, DeVore said he’s excited to build on Andy Sack’s successes over the past five years.
“Techstars has been an amazing thing for Seattle, and I think it is trying to hold on to all of the great things that Andy did, but because we a bit more money and some fresh eyes on it, to do some things a bit differently as well,” he said.