By Alicia James
Oregon State University’s Advantage Accelerator welcomed its first batch of 12 startup companies a little over a year ago. Four completed the mentoring course and graduated in late July. Now that the fledglings have left the nest, we sat down with the service’s two directors to reflect on their first-year growth and success, as well as discuss the future of startups in Corvallis.
Advantage Accelerator started with the intent to bring cutting-edge ideas to fruition in the marketplace by connecting scientists and entrepreneurs to resources around the Willamette Valley and Oregon State University community for free. Advantage Accelerator’s mission has not changed since last August, but the model that emerged from the past year has evolved. “We acted as if we were a startup ourselves,” said Mark Lieberman, chief start-up officer and co-director. “We do take some equity now and there is a small administrative fee that covers materials, but we have many more resources than before.”
One way Advantage Accelerator provides its clients with more resources is by flipping the classroom. This lecture-free approach to pedagogy is based on prescribed weekly exercises that empower students to gather their own information and apply it in the field. In Advantage Accelerator’s case, clients are required to get out there and talk to customers. Accountability comes from weekly cohort meeting where clients report and discuss their field results. “It’s a more efficient way to get information. It frees our clients from the constraints of a classroom and fits their schedule,” said John Turner, co-director.
Advantage Accelerator has retained its commitment to mentor connection over the past year. The service draws from a pool of 20 industry mentors, as well as expertise from its board. “Everyone involved on that end is a serial entrepreneur,” said Lieberman. “They’ve been there, done that, and got the T-shirt.”
Advantage Accelerator also retains its dedication to balance. In addition to advising clients from OSU’s research community on projects such as the recent $590,000 award from the Walmart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund, they also guide OSU students and private citizens from Corvallis. “We welcome community projects. We’re not just insulated to OSU,” said Turner.
In addition to finessing the program over the past year, Advantage Accelerator successfully hatched four startup companies from their first cohort. The quartet amassed a total of $4.5 million in funding and one, Valiscor, is currently generating enough revenue to be autonomous. Of the remaining eight, five are still refining their business models to encourage growth and three dropped out. These statistics are realistic, though. “They will not all succeed,” said Turner. “The point of Accelerator is to accelerate success or accelerate recognition that it’s not going be a viable business.”
While Advantage Accelerator has successfully leveraged local and regional resources to create new businesses, the service does face the challenge of keeping companies in Corvallis. Turner has noted from his 30 years of industry experience that startup companies need three things to succeed: capital, talented people, and space. “To the extent that we can provide those things in Corvallis, they will stay here,” he said.
Advantage Accelerator will debut the Willamette Innovators Convention on Nov. 6, 2014 to ameliorate Corvallis’ resident capital shortage. In response to the local talent factor, Lieberman cited the 2008 Forbes study that named Corvallis as the fifth smartest city in the nation.
As for space, that ball is in the city’s court.