Namib Beetle Design aims to use nanotechnology to collect water in the desert. Ovuline uses algorithms to help couples find the optimal time to get pregnant. And Fashion Project is looking to create an online marketplace for used designer clothing.
These start-ups, sharing a floor of a Kendall Square high-rise, are part of a program known as TechStars, a so-called accelerator that provides promising young companies with office space, high speed Internet, and other support, including money, in exchange for a small stake in the firms. Launched in Boston in 2009, TechStars this year more than doubled the enrollment in its program to 26 from 12 last year, with the goal of helping more early-stage companies make it to older age.
“I’ve been through the process of starting a company on my own and it was really, really hard,” said Ovuline chief executive Paris Wallace, who founded a life sciences start-up in 2008 while a student at Harvard Business School. “TechStars is kind of like a time machine. You fit a week into a day every day you’re here.”
TechStars is just one of a growing number of business accelerators and incubators that have sprouted in the Boston area in recent years, looking to take advantage of one of the nation’s most fertile grounds for emerging technology companies. Today, the region boasts at least a dozen such programs, with a half-dozen launched in the past year.
The latest entrants include Rock Health and Healthbox, two programs that aim to spur the development of medical technology start-ups; Future Boston Alliance, which in August announced its first group of 25 companies, mostly creative enterprises such as a publishing house; and Haverhill Hardware Horizons Challenge in Haverhill and Bolt, location still to be determined, both of which plan to nurture high-tech equipment makers.
This boom in tech accelerators offers the promise of creating new jobs in the Boston area and keeping the brightest entrepreneurs from leaving Massachusetts to build their businesses elsewhere. It also reflects the proliferation of tech start-ups in the region as so-called cloud or remote computing services eliminate the need for new companies to buy expensive servers, software, and other equipment.
At the same time, the low-cost of launching a start-up makes it attractive for venture capital firms and other investors to establish accelerator programs, providing them the opportunity to spread money across many different early-stage companies and lower their risks, said Steven Gold, a business professor who teaches entrepreneurship at Babson College.
“It’s cheap,” he said. “There’s nothing to lose.”
Every accelerator functions a bit differently. Rock Health, for example, is a nonprofit that chooses companies to participate in its program and partners with venture capital firms such as Accel Partners, the Silicon Valley investment company, and the Mayo Clinic. Its partners take a 5 to 10 percent equity stake, and Rock Health recently upped the amount of funding for start-ups to $100,000 from $20,000.
TechStars, which is run by venture capital and angel investors, also takes a piece of participants’ companies. It invests $18,000 for 6 percent of common stock and also offers the start-ups a $100,000 loan that can be converted to stock.
Polaris Venture Partners, based in Waltham, operates its DogPatch Labs accelerator in Cambridge, New York, Dublin, and Palo Alto, Calif. It typically doesn’t make investments in the companies that are part of its program, but will occasionally fund one of the start-ups.
The program offers desk space, Internet service, and free rent. DogPatch has 28 companies and 80 people packed into its space in a Kendall Square location that it shares with TechStars.
Accelerators can be “really the transformation part of a company’s experience,” said Gus Weber, a principal at Polaris who runs DogPatch in Cambridge. “They can raise money quicker, hire quicker. It’s a little bit of a Good Housekeeping stamp of approval.”
Small business incubators certainly aren’t new. But the successes of programs such as TechStars, which started in Boulder, Colo., in 2007, and Y Combinator, a venture capital accelerator that began in Boston in 2005 and then moved exclusively to Silicon Valley, have inspired other accelerators.
It’s too early to tell if this new wave will give rise to the next Facebook or Apple, but the chance that they will produce something big remains extremely low, said Babson’s Gold. “For most commercial accelerators,” he said, “I have seen no data that shows any reason for the typical young person to ever affiliate with one of them.”
Still, Boston area accelerators can claim some early successes. Kinvey, a Cambridge firm that provides cloud services to app developers, was part of the TechStars Boston program and went on to raise $7 million. Promoboxx Inc., a Boston Web marketing company, is another TechStar graduate. It’s now working with major brands like Chevrolet and Reebok. It’s also hiring. TechStars still has a stake in both companies.
On a recent weekday morning, the TechStars office space was full of frenetic energy. Thirteen start-ups have temporarily set up camp on the sixth floor of One Cambridge Center in Kendall Square, spread across floors and couches and makeshift offices with their laptops, iPhones, and plenty of ambition.
Young techies — mostly men in their 20s and early 30s — gather around whiteboards covered with notes or sales plans.
They work late into the night, pressing toward a November deadline, when they’ll demonstrate their products and pitch potential investors.
Anna Palmer hopes to wow them.
She’s the the chief executive of Fashion Project, a seven-person start-up that is building an online marketplace for high-end used clothing. Some of the proceeds from sales would benefit charity.
“Building a start-up is emotionally taxing,” said Palmer. “It helps being around a community of like-minded people who are going though a similar experience.”