On the third floor of an unassuming building in Technology Square is what looks like a half-finished office. The floor is polished concrete. The ceiling is exposed, ducts and wires hanging down. The furniture is a smattering of office chairs and unfinished wood tables covered with laptops and books. The walls are white, except for the numerous places where they’re covered with notes, calculations, quotations and doodles scrawled in black marker.
This is Flashpoint, Tech’s newest launching pad for startup businesses. From the look of things, it’s kind of a startup itself. The brainchild of Merrick Furst, a distinguished professor in the College of Computing, and Ravi Bellamkonda, the Institute’s associate vice president for research, Flashpoint offers intensive three-month-long programs that foster fledgling companies before launching them into the world.
Guiding a visitor through the Flashpoint office last winter, where 17 teams (about half affiliated with Tech) were busy prepping their startups, Furst nodded to the graffiti. “It’s erasable,” he said.
“Most of it,” added Elli Kaplan, COO of the program.
Flashpoint grants entrepreneurs education and access to mentors and investors; its first session was held last fall. This is nothing new for Georgia Tech—the Advanced Technology Development Center, for one, has been active for 30-plus years—but Flashpoint introduces a few new tweaks.
It’s an intensive program, with a huge amount of work crammed into those three months. Several teams said they’d all but moved into the office. The process also requires frequent testing.
“It’s not a business until you have revenues that exceed expenses,” Bellamkonda said. “Until then, everything from the nature of the product to the customer base is a hypothesis. This is like in research—we hypothesize about how things work and we test them scientifically. The Flashpoint curriculum urges them to test every hypothesis leading to a positive cash flow. Build a first web page, not all 20 pages. Test it. See if people will click to see more.’”
What’s truly unique about Flashpoint, though, is that the program itself is an experiment. Furst’s hypothesis is that intensive business training will help a greater percentage of Flashpoint companies to succeed. Along the way, he’s tracking the progress, measuring his inkling against real results.
This metatextual test within a test puts Tech at the forefront of what Furst calls “startup engineering,” the application of science to the wilderness of entrepreneurialism. Typically, startups are a big gamble. Every so often there’s a Facebook, but most fail. Flashpoint aims to identify the elements that encourage success. It’s the only program of its kind at an academic institution.
“Our goal is to figure out, as a discipline, can this be done better?” Bellamkonda said. “Right now, it’s more art than science. We’re very fortunate to have thought-leaders like Merrick on our faculty to lead this experiment.”
That winter night, Furst gathered the teams for a weekly critique session. “Let’s get annoyingly close,” he said as team members grabbed pizza, sodas and beers.
Teams took turns presenting pitches, rough versions of what they’d sell to investors. After each turn, classmates and Furst peppered the presenter with sharp questions.
Talking to members of CollectorDASH, an online community for toy collectors, Furst noted, “Your business isn’t managing the collectors, it’s managing the collections.”
Grant Schindler, CS 03, MS CS 06, PhD CS 10, a research scientist in the College of Computing, had created a 3-D scanning app called Trimensional for the iPhone and iPad that was downloaded 50,000 times soon after he added it to the iTunes store. But Schindler didn’t know how to turn the software into a business, which led him to sign up for Flashpoint.
“It’s absolutely helpful,” Schindler said. “I come from an engineering background, so I had no business sense. Creating a business model, going after markets, that’s something I had no knowledge of before.”
In January and February, the 15 teams that survived the program had demo days for potential investors in Atlanta, New York and San Francisco. Furst’s hypothesis proved correct: Three teams quickly earned funding, and most are now negotiating with investors.
The first class succeeded beyond expectations in terms of raising capital, Bellamkonda said.
“An unexpected outcome has been the overwhelming support of successful entrepreneurs such as Allen Nance [MS MoT 06], Meade Sutterfield [EE 72] and Sig Mosley [a member of the College of Computing Advisory Board] serving as mentors to Flashpoint teams,” he said.
After poring over the results of the first class, Furst is readying to launch the second session of Flashpoint in June. There are new companies to foster and new hypotheses to test.