A Venture Accelerator, Unplugged
by Samuel Adams
Feb 20, 2014 | 8409 views | 0 0 comments | 140 140 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ORGANIC ACCELERATOR — The Telluride Venture Accelerator is the only non-profit accelerator in the country, according to staff. The organization, which is in its second year, aims to increase business opportunity in the Telluride region by providing local businesses and startups access to its substantial mentor network. (Photo by Anna Korn)
ORGANIC ACCELERATOR — The Telluride Venture Accelerator is the only non-profit accelerator in the country, according to staff. The organization, which is in its second year, aims to increase business opportunity in the Telluride region by providing local businesses and startups access to its substantial mentor network. (Photo by Anna Korn)

TVA’s Selected Startups End Boot Camp, But the Challenge Awaits

TELLURIDE — With its history as a remote but innovative mining town, the place where alternating current electricity was first commercialized, the Telluride Foundation believes that Telluride has a unique sense of entrepreneurship.

The Foundation is working to build on this illustrious tradition with the Telluride Venture Accelerator, a nonprofit organization (the only one in the country, according to TVA staff) that encourage entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and help both existing local businesses and some from around the country to improve, expand and grow their companies. 

Together with Telluride Foundation president and CEO Paul Major, TVA co-founder Jesse Johnson thought of the idea when taking a look at the region’s economy.

“The conversations I had with Telluride Foundation president and CEO Paul Major were about how one dimensional our region’s economy is -- heavily dependent on tourism, housing starts, snow,” Johnson said. “Those are all things we can’t control. It is challenging to raise a family here, not a lot of higher paying jobs. What could be done to address this? What models exist to help us diversify?

“We came to an accelerator after visiting several other communities and their efforts.”

Together, Johnson and Major organized the region’s local entrepreneurs and second homeowners, many of whom are successful businesspeople, to develop TVA’s mentor network, which, said Johnson, is arguably TVA’s greatest strength.

“[The mentors] have been the key to our success and the main reason people apply.”

From among those applicants, TVA selects companies from Telluride and across the country to spend five months here interacting with TVA’s vast network of mentors who advise each company on developing and promoting their businesses. The program culminates in June on Demo Day, when each company pitches their product or service to a room of investors, and remotely through a life feed.  

Last year’s four TVA companies saw great success at Demo Day.

“Our company with the greatest success was Globa.li,” recalled Johnson. “They raised their seed round of $575,000 within two weeks of demo day… They were our star in terms of fundraising.”

Building on First Year Successes

With the success of TVA’s first Demo Day proving the concept, this year’s program has expanded. First, TVA was awarded a highly competitive $100,000 grant from the Blackstone Foundation to hire a full-time director and increase the size and scope of the program, including increasing the number of applicants it can accept from four to six.

Johnson remains the program’s CEO, but TVA hired Thea Chase to act as director.

Chase, with more than 20 years of experience in business development and startup incubation in Western Colorado and central California, says her experience transfers to her responsibilities as TVA’s director.

“Jesse and the rest of TVA did a super job getting TVA started last year.” she said. “In order to grow and improve the program they saw a need to hire a professional program director to develop the program’s curriculum, and create the administrative guts of the organization.”

So far, Chase says this year is off to a strong start.  

“This year has gone fantastically,” she said, “We just completed boot camp, where approximately a third of our mentors made appearances, each offering insight into their own areas of expertise. Whether it was a short chat, a Q&A session, panel discussion, workshop or an explanation of their backgrounds, we had a ton of mentor engagement.”

Start Me Up

Companies chosen to participate in the TVA begin the five-month long program by receiving an initial investment of $25,000 from TVA in exchange for a four percent equity stake in the company. Hundreds of applications poured in from across the country for this year’s program –15 from Telluride.

Two of this year’s six have Telluride roots. Karen Gaines, DDS and Richard Fulton, M.D., who lives in Trout Lake, founded Awestruck Medical, a dental product manufacturer. Pläsays, a social media company, has Telluride roots as well.

“I believe in the TVA mission, so I hope to be able to be a part of the economic growth and diversification in the region,” said Pläsays co-founder Alex Grappo, noting that skiing alone might keep him here.  

Attending the program isn’t simple.

Startup proprietors cannot telecommute to speak with the TVA mentor staff: each has to relocate to the region full-time for the duration of the program.

That’s not an easy task for Jean Sim and Irena Todd of Pure Fun Kids, the first mass market brand of organic haircare for kids – they brought their children to Telluride for the initial phases of the program. Todd even brought her mother from Croatia to help out with the children.

Sim, a mother of three, brought her youngest, a three week-old infant, to TVA’s boot camp.

“It was really hard to find housing here, especially with the packed schedule we have at boot camp, but we make it work, even with this guy,” she said while holding her sleeping infant in TVA’s work room, a tiny office space tucked in the Peaks Hotel.

Still, they said, the venture accelerator is worth the turbulent first few weeks.

“In the first week we’ve already practiced giving an investor pitch, met over a dozen dynamic mentors, learned numerous useful lessons and made tangible process on growing our business,” said Sim.

Boot Camp to Demo Day

“Boot camp,” as TVA and the companies call it, consists of the first two weeks the companies spend interacting with TVA’s mentors and industry professionals. Last week, the companies concluded boot camp, and they are now in the beginning phases of testing their models and developing their businesses.

During that time, startups attended back-to-back sessions given by industry professionals, TVA mentors and even potential investors that give the startups vital insight, said Johnson.

“What many of the startups learn during the first few weeks are the pitfalls associated with starting a business and trying to have it grow,” said Johnson. “The aim of the boot camp is to help the companies test assumptions they have about their business models.”

All companies benefitted from boot camp, said Chase, but not all companies are at the same developmental phase; each company has unique needs, which they will address over the next few months.

Pläsays, for instance, benefits from TVA’s public relations and communications experts.

“We have a communications expert with us throughout the entire program,” said Grappo. “So much of being successful as a startup is based around our ability to communicate, with customers, investors, partners and our own teams.”

With the mentor network at hand, Grappo hopes to increase the company’s knowledge of online advertising and usage acquisition.

While Grappo’s goal is to see his business model improve through the five-month program, “another huge hope of mine is to see TVA succeed.”

A startup veteran, Grappo’s experience with other venture accelerators left him feeling hopeless.

Recalling past experiences at venture accelerators, he said business mentors would often sit on the sidelines checking their smartphones, “not interested at all in our companies or us.

“TVA is much different. This is much more of an organic venture accelerator because you’re talking to real people who have been where I am today. They are sincerely interested our businesses and they care about us as people. It’s completely different and much better than the other venture accelerators I’ve be a part of.”

As he finds ways to improve Pläsays’ online presence during the five months of TVA, earning the support of angel or institutional investors during Demo Day in June is his overarching goal, which he shares with the other companies. 

TVA will be holding a public event on Thursday, February 27,2014 from 5-6:30 p.m.at the Arroyo Gallery and Wine Bar to introduce the companies to the community.  More information on TVA can be found on their website www.tellurideva.com.



Awestruck Medical is a Telluride based company developing and commercializing a device that reduces the discomfort and pain experienced by millions of dental patients undergoing routine procedures - thus improving the total care experience and increasing the dentist's productivity by shortening procedure time. CEO & Co-Founder Karen Gaines DDS, other local Co-Founders Richard Fulton MD and Mark Kozak. http://www.awestruckmedical.com/

LifeDojo is the online health & life skills education platform.  Schools, Nonprofits, Hospitals and Corporations rely on LifeDojo not just to teach, but to improve the health and life outcomes of the people they work with.  Every lesson is science-packed, whiteboard-animated, and taught by world-class experts.   CEO & Founder Chris Cutter. Website:http://www.lifedojo.com/

makeena is a location-aware mobile and web platform that allows shoppers to make healthy choices for themselves and for the environment while saving money, providing natural and sustainable brands with data analytics and highly-engaged shoppers.  CEO & Founder Karen Frame. Website: http://www.makeena.com/

PlanitMapper makes it easy to plan, map and share your next adventure using our unique layered maps and “smart” product recommendation system - these same innovations allow us to deliver game-changing services to online retailers and the larger arena of online marketing. Co-Founders Haj Khalsa, Jonathan Repa, Pradip Hari. Website: http://www.planitmapper.com/

Pläsays is a social networking application geared towards adventurers and the well-traveled that connects people based on demonstrated behavior. CEO & Founder Alex Grappo.

PureFun is the first mass brand of USDA Organic certified hair care for kids (ages 3-9), that is affordable, with a simple ingredient list, and breakthrough design to engage and excite kids. Co-Founders Jean Sim, Irena Todd.


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