Venture for America moves its accelerator to Detroit
By Annalise Frank
Local funding has driven Venture for America, a fellowship program that places recent college graduates in cities with emerging startup scenes, to move its accelerator to Detroit.
The New York-based nonprofit has been organizing paid fellowships in Detroit and other cities since 2012. But its younger initiative, an accelerator program for fledgling businesses, has been based in Philadelphia for its past two years. For its third year, the Venture for America Accelerator has moved to Detroit — specifically, the Dan Gilbert-owned Madison Building at 1555 Broadway St. — after receiving funding from the William Davidson Foundation and Quicken Loans Inc.
Sergei Revzin, VFA’s entrepreneur in residence and accelerator program director, declined to disclose specific funding numbers. He said the William Davidson Foundation donated the bulk of the accelerator program’s costs for 2017 and 2018.
Quicken Loans has provided support since VFA’s founding in 2011 and helped build VFA’s Detroit operations into “one of our largest markets,” Revzin said.
The three-month accelerator program is open to VFA fellowship alumni. Accelerator participants often first conceive of their own startup idea while on a VFA fellowship, Revzin said. Though fellows are stationed working for another, already-established startup, they are also given the opportunity to work on their own side projects at the same time, he said. Those fledgling businesses created by fellows are often the ones that get chosen for the accelerator.
During the accelerator, VFA provides legal services, mentorship and guidance as the startups work toward achieving individualized goals, Revzin said. Generally, VFA wants the early-stage companies to become self-sustaining or be well on their way to becoming self-sustaining by the end of the program, he said.
The mentorship aspect lasts for three months — it started Tuesday and runs through Oct. 31 — but VFA pays for accelerator participants’ office space and living expenses for an extra month, Revzin said.
The six participating startups are:
- Balto Software: An artificial intelligence product made to help call center representatives
- PathSpot: Portable technology that determines if a surface has harmful bacteria on it
- Peak Performance Ninja/Eagleye Golf: A company that helps athletes track performance; Eagleye Golf is an app that tracks golfers’ performance
- Place Apparel: A retailer that creates clothing that represents specific cities by working with local designers
- Rock City Boulders: The first indoor rock-climbing gym in Detroit
- Sweat Seal: A shirt that prevents underarm sweat stains from showing through
Rock City Boulders is the only company of the six that came from a Detroit-based VFA fellow, Revzin said. But the program hopes participants will stick around in the city after their four months are up, he said.
The participants will pitch to an audience of investors in Detroit around the first week of November. Then they’ll pitch a second time in New York in late November or early December for a share of $150,000 provided by UBS Americas.
Like the more well-known Teach for America, Venture for America seeks to bring stabilization to U.S. cities by connecting recent graduates with meaningful work opportunities. Venture for America is a paid program that employs its fellows at startup companies in “emerging entrepreneurial” cities, according to its website.
Venture for America’s 2018 fellowship application period is open.