How to know you’ve picked the right accelerator

Picking an accelerator isn’t a meet-cute, but the story of how we ended up as part of Relevant Health’s first class comes close. We didn’t pick Relevant Health because we had done months of research and found the perfect accelerator on the right calendar for our product development. We discovered Relevant Health through a Columbia connection. In an oversimplification of the process, we applied, interviewed, and we were one of seven accepted out of the pool of applicants.

Here’s the thing: we got lucky.

Yes, we made thoughtful decisions, and we continued in the program because the benefits kept accruing and no red flags came up. Not everyone has been so lucky with accelerators.

If you’re a student entrepreneur like us, chances are your company is evolving faster than you can learn. We already covered why an accelerator can grow a company, but how do you know you’ve found the right one for your company? There are plenty of articles out there about how to pick an accelerator, but many are written for serial entrepreneurs who come into the process with a lot of background and shared assumptions. For those of you who are juggling classes and a business, here’s what we realized we got right, now that we’ve taken a breath after Demo Day.

What to look for (or how to know if you’ve picked the right accelerator)

Expertise in the unknown. At Columbia, we had the generous support and mentorship of many professors and researchers. The University incubated us through the ideation stage. Relevant Health, however, helped us boost our idea into a viable product. They connected us to experts that, on our own, we would either not have known we needed or spent significantly more time trying to find. Without the Product Bootcamp, we would not have made this much progress in our design and business plan.

Industry focus. Joining an accelerator focused on the healthcare industry meant we had resources for navigating the FDA, the IRB, as well as technical experts in healthcare markets and product development. The lawyers and advisors could identify risks and opportunities we couldn’t imagine. The industry focus also meant Demo Day was attended by investors with a specific interest and past success in our field.

Strong community. Our cohort was invaluable. They provided support (and laughs) as we all struggled to navigate the highly regulated healthcare industry, refine software, and manufacture prototypes. Marc Cohen from Ergonometrix is an electrical engineer who would patiently answer our not-so-quick questions about how to keep shrinking our device. Many of them have supported our Kickstarter for our field deployment, even as all of them try to raise money for their companies.

What to watch out for

There are risks that we didn’t know we were avoiding. Startups move fast, but here are four questions to ask to make sure you’ve found the accelerator that is right for your company:

Is there an escape hatch? Look closely at the contract to see what happens if the accelerator does not work out. Can your equity be returned if you drop out?

If this isn’t their first cohort, what is the accelerator’s success rate? Relevant Health was upfront that we were the first cohort. Before we even started, they had already committed to making alumni available for future cohorts (and we’re looking forward to talking to future applicants). As winners of the Growth Accelerator Fund Competition, they will be required to report success metrics in the future.

Will you thrive in the accelerator’s culture? We had a diverse cohort with people in different stages of their career with different backgrounds and life experiences. It was collegial, fun, and professional. No work benefits from a toxic culture, but the harm is exponentially worse in a startup environment. If you are wasting energy deciphering communications and sorting through unhelpful feedback, that’s energy you don’t spend on your business.

Is the location right? Rockville, Maryland is the medical hub no one thinks about. With the NIH, FDA, Johns Hopkins, WHO, USAID, and many private health tech companies in the vicinity, it was a good place for Neopenda. Besides the geography, we also had to attend in person. The coworking space was a critical feature that allowed us to focus on Neopenda’s development.

Importantly, these questions don’t just apply when first picking an accelerator. If your opportunity comes along as quickly as ours did, keep checking in with these questions (and finally get around to reading all those other accelerator articles for more inspiration) to make sure you’re still in the right environment. With these checks, you can rely less on luck and still have a successful accelerator experience.