For hard tech startups, this is the closest you can get to heaven (and you have 4 days left to apply…)

For much of 2017 I’ve been working with at Cyclotron Road. Since I’ve moved back to Europe after the summer, I’m not formally engaged with the team anymore. But I thought it would be good to tell startups in my network about the work they do. Because I think it’s pretty amazing what they have to offer. And I think it would be great if we create similar programs in Europe.

Cyclotron Road is a startup accelerator that is focussed on the hardest type of startup you can do. In Silicon Valley they like to use the term ‘hard tech’ for it.

A working definition of hard tech startups for me is something like this:

  • A startup focussed on commercializing a technology into a working product;
  • That is based on state of the art scientific research;
  • With still doubt that the technology can be built at scale at all;
  • And with the potential to solve a very big and hard problem;

Hard tech is different from almost all the famous startup success of the past ten years, because those were all about software. Silicon Valley’s startup myths are about software, with Tesla as the notable exception. And that’s all great. But hard tech is just a little harder. Partly because there is almost always hardware involved, which is expensive and creates all kinds of problems in producing it at scale and bringing it to market. Secondly because you are working on a really hard problem in slower moving markets. Thirdly it’s often very hard to find customers for these products. And lastly because, as a result, it’s very hard to build a successful hard tech startup. Building a startup is always hard. But if running a software startup is like running a marathon, a hard tech startup is going to be more like an Iron Man triathlon at 5,000 feet.

So it’s only fair that hard tech entrepreneurs have an amazing support program, that is much better attuned to their specific needs than all the overhyped accelerators out there (YC, 500 Startups, etc). If you are into software, yes, go to a traditional accelerator. But if you’re in hard tech, you really want to be a place that understands what you need.

For instance:

a. You’ll need more than 5 months of support before you are ready for demo day. You simply need more time. That’s why Cyclotron Road’s program is 2 years.

b. You will also need access to lab facilities with super advance and super expensive equipment. Equipment that you can never afford yourself. That’s why Cyclotron Road gives you access to the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the UC Berkeley facilities.

c. In terms of money, in the early stages of a hard tech startup there is no venture capital firm that will even take a meeting with you. Unless your best friends went to Harvard/Stanford/Berkeley/etc with some partner at some firm. And then they politely tell you that it looks super interesting, and to give them a ring in two years when technology has matured. So what you need is not a demo day pitch for a VC audience. You need to become a master in getting government grants, foundation funding, joint development programs with corporations. There is a big learning curve in applying for stuff like that, and in negotiating with huge organizations. You’ll be surprised how well equipped the team at Cyclotron Road is to help you with that. Honestly.

d. Connections, connections, connections. That’s one of the things VCs are great at when it’s about software. For hard tech, you need a different network than for software. Other funding sources, like the ones mentioned above. Other markets, like utilities, or energy companies, the car manufacturing industry. Corporations that are looking for quite specific solutions to their headaches. Government agencies that are looking for solutions and that might be your launching customers, or that run grant programs that can support your early stage development. You’ll get access to an amazingly powerful network.

e. Being around people that are, just like you, trying to work on some hard tech thing, that is one of the biggest assets you can have at your disposal. It will give you much more speed. So much stuff gets solved around the coffee machine. I saw these informal exchanges happen all the time. ‘Who is a good lawyer for this IP issue? You should have this person at this law firm, here is her phone number.’ ‘I’m looking for a contact at (‘huge chemical company’), in their business development department. Oh, I’ll introduce you to him, and you should also meet his director’. Etc.

You probably agree with me that this all sounds great. It gets even better: Cyclotron Road takes no equity, thanks to support from the national and state government.

So if all of this is so great, why is not getting copied? Well, actually it is. In the USA there are now several program a la Cyclotron Road. The next step should be that other parts of the world start copying this. It just makes too much sense. We have too many hard problems that are not being solved, because we lack the infrastructure for entrepreneurs to give it a shot. Cyclotron Road is creating that infrastructure, and we need that all around the globe.

Apart from all the great program, the services and benefits, the Cyclotron Road team is just a wonderful group of people. It’s also super inspiring to be around the innovators in the program, working on something that has the potential to have a big impact on the planet.

Sounds great right? Just so you know, for now you can only apply once a year. This year’s deadline is October 31. Go for it!

PS: Yeah, you can probably tell, I miss working with the Cyclotron Road team a bit. But I’m very happy to be back in Europe. More on that later.

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