Application Trends During COVID-19

Applications for Techstars NYC recently closed and after reading more than one thousand submissions, I’ve just resurfaced into the world (well, the stay-at-home world at least.) It’s been an incredibly inspiring few weeks reviewing applications, watching founder videos, and trying to figure out what verticals to lean into (or avoid) for the summer class. In December, I wrote a blog post outlining areas of interest related to health, wealth, and happiness and four months later I’ve been thinking a lot about how this thesis holds up in a global pandemic and likely recession (tl;dr — it does!)

Reviewing Techstars applications from around the world is an amazing way to surface micro trends while also seeing the macro picture. And since my applications were open January-April, it’s been fascinating to see how founders responded and pivoted in the current environment. A few of the trends I’ve observed include:

  1. The ‘Future of Work’ is the big winner. Consumer solutions included social networks for remote workers, platforms that help make your living space more suitable for work, and a few video solutions (watch out Zoom!) Another work trend is around team communication, collaboration, and tools that integrate with Slack, Gmail, Airtable, and Asana. I saw dozens of applications in each of these verticals.
  2. Professional coaching (formerly known as employee training) is where it’s at. From solutions that lead workers through learning modules to chatbots that provide engagement ‘nudges’ throughout the day, businesses and entrepreneurs are betting that workers crave professional development and employers want lightweight ways to keep employees engaged.
  3. As expected, health is at the forefront as regulations around telemedicine and distribution are pressure tested during the current health crisis. From new business models supporting remote diagnosis and treatment to underserved areas around women’s health and cancer, the future looks bright when cutting through red tape to better serve patients.
  4. A significant increase in undergraduate student applicants, especially among the Ivy League. In my six years at Techstars, I’ve never seen so many young people apply. From community platforms to campus food delivery to job marketplaces for students, the verticals are diverse but the educational background of founders is less so. Applications skewed towards schools in the East including ones from Cornell, Harvard, Brown, Columbia and University of Pennsylvania. One of my favorite applications came from three students from Brown, Cornell and Harvard who met at a Google internship last summer and decided to pursue a startup.
  5. Quick pivots. Applications opened in January when the U.S. was still mostly oblivious to the scale of the pandemic and I saw some applications trickle in around food, hospitality, and IRL communities. By the time applications closed in April, they had all pivoted to remote in some way and updated their applications to reflect the quick change. (It’s true what they say about startup founders being like cockroaches, they are able to survive anything!) Some of the most impactful pivots have been COVID specific: a brick and mortar healthcare startup pivoting into telehealth, or a lunch meetup product moving to at-home delivery to serve the disenfranchised.
  6. Oh and two direct to consumer toothbrush companies applied, so don’t forget to floss!

Here’s the sector breakdown of more than 1,000 Techstars NYC summer 2020 applications:

Vertical breakdown of 1000+ applications

There were, of course, also application trends highlighting industries and technologies that have become less prominent. A few areas that fell off since last year include:

  1. Goodnight mindfulness and meditation. Although saturated with players like Headspace and Calm, I was surprised to see fewer solutions in these areas considering the current state of the world.
  2. Real estate is taking a pause. This being NYC, I usually see a strong showing of prop-tech applications. However, with a looming recession and the WeWork debacle, there are slim pickings in this space.
  3. Logistics and supply chain are nowhere to be found. With the disruption of manufacturing and transportation of goods, I was disappointed that more founders are not working on these problems. Perhaps, there’s a lag and I will see an increase in our winter applications.
  4. MBAs are seeking refuge at Goldman and BCG. While undergraduate applications flourished, MBA applications lagged from previous years.

I’ve never been so excited to support founders and help them on their journey to change the world. Learn more about Techstars New York City and get in touch if you’d like to be involved.

In search of awesome. MD @techstars and founder @TheFund

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