When COVID-19 first spread in the U.S. last March, the quick moves to shut down in-person activities meant many had to change up programming while it was still running.
Among these were startup accelerators, which often convene entrepreneurs in a cohort model for regular learning sessions and mentorship. Around the region, the leaders of these programs quickly came together, practiced the innovation they preach and pivoted their demo day plans to close out sessions virtually.
Ten months later, the pandemic remains with us. Virtual meetings are still the mode. As time has gone on and leaders had a chance to plan out entire cohorts virtually, it has led to accelerators that look a bit different.
For Conscious Venture Lab, it has brought new ways to work with companies around the world. The Port Covington-based accelerator that supports companies building models for social impact was among those in-cycle for a new cohort in the fall.
The sixth iteration of the accelerator is its first in a virtual format, so founder Jeff Cherry said the team spent the spring and summer devising how to change up the program. It’s resulted in a much bigger cohort: This year’s accelerator is made up of 52 companies, well above last year’s nine. The current cohort has 20 companies from the Baltimore region and others representing 15 states and 13 countries. Conscious Venture Lab also has a focus on backing founders who are women and people of color, which are underrepresented among venture-backed entrepreneurs. And in this cohort, 31 of the founders are women, while 37 are people of color.
“We’ve actually found the remote platform has given us more flexibility to strengthen our curriculum and make it more accessible,” said Cherry, who was voted Technical.ly Baltimore’s Impact Leader of the Year award by readers in the fall. “It has allowed us to break down borders in recruiting international talent and that helps us diversify even further.”
One key to making it all work is a local partnership. FounderTrac, the Annapolis-based accelerator started by LAUNCH! Annapolis and investment firm MCVC Partners, had developed an online tool and put it to work for Conscious Venture Lab. Its FounderTrac Virtual Accelerator Platform allows the cohort to access live online sessions, video content and written content. Cherry said there’s a variety of learning modalities, allowing the cohort to shift between formats like a video meeting format, a webinar, ask-me-anything sessions and mentorship.
“This has been a tough year for businesses but it was serendipitous that we had a virtual tool ready to go,” said FounderTrac cofounder Ryan Sears. “Prior to COVID, the FounderTrac team spent two years developing the FounderTrac Virtual Accelerator Platform. When COVID disrupted the business community, we leveraged the platform to help power leading business accelerators like Conscious Venture Lab.”
Cherry said the platform allows his program to work with more founders. He admitted to being a bit nervous at first about how the transition to virtual would go. But after the sessions got underway, he said, “it’s been better than I could have imagined.”
Conscious Venture Lab has a venture capital fund associated with the accelerator, called Conscious Venture Fund II. Investors include Guy Filippelli of Squadra Ventures and The Stephen and Renee Bisciotti Foundation, which is the foundation of entrepreneur and Baltimore Ravens owner Stephen Bisciotti and his wife. Ten companies will receive up to $100,000 at the end of the cohort, which is expected in January.
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