Institutional venture capital firms often have programs designed to support serial entrepreneurs, as it not only gives participants time to discover what their next startup will be, it also allows partners to explore new verticals, markets, and emerging spaces. Venrock Partners, one of the oldest firms in the market today, is no stranger to these “entrepreneur-in-residence” (EIR) programs, but it has expanded its initiative this year to focus less on individuals and more on companies.
This summer, Venrock launched a program geared toward very early stage founders, including students in search of mentorship from experienced venture capitalists. The firm brought in 12 startups, offering three months of office space, networking advice, and tutelage — think of it as 500 Startups or Y Combinator sans equity.
“At its core, we enjoy and find tons of value in serving entrepreneurs. We’re doing it at earlier opportunities; it creates value for Venrock and entrepreneurs in fulfillment and valuation of the companies,” explained venture partner Isaac Madan, who is credited with starting this new initiative. “There are a ton of early stage technical teams that are targeting new and exciting areas, but it’s difficult to get exposure to people who have seen and been there before. Experience and thought partnership is meaningful for founders getting started. [Venrock] wants to be a resource and create a community for [founders] to get to know each other.”
Hosting summer programs like this isn’t uncommon — firms like Highland Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers have set up similar programs to reach young startups. But whereas these tend to focus on student teams, Venrock is also targeting recent graduates. Participating teams may not necessarily have a fully baked product, either — Madan revealed that some participants could be simply “noodling on ideas.” However, these startups are focused on developing solutions in one of Venrock’s “power alleys,” which include intelligent enterprise, healthcare IT, digital media infrastructure, security, consumer services, and financial services, and payments.
In selecting the startups for its inaugural batch, Venrock looked at a couple of things: “Impressive founders that are passionate about the areas that they’re working on and with each other” and those that “come with some [idea] how to derive value from Venrock and how to give back.”
The firm essentially provides free room and board for these companies, including offering weekly lunches, roundtable discussions, and office hours with its partners. It doesn’t take any equity in exchange for its services and claims there won’t be any “negative signal impact” for startups going out and fundraising, should Venrock not invest.
“Ultimately we want to see and help entrepreneurs be as successful as they can be,” Madan said. “Relationships are the most valuable thing for Venrock and founders. For us, we want to see how much more we can move the needle and scale that [startups] couldn’t have. It comes through feedback, interactions, and getting to know [founders] on a personal level.”
For first-time entrepreneur Aaditya Shidham, having the networking experience is important in helping shape his developer collaboration startup Benuku. He was referred to Venrock through Madan, who’s a friend and classmate from Stanford University. Shidham shared that he liked that Venrock was a mature venture capital firm that can help him build relationships “that I can’t do elsewhere.”
Just several months into his startup, Shidham is in a far different place from entrepreneurs you’d find through Y Combinator, TechStars, or 500 Startups. Venrock is showcasing its capabilities to entrepreneurs by giving them the resources needed to flesh out their ideas. Yes, the firm does have a traditional EIR program in which it brings on board an entrepreneur that the firm has worked with in previous deals and believes has a good idea in them. But this new program is on a much larger scale and is geared toward future entrepreneurs who might be struggling to figure exactly what problems they should be solving.
Benuku is a real-time collaborative text editor aimed at coders and developers, something Shidham described as “Google Docs on steroids for developers.” It was inspired after observing students attending cramped office hours, lugging in laptops to show teaching assistants problems they were facing in their code. Benuku wants to be the place to collaborate on code, thereby resolving this bottleneck. Shidham also drew inspiration from research labs that are looking for ways to run persistent jobs and share code with colleagues using a virtualized machine.
Shidham built Benuku himself and is preparing to release version 2.0 for enterprise and data scientists shortly. However, he may have questions relating to the industry, what solutions work, markets to target, and even how to find a cofounder (which Shidham says he’s currently searching for). Venrock’s insights could prove invaluable in these areas.
The EIR program also gives founders opportunities to experiment with ideas. Connor McCarthy and Julia Jezmir started re.LIVE, a healthcare technology company aimed at improving patient outcomes for those with muscular issues. Typically 10 percent of patients do physical therapy but only 35 percent actually adhere to the program, which can be detrimental to their health and is costing the healthcare industry $213 billion a year. After meeting in business school, McCarthy and Jezmir sought out Venrock to tap into the firm’s “broader network, community of entrepreneurs, and credibility in the field” to push re.LIVE forward.
The cofounders explained that this summer their goal was to evaluate patient outcomes from a pilot program the startup had with Stanford family medicine and to ensure that they are building the “best, safest outcome.” They’ll be returning to school this fall to complete their graduate degrees and will also spend time refining the company’s business model and making sure it’s in sync with stakeholders. Upon graduation, they’ll move forward with re.LIVE full-time, but the experience during the Venrock program will hopefully give them an edge in creating a useful and successful company.
For Brian Ascher, a partner at Venrock, this EIR program fits into the model of what the firm has been doing since it was started by the Rockefeller family in the late 1930s. Since that time, it’s come a long way in establishing expertise in a variety of fields, making successful bets on Apple, Intel, DoubleClick, Zenefits, Klout, Doctor on Demand, Nest, Redbeacon, Slideshare, CloudFlare, Luxe, and Dollar Shave Club.
“Venrock will carefully pick markets it wants to play in, picking a true partner approach, which means not trying to provide a host of services like marketing, engineering, design, or recruiting. You’re getting a full-time commitment from one of our partners with experience in investing,” he said.
The 12 startups participating in Venrock’s summer EIR program get just that, a dedicated investor who guides them through the early parts of their development. This is important because building a company is stressful, and having a sounding board can be valuable, especially if it’s someone with extensive knowledge in a relevant field and industry.
Should any of these participating startups hone an interesting idea and gain traction, Venrock would naturally like the first chance to invest in the company. However, such a partnership is not a requirement, and founders are free to do what they feel is best.
Madan said that the program will continue next year, and he hopes to see more demand from high-quality companies eager to participate.