Why Vertical Incubators Are More Interesting to Investors

by hunterwalk

vertical-incubatorsAccording to AngelList there are 1,530 organizations listed as “incubators.” Even assuming several hundred of these are using the broadest definition of the word to describe themselves, it’s an incredible number. Many (the majority?) are what I’d categorize as “horizontal” – that’s to say, they don’t focus on a specific industry but rather try to help a group of startups generally advance their development. Whether you want to call them incubators, accelerators or any other name, the template is pretty similar: fixed amount of time inside the program in exchange for equity (and sometimes a cash investment).

As a seed fund investor here’s what I want from an incubator: (a) serve as a selection filter for me to meet interesting companies and (b) give their startups a competitive advantage via deep network beyond their incubation. I know that many incubators commit to doing more than this – mentors, curricula, coworking space, most also do some sort of demo day to organize fundraising. That’s fine – my issue isn’t that an incubator isn’t good for the entrepreneur – that’s each founder’s decision. Rather most incubators lack the resources and traction to rate highly across my criteria above.

Implication? I’m probably not attending many demo days (although I’m 100% open to startups in ANY incubator reaching out to make an introduction if they think they’re a great match for Homebrew’s focus).

Now what DOES interest me? The rise of the vertical incubator focused on bringing together a set of startups aligned around a particular technology or industry. Examples like Rock Health in Healthcare or the multiple instances TechStars is spinning up, such as the RGA connected devices incubator in NYC where I’m a mentor. Often done with a corporate partner or other strategic relationship (university, investor) these have potential because they have a path to solving my needs:

(A) Selection Filter: If I’m interested in the vertical, high ROI way to see a bunch of startups thinking about the space. Good chance for me to “give before I get” by sharing what we’re seeing in the marketplace and within the companies we’ve already funded. Even the most promising founders might be attracted to the incubator because of deep industry focus.

(B) Competitive Advantage: Deep set of industry-specific relationships and mentors, not just helpful but non-specific list of alumni founders to draw from. And industry corporates which are keep a close eye on the startups because of their need to stay close to innovation. Down the road these could turn into partnership opportunities, strategic investments or even M&A.

I root for any entrepreneur who brings drive, intelligence and integrity to their startup. But for most investors time is even more precious than capital, so the reality is I can only focus on a handful of incubators, and in many cases, vertical beats horizontal.

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