As the technology boom — or bubble, depending on your point of view — continues to roll on, we’ve seen the launch of more “incubator”-style ventures, trying to imitate the kind of success Paul Graham’s Y Combinator has seen with its “startup school” model. One of the latest to launch is GrowLab – a joint venture between entrepreneurs and angel investors in Vancouver, British Columbia, as well as in Silicon Valley — that has signed up some high-profile financial backers including the BlackBerry Partners Fund and Rho Ventures Canada.
Executive director Michael Tippett, one of the co-founders of NowPublic (which was acquired by Examiner.com in 2009), said the partners involved in GrowLab joked about the double entendre in the program’s name, given British Columbia’s reputation as a supplier of marijuana. “We definitely got a chuckle out of that,” Tippett said with a laugh. “We even came up with some alternate names like GrowOp, but we figured we would have trouble getting into the United States if we did that.” The Grow part of GrowLab actually comes from the involvement of Debbie Landa, co-founder of Vancouver’s Grow conference and the Under the Radar conferences.
In addition to Landa, the GrowLab incubator is backed by a group of Canadian and Silicon Valley-based entrepreneurs and venture investors, including angel investor Boris Wertz, former COO of AbeBooks, and Jason Bailey, founder of SuperRewards. Another of the founder/partners is Tippett’s former co-founder at NowPublic, Leonard Brody — who is now president of Clarity Digital (parent company of Examiner.com). In addition to Rho Ventures and the BlackBerry Fund, the accelerator’s funding partners include iNovia Capital, Mohr Davidow Ventures, Growthworks and Yaletown Venture Partners.
The program provides startups with up to $25,000 in seed funding, but also goes a step further by guaranteeing some of those startups as much as $150,000 follow-on funding — something Tippett said the incubator modeled on Y Combinator, which has a funding relationship with Russian investor Yuri Milner and Ron Conway’s SV Angel fund. GrowLab’s program also includes four months of mentorship and free office space, with the first three months in Vancouver and the fourth spent in San Francisco.
Om has written about the difficulty in incubating “the next big thing,” and how rare it is that something like Bill Gross’s IdeaLab really takes off and gives birth to multiple success stories. Tippett said GrowLab wanted to lock down funders for its second-stage financing offer as a way of trying to ensure that its incubated companies would have a better chance of success. Funding was an issue with another recent Vancouver, British Columbia-based incubator called Bootup Labs, which GrowLab co-founder Boris Wertz was also briefly involved with. The accelerator caused some controversy when some of the entrepreneurs involved complained that promises were made before Bootup Labs had the financing in place from its backers, and that they were left high and dry when the money failed to arrive.
Tippett said that as a result of Bootup Labs’ stumbles, GrowLab was “extremely cautious in terms of rolling this out,” and made sure that it had funding locked down before it launched. Being promised funding that never arrives is “kind of the worst-case scenario when you’re trying to start a business,” he said. Bootup Labs founder Robinson and his co-founder Boris Mann apologized for the incident, and eventually, the two went their separate ways — and in a goodbye blog post, Robinson wrote that there was “a need for a strong acceleration program in the Internet sector in BC” and that his hope was that “someone will pick up where Bootup Labs left off.”
GrowLab is clearly picking up that baton, and will give Canadian entrepreneurs an opportunity to get some help on their way up. The program is accepting applications from interested entrepreneurs for its first term, which begins in August. The deadline for applications is June 15.