The Start Project: Return of the Incubator?

Team 83 DegreesI view Narendra Rocherolle, co-founder of Webshots, a photo service, and 30 Boxes, an online calendar, as someone who can read the Internet’s proverbial tea leaves and accurately predict the direction of the web. For instance, he was first to recognize the need for aggregation of web services around social contacts and introduced such a feature in 30 Boxes.

Rocherolle and his two co-founders, Julie Davidson and Nick Wilder, previously started a small web application lab called 83 Degrees. The idea behind the lab was that they would build many small products. And they did, such as fbExchange and PowerTwitter. Now, along with Polaris Ventures and Josh Felser, a well-known Bay Area angel, they’re taking the next step forward and launching The Start Project.

“In this model, we can be less conservative and continue to experiment with new stuff,” Rocherolle said in an interview. Instead of letting their ideas muddle along, he and his co-founders want to spin the best ones into independent companies. Think of this as a plain old incubator, the kind Bill Gross popularized with Idealab back in the go-go 1990s. It led to many copy-cat incubators including some truly horrible ones. Having lived through the first Internet bubble,  I remain skeptical of incubators.

Rocherolle tried to explain to me why they were different. At Idealab, many of the ideas came from Gross’ overstimulated mind. At The Start Project, Rocherolle is going to be drumming up ideas. And unlike incubators in the past, the company isn’t going to be taking in outside ideas to incubate.

Instead, the Mill Valley, Calif.-based company plans to drum up a half-dozen new ideas every year, of which two or more will be spun out as independent companies and raise venture capital, Rocherolle said. Polaris Ventures will have first dibs on these independent companies for investment.

Having known Rocherolle for about six years, he does come up with tons of new ideas (Power Twitter and fbExchange, for instance), but they aren’t all big enough to become standalone companies. Traffic Marketplace acquired fbExchange for an undisclosed amount of money earlier this year. That’s eventually going to be the key challenge for The Start Project. It’s hard enough to come up with a big, venture-backed idea every three years — coming up with two or more such companies each year is going to be as challenging as repeating back-to-back Super Bowls.

The Start Project is the latest in a string of attempts to create a brand-new startup ecosystem that leverages the technology trends that have enabled web upstarts to cheaply develop ideas and products. From YCombinator to TechStars to James Currier’s Ooga Labs to New York-based Betaworks, there are others that have enjoyed early success with their efforts. For Rocherolle and his co-founders, that should be enough encouragement.

Photo of Team 83 Degrees by Esther Dyson via Flickr. Photo of Narendra Rocherolle by Thomas Hawk via Flickr.