Help for hardware startup founders
AlphaLab Gear is a company that does exactly that. One of the first hardware accelerators to exist, the organization was founded six years ago and is a part of Innovation Works as well as their software accelerator AlphaLab with all three based out of Pittsburgh.
Nationally ranked, AlphaLab Gear helps physical product companies by providing investments, networking opportunities, mentorship, and overall guidance on how to succeed. “We work specifically with physical product companies,” explained Cole Wolfson, senior program manager, “but we are agnostic when it comes to industry and we’re very broad in what we mean by physical product.” AlphaLab Gear has worked with companies that are dealing with anything from robotics, to medical devices, to life sciences, to IoT, and will take them on regardless of what stage of development they are in. “We work with founders [that are] everywhere from ‘we have an idea and some really cool tech’ that they need to figure out what to do with all the way to companies that are generating up to $1 million in annual revenue,” said Wolfson.
While the organization may not be strict on what products companies need to be creating or what stage they are in, the application process does still take time and the companies who are accepted need to go through several steps to get there. AlphaLab Gear has an open application cycle every year that runs from November to January where they generally receive about 200 applications. To apply, companies need to fill out the online application which consists of about 15 questions that ask things such as what the problem they are trying to solve is, who has this problem, what is the solution they are offering, as well as what the market size is and where they are in development. While companies do have to have all of this information in order to fill out the application, Wolfson explained that they do not need to be married to the answers, and in fact many companies end up changing them throughout their time with AlphaLab Gear. After the cycle closes in January, the internal team makes a first cut where they narrow it down to about 35-40 companies that they are interested in.
From there, members of all of AlphaLab Gear’s corporate partners are invited to hear pitches from the 35-40 selected companies and give the AlphaLab team their input on them. After that, the companies undergo internal interviews with the staff, and eventually eight to 14 companies are selected to participate in the 30-week program which kicks off in mid-April. The companies who are selected are provided office space within AlphaLab Gear’s facilities, which they are required to use, meaning that any companies from outside of Pittsburgh who are selected are expected to relocate to southern Pennsylvania. As well, the companies are required to give a piece of equity of their company to AlphaLab Gear which they receive up to $50,000 in exchange for. Besides that, everything provided to the companies once they are selected is at no charge.
During the 30-week curriculum, outside mentors are brought in to help teach founders “must-know subject matter about starting your business,” said Wolfson. They are taught everything from incorporation and administrative aspects to customer discovery and achieving product-market fit, as well as things such as sales, marketing, growth, and raising investment once they finish the program. Founders are also guided in stepping out of their comfort zones and learning how to effectively be CEOs of their business, which is not always easy for the more technical-minded people that tend to create startups in the first place. This all culminates in something called “Demo Day,” which Wolfson described as a coming out party for these companies to the local community as well as their first opportunity to present their business to a room full of investors as a way to get on their radar.
The companies who participate in AlphaLab Gear’s program become lifetime members of the Innovation Works family, explained Wolfson, in that they continue to have access to things such as their staff, network, resources, and events. The companies also have access to the office space in the organization’s facilities for an entire year, not only for the duration of the program, and only have to vacate once a new program begins. In the fall, after the curriculum ends, the organization runs a manufacturing-focused program that is open to the community at large and in which recent AlphaLab Gear graduates always participate in. The program covers everything from domestic v. oversees manufacturing, to how to work with suppliers, to how to handle financials as well as much more.
For anyone who is not yet part of the Innovation Works network, both the parent organization and the two accelerators provide open office hours for anyone to come to who would like to speak with the staff, with all meetings being free of charge. Many companies do this before applying, Wolfson said, with some of them working with AlphaLab Gear for up to a year before putting in the initial application. “I’ve found that just about every entrepreneur we’ve come into contact with, you’ve got to admire them. It’s admirable that they’re trying to form this business and make a go at it; that’s the easy part.” he said. “The drive comes from within. All we’re trying to do is direct it and give them the resources and the support so that they can move as fast as they possibly can.”
About AlphaLab Gear
Launched in 2013, AlphaLab Gear is a hardware accelerator under the Innovation Works umbrella, along with software accelerator AlphaLab. The organization helps physical product companies in Pittsburgh by providing investments, mentoring, connections, and coaching as well as free office space and continuous access to the Innovation Works network upon participation. Cole Wolfson has been with Innovation Works since 2010 and joined AlphaLab Gear in 2016 as their senior project manager, where he runs day to day operations such as recruiting companies, vetting applications, overseeing acceptance, and running the program. AlphaLab Gear has an open application cycle each year, with the next one starting in November.