For a company of Microsoft's formidable size, a mandate like "think small" might seem counterintuitive. But with the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator program in Seattle—in which select startups spend four invaluable months at Microsoft's headquarters, receiving mentoring from leading product experts, designers, and Fortune 500 executives—small might just be the next big thing.
"Smaller teams move faster, they're willing to take more risks, and frankly, we learn as much from them as we learn from larger partners," says Mukund Mohan, director of Microsoft Ventures. Mohan's division recently tapped its second class of incredibly promising, wildly diverse startups for its Seattle Accelerator—14 companies with products ranging from a groundbreaking system for first responders and dispatchers to communicate during emergencies to software that helps filmmakers create complex stories in animated, customizable 3-D environments to a parking app for harried city drivers that uses real-time predictive analytics.
The Seattle Accelerator's second-ever class of startups was selected after an intense, 12-city search across North America earlier this year; over 500 companies were eventually narrowed to a final round of 40, which then pitched apps and products in front of a committee of experts and Microsoft Ventures executives. Each selected startup receives a onetime gift of $25,000 and, more meaningfully, a four-month residency in Microsoft's offices in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. (The money and mentoring come with no strings attached: Unlike most accelerators, Microsoft does not require an equity stake in any of the companies.)
An earlier Seattle Accelerator class, comprised primarily of startups focusing on consumer-facing home-automation software and services, completed its four-month program in December. The new class, which starts work on March 17, is innovating in the business-enterprise space. "We’re focused on finding great teams with big visions who can benefit from the unique combination of workspace, tools, and mentorship that we can provide, companies innovating and contributing to make businesses and enterprise more effective, productive, and collaborative," says Larry Orecklin, Vice President, Developer Experience and Chief Evangelist at Microsoft. "We choose great founders who are proposing solutions that solve real problems or create meaningful innovations." The Accelerator's ultimate goal is to jump-start early-stage startups that are creating the sort of products Microsoft has traditionally championed: personal and business software, as well as B2B solutions designed with the Internet of things and the cloud very much in mind.
Cian O'Sullivan, the founder of Beagle, Inc.—a system that digests contracts of virtually any length or complexity, and one of the 14 teams selected for this Accelerator class—is proud, if admittedly a bit overwhelmed, to be a part of it all. "We're the Accelerator’s first Canadian company, and for us it's just a huge validation. We're based in Kitchener-Waterloo, often called the Silicon Valley of the north, and we've already seen immense interest in our company as a result of being selected," says O'Sullivan. Of the other startups in the class, he adds, "seeing these fantastic companies, all in the same boat, sharing the same pain, working together—nothing but awesomeness can result."
"Meeting the CEOs of so many other startups, and seeing so many smart people with such compelling solutions, was pretty humbling," says Mark Hirsch, founder and CEO of CreativeWorx, a cloud-based productivity software company. But, he says, "the selection committee genuinely appreciated both our product and our ambitious vision."
As powerful as the Accelerator program is for young companies, Microsoft's Mohan is clear-eyed about today’s hyper-competitive startup environment. "It takes a lot of time to have a successful company—just as it can take a lot of time to have an unsuccessful company. But if you're going to have a baby, whether it's a boy or a girl, it's going to take you nine months," he says. "Successful or unsuccessful, a startup is still going to take three to seven years. So what we're really doing here is accelerating not the process, but the learning that is integral to the process."
"We see ourselves as an active catalyst in nurturing the health of the startup ecosystem in the U.S., including the Seattle Accelerator," says Jim Brisimitzis, Microsoft’s General Manager of U.S. Startups. "Our goal is to create an atmosphere that’s conducive for startups to grow."
How does backing startups through the Accelerator program benefit Microsoft—and, perhaps more importantly, the entire startup ecosystem—in the long run? "We learn," Mohan says. "We learn about product, about how people innovate—we learn a lot of things, but most of what we learn comes back to this idea that smaller teams can, under the right circumstances, be more productive than larger teams. That's a lesson that anyone, not just a company like Microsoft, can work with."
Here, the full lineup of the 14 leading-edge startups that earned a spot in the second Seattle Accelerator class:
Accelerated Pictures develops an SAS product called FilmmakerLive, which enables filmmakers to create stories in animated, customizable 3-D environments.
AdHusky is an automated Facebook ad solution for financial service firms.
Beagle offers an advanced intelligent system for reading contracts, regardless of length or complexity.
ClearContract brings contract negotiations to the cloud with a secure online interface for the creation, negotiation, and execution of non-disclosure agreements.
CloudCoreo allows users to launch complete, reliable application infrastructures using their appstack technology.
CreativeWorx is a cloud-based productivity software platform focused, initially, on the professional services industry.
GeoSafe has developed a communications platform and GPS tracking system for first responders in the field.
LionHeart Innovations is a mobile medical platform for caregiver coordination.
Outleads enables clients to connect online via phone and subsequent offline interactions.
Parknav offers an on-street parking solution, employing data and predictive analytics.
Rallyteam is a collaboration platform for empowering employees to do more and learn more.
Rexter provides real-time contact and relationship management.
Skip is a complete mobile checkout solution.
Slope provides a platform for marketing and creative teams to store, organize, and collaborate on media content.
This article was authored by FastCo Works, Fast Company's Content Studio.