With a submission deadline looming in a few days, more than 400 people filled the cavernous main room of a Santa Monica co-working space this week, eager to hear how their startup can create the future of entertainment, with help from a media giant and a hugely influential tech investor group.
The night’s main attraction was David Cohen of TechStars, which connects high-level tech investors with startups. TechStars has partnered with Disney to launch the Disney Accelerator, one of seven such sponsored accelerators it runs along with seven more stand-alone operations in as many cities on two continents. Soft-spoken and dressed Silicon Valley casual, Cohen told the CrossCampus gathering that the accelerator’s goal is simple: to find and fund “the next generation of entertainment.”
By next Wednesday, startups vying to be part of the first class must submit their applications, including two 1-minute videos describing their product and their team. Managing Director Cody Simms said if a startup is one of 10 chosen, key team members will take part in an intensive 15-week process that connects them to influential leaders from across Disney and the sprawling TechStars network of investor-advisers.
Each startup will receive $120,000 in seed money plus various in-kind services and support. After a month or so of connecting beginning June 30, two to four mentors will be matched as lead advisers with each startup. The advisers will provide more hands-on advice, relationships and, potentially, direct investment while also helping their protege company put together a product prototype and then pitch it to potential investors on October 14. On average, Simms said, participants in other TechStars accelerators have attracted $1.6 million in funding by the time they finish the process.
Among those in the crowd with plans to apply were Reesa Ryder and Simone Nelson, partners in the Holiday Channel, an online company designed to provide holiday-themed content of all kinds. Nelson and Ryder already were planning to launch the Holiday Channel on the Roku video-streaming box in November, with at least 50 hours of licensed holiday-themed content. But getting accepted into the accelerator might change everything dramatically. “Let’s say we get into this program,” said Nelson. “Our plans could change. We might go for broke.”
For a nascent content company, er, “24-hour, multi-platform destination site, featuring year-round holiday-themed content,” Nelson said the accelerator’s biggest enticement is the promise of much easier access to Disney executives and content-licensing discussions. “It’s not like $120,000 is a lot of money for this” kind of site, said Nelson, who also attended a recent Disney Accelerator session in San Francisco. “It’s more the access. In general, you can’t buy that kind of marketing and branding to be in the first accelerator group of one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world. We’ll get in the room really fast with the right people, because we’ve been vetted by the big guys.”
Competition for that first class of 10 slots looks to be brutal at an almost Darwinian scale. The accelerator execs said they had already received more than 1,000 applications 10 days before the deadline. Many of those at CrossCampus seemed like they too were getting ready to apply. A Disney spokesperson declined further comment, saying the company had nothing to add until finalists are chosen, probably by the end of May.
Nelson and Ryder are hoping their existing friends in high places – including former Disney studio and animation chief Peter Schneider, who is an adviser - can help them land a slot, and open up all kinds of new opportunities for the Holiday Channel. “The whole point is tech meets entertainment,” said Nelson. “They give you high-level mentoring on the tech side and high-level mentoring on the entertainment side.”