Kyle Robertson came to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in the fall of 2016 to immerse himself in the startup community. Now, as the former Accenture consultant prepares to graduate this spring, he can boast of achieving his initial goal — and not just any startup community. Robertson has immersed himself in startup communities at other elite universities with robust entrepreneurial chops: Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and the University of California-Berkeley. Through his startup, StartU, Robertson and a team of campus “scouts” and “leads” identify the most promising early-stage companies on college campuses and feature them.
“We’re not investing in these companies, but we are trying to figure out what the best companies would be to invest in,” Robertson tells Poets&Quants.
StartU is essentially a news site covering startups on college campuses in the pre-Seed to Series A stages. The idea, Robertson says, emerged during his internship. As a technology investment summer associate in Morgan Stanley’s San Francisco office, Robertson spent much of last summer identifying and evaluating early-stage companies, and when he returned to campus last fall he began to think about ways to “cultivate early-stage entrepreneurial ecosystems.” Talking to founders at Wharton and other schools, a common thread became clear: New ventures struggled to gain media attention and coverage, “which then made it more difficult for them to bring on investors and talent,” Robertson explains.
INVESTORS, TALENT MAKE UP MAJORITY OF READERSHIP
Last fall, Robertson launched StartU and began featuring an early-stage company each Monday. As the semester progressed, he learned two things: First, there was positive readership growth — and what’s more, the readership was mainly comprised of investors and startup talent, like engineers. And second, Robertson learned that there was a level of connectivity being built as investors and partners at venture capital firms reached out to him for introductions to founders, or to ask his advice or thoughts on specific companies.
If this kind of reaction was happening while covering mainly Wharton startups, Robertson reasoned, it would probably increase by adding other universities. Through his personal connections, he reached out to students at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the University of California-Berkeley. “It was clear the gap existed at those schools, too,” Robertson says.
Robertson’s sister is a student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He asked her to connect him to students involved in the entrepreneurship community, and one of those connections was Jake Guglin, now an MIT Lead for SmartU. “He was already super immersed in the ecosystem,” Robertson says.
From there, Robertson expanded to the other schools both at the MBA and undergraduate levels. Each school has two campus leads that have a “birds-eye view” of the companies that should be featured and four to five “scouts” that work as reporters, Robertson says. So far, Robertson estimates, about 60% of the leads and scouts are MBAs and the rest are undergrads. “We’re looking for the best companies at the schools — not just the best MBA companies,” Robertson says. The team currently has 36 members, but Robertson says they are already planning on expanding to 10 more universities, mainly in the New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles areas.
EXECUTION KEY TO DIFFERENTIATING SUCCESSFUL STARTUPS
Recent companies featured by StartU include Gainful, a personalized protein powder founded last year by a team from UC-Berkeley and Georgetown. In addition to a writeup, each companies gets a stats section that lists things like primary investors, total investment money raised, and progress. Gainful, for example, has raised $225,000 from Dorm Room Fund, The Brandery, Rough Draft Ventures, Y Combinator, and currently has over 1,000 subscribers. Another recently featured company is Anomalie, a direct to consumer custom-made wedding dress venture launched last year at Harvard. To date, the startup has raised $4.5 million from undisclosed investors.
Through the process, Robertson has learned quite a bit about what makes early stage startups successful — and what does not. Robertson says within teams, execution is one of the most essential qualities he sees. It’s one thing to go up on stage and give an intriguing presentation, Robertson believes, but it’s another to actually follow through and execute within the startup.
“We make an effort to get to know the companies we feature for a couple of months to see how they push the needle forward,” Robertson says. “And those companies that have strong executors at the founder level, you figure it out pretty quickly over the course of a couple months.”