Highland Capital knows as well as anyone in the industry how competitive the environment is for attracting top entrepreneurial talent. That’s why for the sixth year in a row the firm is hosting teams of student entrepreneurs as part of its Summer@Highland program. The objective of the program is to systematically connect with high potential future founders earlier in their careers.
This year’s program was the most competitive in history, with 900 teams applying from 85 Universities. Ultimately nine teams were accepted to the program and will each receive an $18,000 stipend and free office space for which no equity will change hands. The teams of two or more undergraduate and graduate students will spend 10 weeks in Highland’s Silicon Valley or Palo Alto office being mentored by one of the firm’s investment partners.
“We challenge them to treat us like their mock board over the Summer,” program head and Highland Capital principal Alex Taussig says.
In addition to working with their dedicated mentor within the firm, the participating companies work closely with the firm’s portfolio companies and attend a regular speaker series featuring the industry’s best entrepreneurs, which has in the past included Steve Blank, Keith Rabois, Bill Clerico, Nathan Blecharczyk, and Drew Houston, among others.
It is not uncommon for companies to participate in Summer@Highland and another more traditional accelerator like Y Combinator simultaneously, according Taussig. This year several of the recently announced Thiel Fellows also applied to the Highland program.
Since 2007, 35 teams have participated in the program, going on to raise nearly $100 million in venture capital, and have multiple acquisitions by Google, Oracle, and others to their credit. Summer 2012 participant Anchovi Labs was quickly acquired by Dropbox in September, shortly after finishing the program. This was one of two acquisitions within the class, with the second being unreported.
One of the most high profile success stories is Wildfire, a class of 2007 alumni, which was eventually acquired by Google for $350 million in 2012 after raising $14 million. Close on their heels is Cloudflare which was part of the class of 2009 and has since raised $22 million, with current rumors placing its valuation above $1 billion.
Notably, neither Wildfire nor Cloudflare raised any of their future venture rounds from Highland. For many, this would be seen as evidence that the Summer@Highland program doesn’t work, but for Taussig that couldn’t be further from the case.
“We measure success as whether the teams we select and spend the summer mentoring go on to have productive and successful careers,” he says. “We may invest in their first company, or one they build in the future, or none at all. They may just serve as a reference one day when we’re looking at another deal or are looking to initiate a business or corporate development process.”
The breakdown of this year’s applicant pool was interesting, with Harvard, Stanford, MIT, University of Michigan, and Northwestern being the most well represented among all applicants, but with no single school comprising more than 11 percent of all applicants. The applicant pool was 35 percent graduate students, 19 percent graduating seniors, 16 percent juniors, 8 percent sophomores, and 4 percent freshman. Computer science majors made up 40 percent of all applicants, followed by business majors at 32 percent.
“The classes have been getting younger and younger, as have VC-backed founders in general, “ Taussig says. “It’s getting easier to do significant things with limited resources and we’ve seen young founders self-educating themselves so much more than in the past.”
Each applicant company must already have traction with an existing idea, as well as have demonstrated excellence in academics, extracurricular activities, and entrepreneurship. Roughly half of this year’s submissions involved companies in the consumer internet space, while the remaining half included human capital management, 3D printing, and crowdfunding, among other categories.
“We were blown away by our applicants’ original thinking and ambition to solve real world problems with technology,” Taussig says.
Below are the nine teams participating in the 2013 Summer@Highland program, six of which will spend the summer in the firm’s Palo Alto office and three of which in will spend it in Boston (descriptions provided by Highland Capital):
- Alpha (Stanford University) – Alpha is a digital university for hackers that teaches experienced developers how to build actual applications for the “real world” through project-based learning in the browser. The team is also a finalist in the BASES (Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students) 150K Challenge
- Butucu (Harvard College) – Butucu, an all-freshman team, aims to help retail stores improve the customer experience by allowing them to push custom, relevant content to in-store shoppers while providing high-level analytics
- Connect.com (Harvard Business School) – What if Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter were on a map? Connect.com puts all your friends and connections on a map so you can find the right people when traveling, plan events and see all your relationships in one place. It is co-founded by Ryan Allis, previously the co-founder and CEO of iContact (acquired by Vocus (NASDAQ: VOCS) for $169 million in 2012)
- EagerPanda (MIT) – EagerPanda allows educators to easily build their own custom online courses, and enables learners to connect and communicate around this content
- Phyre (Boston College) – Winner of the Boston College Venture Competition, Phyre is building a portable device that makes it easy to wirelessly connect and interact with large displays from any phone, tablet or laptop
- Sension (Stanford University) – A computer vision platform that makes online content engaging for the user, Sension works with a simple webcam to let anyone make videos that respond to the viewer
- SkylBridge (Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) – SkylBridge is an online talent marketplace for businesses to find top-quality yet affordable business freelancers for short-term projects
- Splat (Cornell University) – Splat is a small device that transforms a smartphone into the ultimate social-gaming console, letting users play physical, in-person, interactive video games
- Technical Machine (Olin College) – Technical Machine is an embeddable platform for developers to make internet-connected physical devices