TCB Q&A: Techstars CEO Maëlle Gavet
Innovation is a world tour for Maëlle Gavet, who became CEO of Techstars in 2021. Leading the global investment business, which partners with companies and organizations to create targeted accelerator programs for early-stage entrepreneurs, requires the French native to visit program sites from Melbourne to Minneapolis and meet with large companies interested in participating. Over the summer, she took in her first Major League Baseball game at Target Field before checking in on the Minnesota Twins Techstars Accelerator, headquartered across the street from the stadium at the Ford Center. There, we sat down to discuss the startup market and why Fortune 500s should pay attention.
You visit startup hubs around the world; what are your impressions of the Twin Cities? As I was going from one big Fortune 500 to another today, the question really was: How do we plug innovation into our companies, and how do we support the ecosystem? There’s a very heartwarming approach to community building by the people who have made a lot of money here. People based in Minnesota want to give back. I like it. I think maybe I need to move to the Midwest!
Are large companies creating startup accelerators for the right reasons? There are clearly cases where it’s just PR, but those companies don’t tend to work with us. We require a real investment—beyond dollars (Techstars invests about $120,000 per startup participant). The reason why they do it: They need access to innovation, and they don’t know how to get there. Look at the hotel industry or taxis—one minute everything is great, and the next there’s a massive startup you didn’t see coming. Leaders of big companies today are fully aware that disruption is around the corner.
The average first raise for companies post-Techstars program participation is $1 million.
Techstars’ Farm to Fork Accelerator with Cargill and Ecolab is easy to understand—both companies want to be on the forefront of the future of food and agriculture. But what is a professional baseball team doing in the startup business? They’re thinking about the future of sports entertainment. It may not happen in a stadium, and it’s a particular challenge for games that last four hours. So how do we keep that sport relevant and keep the relationship with fans strong for a new generation? How do we create new sources of revenue? At the end of the day, it’s a business.
What industries or categories provide the best opportunity for innovation right now? I’m super excited about food tech. I’m equally excited about health tech and biotech. Our children and grandchildren are going to live a life that’s fundamentally different than ours. I was recently in Africa, and there, many entrepreneurs are working on the future of fintech. In that part of the world, they’re skipping over things the West spent decades developing and moving into the 21st century.
I see innovation happening in every industry. We have a ton of opportunities—humanity has always been very creative, and this creativity has never been needed more [because of] climate change, hunger, poverty, access to banking and health care.
Techstars has invested in more than 70 companies through its two Twin Cities programs, Farm to Fork with Cargill and Ecolab and the Minnesota Twins Accelerator.
How do you think about different markets—are certain cities better for solving specific problems? We’re very international. Even a program in Paris or Los Angeles will have people coming from all around the world. No program is 100% local. What we’re really looking at when we open a hub is the general ecosystem. What is the environment like in the city, because the founder may want to relocate there. We’ve seen that happen in Minneapolis. And what is the angel/venture ecosystem, because once the startup leaves Techstars, they’re going to need support. It’s definitely gotten better in the Twin Cities over the last five years. We’ve worked really hard at it. The Twin Cities is still under the radar to an extent, which is fascinating to me when you look at the number of innovative companies here.
Why do big companies with so many resources at their disposal need your help incubating startup ideas? It’s hard for big companies to solve problems and change culture. That’s not what they’re known for—they have a fiduciary responsibility to investors. There are very few cases of legacy companies going through a digital transformation without help. Entrepreneurs are magicians who take problems and dedicate 10 years of their lives to solving them. I don’t know of a better shot of optimism and positivity than spending time with entrepreneurs.
What’s your best advice for entrepreneurs? No one succeeds alone. The best way to succeed is to make sure you have the right people around you—not just in the business, but family and friends. The image of Silicon Valley of the lonely genius in the garage [is misleading]—no one succeeds alone. Even behind the people you admire most, there are massive [numbers] of people who’ve been there along the way. That’s what we provide. We so deeply believe in the power of human connection to succeed.
How Techstars Partnerships Come Together
Target, Land O’Lakes, Cargill, Ecolab, and the Minnesota Twins are among the more than 300 organizations worldwide that have partnered with Techstars on startup mentorship, investment, and three-month accelerator programs. “In Minnesota, given what’s here, there are amazing opportunities around health tech, biotech, retail. There’s also a ton to be done on the sustainability front and on future of work,” says Techstars CEO Maëlle Gavet. “Across those five topics, we should be able to do two more programs here.” Here’s how it works:
Getting involved: There’s no formal application process for companies and organizations interested in partnering with Techstars. “They can just contact us, and we will have someone reach out to discuss objectives and goals and see what kind of engagement would make the most sense for them,” Gavet says.
Optimal partners: “We’ve worked with corporate partners like Disney and Cargill and also local government agencies like the Korea Institute of Startup & Entrepreneurship. They range in size.”
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Accommodations: The Minnesota Twins provide their Techstars cohort with office space at the Ford Center in Minneapolis. But space is not a requirement. “If they don’t have a space that will work, we have a dedicated team that will find a space for the program.”
Goals: “Many partners pick themes that align with their business goals and industry,” Gavet says. “But we also have programs that are focused more broadly—on DEI or social impact, for example.”