Jesse Lipson Citrix Accelerator Demo Day

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Four North Carolina State University students spent the last three months talking to customers about a new way to share files, and they did it with help from the brains inside Citrix's ShareFile division.

What could have been viewed as a conflict of interest was anything but for Citrix, which acquired ShareFile, a once-startup file-sharing operation, four years ago. The reason for its Startup Accelerator, which hosted the Raleigh Innovators Program that the students' startup Medicom took part in this fall, is to put internal heads together with entrepreneurs outside its four walls and come up with new ways to help clients and generate business.

And in fact, examples like Medicom are all the more reason why local leaders are making sure the program continues even if Citrix corporate isn't fueling it next year.

"We want to get smart and learn about what is going on in our space," ShareFile Founder and Citrix General Manager Jesse Lipson (pictured above) told me after Tuesday's Innovators Program Demo Day. "We ask the question, do we buy, build or partner? We're not thinking about these things as competitive to us, but they could be opportunities for us."

Raleigh Innovators Program 2015
12 teams demoed products or startups at the second annual Raleigh Innovators Program Demo Day.

The Silicon Valley-based Startup Accelerator is a casualty of a restructuring that's causing layoffs and budget shifts at Citrix locations around the country. Raleigh is seeing little impact of that because the ShareFile division continues to grow. And the Raleigh Innovators Program isn't at stake because so many other partners are involved too. 

HQ Raleigh, the Cherokee-McDonough Challenge and Red Hat are co-investors in the program, and HQ Raleigh's Liz Tracy facilitated this year with help from Citrix Accelerator's John McIntyre and a Citrix-hired contractor Nick O'Connor, as well as a local executive council including Lipson.

The group announced Tuesday that the program will continue in Raleigh in 2016, and in fact, there could be a second three-month program during the calendar year. Leaders cited successes like EmployUs, a 2014 participant that announced a $750,000 funding round last week, and Userlite, which has collaboration software that the Innovators Program and dozens of other companies are piloting. 

The Cherokee McDonough Challenge, which used to run its own accelerator program, also got involved this year, funding and mentoring the three clean tech startups in the program. And Red Hat is another financial partner, putting its first intrapreneur team through the accelerator.

DeLisa Alexander of Red Hat at Raleigh Innovators Program Demo Day
DeLisa Alexander is chief people officer and executive vice president at Red Hat. She's also an executive council member of the Raleigh Innovators Program.

From the stage, Red Hat Chief People Officer DeLisa Alexander admitted that Citrix beat Red Hat to the punch with the accelerator program in 2014. But both companies are committed to building a strong local entrepreneurial ecosystem, and found the accelerator to be a way to work together to support internal corporate innovation and that from around the community.

Lipson says he'll stay involved regardless of his employer's role next year. A Citrix team from the 2014 program spent the last year working on a device that makes it easy to connect any computer or mobile device to a screen in a conference room.

Called Castr, the startup has made good progress, Lipson says, with big learnings about how difficult it is to get a hardware product into production. This week, his executive team will decide whether to fund the project for another year. And next week, they'll decide whether to support the intrapreneurs behind three Raleigh Innovators projects this fall. 

Team Para has an app that allows people to be productive while driving, and in a safe way. Addoo simplifies the onboarding process for new customers by allowing sales reps or account executives to drag and drop relevant materials into a training track for any particular customer. And Coco has a software tool to merge various communications (like email, social media, group messaging) and information sources (Dropbox, Google Drive) into one place for ease of decision making within a team.

Lipson appreciates that each team learns lean startup methodology, design thinking and the importance of creating a customer feedback loop through pilots. Whether they continue to work on their projects or not, they can bring those learnings back to their teams inside Citrix. 

The other benefit is early access to businesses like Medicom. 

Medicom CEO Malcolm Benitz admits he was a bit trepid about joining the program and sharing the ins and outs of his team's technology with ShareFile. 

Frustrated that doctors' offices still use fax machines for transmitting medical records, the senior entrepreneurship and economics major and his three techie friends had spent the previous nine months developing technology with military-grade encryption that is HIPAA compliant and allows physicians and healthcare providers to quickly share files of any size through a peer-to-peer connection versus through the cloud. 

Benitz felt better when Medicom and Citrix agreed no intellectual property would be shared during the program—he's since filed a provisional patent for the technology. 

And he's glad he stayed in. The advice from mentors and connections made through the program have helped his team line up five paying healthcare industry customers with about 30 clinics each as well as a pipeline of additional potential customers. Though medical fields are an initial focus, the men see opportunity in everything from law and banking to real estate and wedding photography.

Lipson will be watching. 

"I'd love to hear more about it," he says. "We sell a lot in the healthcare space."