Kevin Hale Y Combinator at NC State

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Mathilde Verdier has attended more than 90 entrepreneurship events in recent years but 20 minutes last week with a partner from the coveted Silicon Valley accelerator and venture fund Y Combinator provided some of the best and most applicable feedback she's ever received.

Verdier, director of outreach for Chapel Hill-based smart events calendar startup Hypestarter, along with its co-founder Ryan Bregier were among nine groups of UNC-Chapel Hill students and alumni to get one-on-one meetings with Y Combinator partners Kevin Hale and Kat Manalac during a tour of Triangle universities last Monday and Tuesday. It was the first time YC has paid a visit to the region despite that 13 of its founders are graduates of a major university here and at least 75 North Carolina-affiliated companies have applied over its 10-year history (a stat Manalac shared with me last year). 

Says Manalac: "The Durham area has been attracting a lot of talent and capital in the past few years and we wanted to meet local entrepreneurs and learn how we can be helpful to the startup community here."

Y Combinator at NC State 2016
About 60 students and alumni gathered at NC State University on January 25 for a presentation by Y Combinator partners Kevin Hale and Kat Manalac. Credit: NC State Entrepreneurship Initiative
The pair spent about five hours on campus at NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke, holding 20-minute meetings with specific teams and then a short talk and Q&A for the remainder of each visit. It was a big deal for young founders in the region says Kyle Linton, a recent NC State graduate and founder of Nicotrax. 

"Y Combinator pushes you to think bigger and they push you toward traction as a function of that," he says. While many advisors in Raleigh have been helpful to his young company that's trying to use data and technology to curb smoking, he admits that those in our region aren't as used to the "fast iteration and validation process" that is prevalent out west. He'll use that YC feedback as he conducts a series of Nicotrax pilots this spring and summer.

The most specific advice Verdier took away from the afternoon will help her team communicate more effectively with investors. Focus on the evidence, i.e. your company's growth rate, rather than selling them on an idea. Hypestarter plans to apply to the YC program that begins this summer, in hopes of learning a whole lot more.

Why the Triangle

While the Triangle region has increasingly been on the radar of the Y Combinator partners, Manalac wrote in an email last week, the visit is largely attributed to local angel investor and Forest Creek Ventures founder Kurt Schmidt.

During a trip to Silicon Valley for a board meeting last fall, he learned of a Y Combinator college tour planned for schools like Harvard, Stanford, NYU and Columbia University. Schmidt had a connection to the accelerator—he'd partnered with YC portfolio company Loopt, which was founded by current YC president Sam Altman, while working for two venture-backed startup companies. First, SiRF Technology in the late 90s and early 2000s and then Clearwire, which was acquired by Sprint in 2010. 

He also knew what it's reputation and influence could do for local startups—YC has a market cap of $65 billion with six unicorns. Its recent $700 million growth fund, raised last fall, also includes Chapel Hill venture capital investment firm TrueBridge Capital Partners

Schmidt has been involved locally as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at NC State University and an entrepreneurial affiliate at Duke University, in addition to recently attending a Blackstone Entrepreneurs-in-Residence with all three universities present. And so he reached out to the accelerator to see what it would take to add Duke, UNC and NC State to their list for the winter.

Turns out, not much. Within weeks, dates were set and Manalac, the fund's director of outreach, and Hale, a founder who participated in the program and was once a North Carolina resident, were planning their visit. Also on this winter's tour are the University of Toronto, University of Pennsylvania, The University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins, Washington University in St. Louis, Morehouse College, Georgia Tech, Yale, Princeton, the University of Chicago and Northwestern.

Recruiting for accelerator and fellowships

The first priority for the visit was meeting student-led teams and sharing about Y Combinator's three-month accelerator and fellowship programs. Application periods are open for both now. 

Especially interesting to Megan Greer, director of communications and outreach for the Entrepreneurship Initiative at NC State, was the relatively new fellowship, which lets founders stay in their home towns (besides an initial in-person workshop) but get access to office hours via Skype, one-on-one communication with a YC partner, live streamed weekly talks by various speakers and a virtual Demo Day. They also get a $20,000 investment in return for a 1.5 percent equity stake that only converts upon IPO or $100 million valuation. 

Greer expects some student teams to apply. 

Even more, she's eager for the relationship with the accelerator to continue. EI is already planning to add Y Combinator to its visit list during a Silicon Valley spring break trip planned next month. And she'll be reaching out soon to get specific feedback for the teams that pitched and met with YC.

"It was great to get on their radar and for the students and alumni to have access to that networking opportunity and feedback from such a reputable accelerator," Greer says. 

Manalac told me that she was impressed by the variety of industry sectors represented, from consumer to hardware to B2B. Her initial impression was that this region would be strongest in biotech and healthcare.

Also surprising was the amount of resources available, from the university-run entrepreneurship centers to the American Underground and Google for Entrepreneurs, as well as the number of founders moving to Durham from other cities because of the resources.

"It's still a relatively young ecosystem, but it's very promising," she told me.

A place where unknowns become known

This week's tour reminded me a comment Manalac made during my visit to YC last year. She shared that the majority of founders funded by YC have no connection whatsoever to the fund. Soon after, I read a blog post by YC CEO Sam Altman that reiterated the point:

The fact that we are willing to look at people totally unknown to us is key to why we do well, and not something we’ll ever stop doing.
This is all good news for the founders who met the pair last week, and for the universities that will continue to feed viable entrepreneurs to such a willing audience.

But Altman's post included another simple tip too, that it helps to get recommended. And that's good news too considering the list of alums who've participated in the program. Several called in during the Q&A sessions last week, but here's a full run-down of who's participated and where they are now. If you're interested in Y Combinator and missed last week's visits, perhaps these folks can provide a warm lead.

Duke University YC Alums: 

Kevin Lacker, a 2002 Duke graduate with majors in computer science and math, founded two companies that completed Y Combinator, first Gamador in 2010 and then Parse in 2011. Parse was acquired by Facebook in 2013 for $90 million, but will be shut down early next year.

Jason Freedman graduated from Duke in 2002 as well, and went on to take two companies through Y Combinator, FlightCaster and 42Floors, a commercial real estate search platform that he continues to lead today. 

Kathryn Minshew, founder of The Muse, graduated with degrees in political science and French in 2008 and founded her media site for jobseekers in 2011. She completed Y Combinator in 2012.

Howie Liu left Duke in 2009 and went through Y Combinator with Etacts, a CRM tool, in 2010, selling it to Salesforce the same year. He's now CEO of Airtable, a company that makes databases easily accessible via mobile app.

Chris Morton earned an MBA from The Fuqua School of Business in 2009 and has since taken two companies through YC, Cube in 2012 and BlockScore in 2014.

Lawrence Gentilello, who left Fuqua with an MBA in 2008, founded Screenleap in 2011 and participated in a 2012 YC cohort.

Alex Andon, also known as "The Jellyfish Entrepreneur", graduated from Duke in 2006 with degrees in biology and environmental science. His Y Combinator funded pet jellyfish e-commerce company Jellyfish Art was acquired in 2014. 

Andrew Dietrich, with two master's degrees from Duke in 2012, launched Final to introduce a fraud-fighting credit card. He graduated from YC last year.

North Carolina State University YC Alums: 

Thushan Amarasiriwardena of LaunchPad Toys was a computer science major who graduated in 2004 and went on to create apps like Toontastic and TeleStory, participate in Y Combinator in 2011 and line up investors like Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. It was acquired a year ago by Google, and Amarasiriwardena now works as a product manager for the search giant.

Jeff Huber of Standard Cyborg graduated in 2012 with majors in industrial engineering and economics but moved to Silicon Valley to launch his waterproof 3D printed prosthetics company. Y Combinator funded it in 2015.

University of North Carolina YC Alums: 

Christine Boyle of Valor Water Analytics provides powerful analytics back to utility companies to help them conserve water and save money. Founded during her PhD program at UNC, Boyle moved to San Francisco for an urban innovation accelerator in 2014 but was recruited to Y Combinator soon after. Here's a profile on her company in Forbes last fall.

Bill Bobbitt and Shruti Shah of Move Loot are friends from UNC-Chapel Hill. They participated in YC in early 2014 as they prepped to launch the used furniture marketplace. They opened East Coast operations in Durham later that year.