Duke and UNC’s entrepreneurship programming are drawing more than students to our region.
On this week’s visit to recruit startups to a six-month startup support program called Expa Labs, general manager Andrea Funsten said the strength of these universities was a key reason she added Raleigh and Durham to her tour of U.S. and Canadian tech hubs in time for Expa’s application deadline of March 31.
The type of programs offered here rival those at Stanford and UC Berkeley, says Funsten, who is based in San Francisco and an entrepreneur herself. The startups she met on tours of American Underground and HQ Raleigh were equally impressive.
“The teams I met today were early stage and have a lot more traction than I’m seeing from teams that have gotten funding in the Valley,” she says. “This is a breeding ground for great investment opportunities.”
Invest, Expa will. Acceptance into its Labs program comes with either $250,000 in return for a 10% equity stake or $500,000 in return for 20%.
“We think teams should get enough money so they don’t have to rush a product to market,” Funsten says.
If you haven’t heard of Expa, that’s because it keeps a low profile. A “startup studio” founded by Uber co-founder Garrett Camp in 2012, the team and its entrepreneurs-in-residence stay heads down testing new ideas and launching products and companies. They only recently started talking to media as they raised a fund and introduced the Labs program in 2016. (Camp also wrote about Labs in a Medium post.)
Expa stands for “expert advice”, and its leaders certainly seem able to provide that. Camp was leading his first startup StumbleUpon when he had the original idea for the on-demand ride service. He passed those reins to co-founder and now CEO Travis Kalanick, but still serves as chairman of the Uber board.
Other partners include Hooman Radfar, founder of AddThis (acquired by Oracle); Naveen Selvadurai, co-founder of Foursquare; Milun Tesovic, founder of Metrolyrics (acquired by CBS Interactive); Roberto Sanabria, a former head of analytics at LinkedIn and StumbleUpon; and Vítor Lourenço, who was Twitter’s first designer and co-founder of Envoy. They work alongside 25 other entrepreneurs and experts-in-residence stationed in offices in New York, San Francisco and Vancouver.
In its first three years, this group helped spin out nearly 20 new companies—most recently influencer marketing platform Dovetail and Radar, which provides app developers with location services. In 2016, the partners raised a $100 million from investors like Sir Richard Branson of Virgin and HP CEO Meg Whitman.
What makes Expa unique, says Funsten, is its flexibility. It’s part co-working space—the Expa team invites other founders to work alongside them. In return, those founders provide mentorship and connections to Expa’s portfolio companies and to each other, making it a bit like an incubator.
It also has a fund and accelerator component in the Labs program. Expa chooses early or idea stage companies to work with every June through November. The check size and length of the program set it apart from accelerators like 500 Startups and Y Combinator. Rather than a set curriculum or lecture series, there’s a lot of one-on-one support based on the stage and needs of the company. And there’s no public demo day—investor meetings happen throughout the program.
“We are something between an accelerator and incubator,” Funsten says. “We are a hub of really creative and hacker-type operators building great ideas next to each other and collaborating.”
Though little has been written about Expa Labs so far, a 2016 portfolio company founder took to a Medium post to detail his experience.
Specifically, he called out Expa’s founder-friendly approach, changing every team’s term sheet when one team had an issue with the language. The partners and EIRs responded quickly to requests for help and made critical introductions for each team. This founder got advice on a variety of subjects beyond the development of his product: design, analytics, HR, hiring, accounting and PR.
Expa Labs is expanding its mission in 2017, hoping to draw applications from around North America. If accepted, teams won’t have to move. They’ll get equal access to the weekly one-on-one meetings and strategy sessions, proprietary virtual collaboration tools with the other teams and EIRs, as well as three paid trips to one of the three Expa offices. There are also annual CEO and CTO summits.
Camp is passionate about supporting companies outside Silicon Valley and New York, Funsten says. A native of Canada, he founded StumbleUpon in 2002 while in graduate school at the University of Calgary. All of his partners have roots outside the U.S. too: Lourenco is from Brazil, Sanabria from Costa Rica, Tesovic (born in what is now Bosnia) from Canada, Selvadurai from India and Radfar from London (but of Iranian descent).
Expa isn’t going global just yet, but Funsten hopes at least half the 2017 teams come from outside its three locations. Besides the typical tech hubs, she made special recruiting trips to the Triangle, Salt Lake City and Charleston.
“We’re looking for great ideas—not valuations—and those can’t just be centralized in two places,” Funsten says.
Apply to Expa Labs here, by midnight Friday, March 31.