CableLabs’ accelerator UpRamp helps entrepreneurs solve sticky problems and get insider access to the industry.
Two and a half years ago, Scott Brown designed a unique startup accelerator program for CableLabs that aimed to guarantee that startups would get results: give startups a chance to ask many people across one industry what they need to do a better job, and then pitch the fix to that industry’s top decision makers. The face-to-face access to industry mentors and C-level officers meant promising startups would come away from the program with new customers.
A startup in the wireless space has big challenges. Brown saw a pattern with startups too connected to one large company: their ideas were too narrowly focused, and they were missing opportunities. Software solutions can iterate fast but a hardware-based product can suddenly become irrelevant if designed for one company. Add to that the telco and wireless industries’ reputation for stodginess and moving slowly, and startups might give up on the industry to sell their ideas elsewhere.
The industry needed a way to capture new ideas and startups needed access to the industry. UpRamp, with Scott Brown at the helm, facilitated the connection by carefully choosing a few startup companies with products that the industry really needed and getting them access to 60 of CableLab’s member companies.
Two years later, UpRamp, CableLab’s startup accelerator, has helped eight companies get a solid start in the wireless and telecom industry. It’s a graduate school for startups, Brown says. Graduates include Trinity Mobile and Edgewater Wireless.
UpRamp is now looking for more startups to mentor. May 4th is the next deadline.
This year, UpRamp is looking for startups that can improve the wireless and mobiles experience, whether licensed shared or unlicensed spectrum. Brown’s team is looking for startups that can help on small cell, 5G use cases. Millimeter wave and fixed wireless are compelling industry trends, and customer service and security are becoming more central for the industry as well.
CableLabs, started in 1988, has tied the cable industry together with research, standards (such as DOCSIS) and advocacy. “It is the 30-year-old nonprofit that acts as the innovation arm for all the global connectivity industry — all the cable, broadband and some of the mobile guys,” Brown told RCR Wireless.
Yet, only in the cable industry, Brown said, could you get a group of industry players to cooperate in a startup program like this without worrying about competition. Part of that is explained by no direct competitive footprint overlap in the U.S. — so getting the 60 member companies to participate in sharing solutions via a startup accelerator program is not hard, compared with other industries, Brown posited.
Being a serial entrepreneur with eight startups under his belt, Brown knew how important a solid deal was. The “Deals, not Demo Day” on UpRamp’s website is not an empty promise. UpRamp literally guarantees its startups will come away with immediate customers.
UpRamp has three main programs: Get noticed (its Innovation Showcase), get fit (Fiterator), get inspired (Innovator in Residence). The “get fit” program is about finding the right customer fit for the startup, hence the program name of “Fiterator.” The Fiterator program accepts only late-stage startups with at least $1.5 million in funding, a working product on the market, and a useful product that solves an issue for cable-broadband-wireless industry.
UpRamp also has its Boomtown program for the napkin-and-a-dream type of early startup.
“What Cable Lab recognized a few years back was that we could invent lots of cool stuff as part of the Labs. We can’t invent everything,” said Brown. “Clearly there are lots of smart people out there who are building new companies and new ideas in coffee shops, living rooms and garages all over the world. We see today that there are 148,000 new technology startups that are created every month around the world.”
UpRamp has a team of eight people who hunt every day for promising startups. “When we are out hunting for companies, we are keeping an eye on people who are solving problems in this mobility space: not just Wi-Fi, but 5G,” said Brown.
Brown’s team gets data from the CableLabs member CTOs what they want to solve. “We narrow down all the applicants and send them to an advisory panels or smart people from the industry, venture people, or subject matter experts, who narrows it down to 15,” said Brown. “Then the CEOs and CTOs of our members … rank those 15. From that, we select the top six. We have direct involved from the C-level suite across the world to help us identify companies that are solving immediate problems, like in the next 12 to 18 months for these operators. That’s pretty powerful.
“UpRamp is really designed to help connect those radical entrepreneurs that are out there building the next generation of connectivity to what I think is the most powerful network in the world — this network of 60 connectivity industry companies that can call cooperate on technology vision and this network that moves more bits and bytes than another other network in the world,” Brown said.
Often Brown and his team see several companies working on the same idea for fixing an issue. “Ideas are cheap. Ideas actually don’t have a lot of value,” said Brown. “It is about the execution of those ideas. The difference is in a team’s ability to execute. We know that a strong team is going to win against a good idea every single day.
“When you are a young company, when you first started out, your challenge is to get to get to something that is viable — I got to build something that somebody might want,” he went on. “But once you get beyond that stage, the big challenge is, how do I find product market fit? How do I find a market that needs this thing that I have built, so much that they are willing to take pay me really quickly to deliver it to them? That can be a real challenge when you are selling into the telecom/cable/wireless space.”
Because telecom and cable industries are big and oftentimes difficult to sell to, just getting the data to find product market fit is really hard. Brown has seen startups that are nine months in to turning “yes” into money. They have to give up and go elsewhere.
“We think that UpRamp [is] really the easy button, the rocket fuel,” said Brown.