Global Startup Accelerator Tapped Dallas for Its First-Ever MC|Innovate Conference

MassChallenge brought together more than 200 startups, investors, and corporates from the U.S. and beyond for a three-day gathering at Dallas' Pegasus Park. The Boston-based nonprofit accelerator, which expanded to North Texas last year, showcased its new hub as a center of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Ayodele Aigbe, the founder and CEO of a Dallas clothing care company offering innovative hanger technology, credits a globally ranked, Boston-based, zero-equity startup accelerator with helping her company get off the ground.

“If not for MassChallenge, I’m not sure we’d have made it to our 2022 launch,” Aigbe says.

Her company, called Hangio, had been working on product development when Aigbe was accepted into MassChallenge’s U.S. Early Stage Accelerator Program in Austin in 2019. The industry-agnostic accelerator looks to drive startup traction with tools, resources, and connectivity to MassChallenge’s community of founders, experts, investors, and corporate partners.  

“I learned about everything, from customers to legal to go-to-market to building out a team to doing strategy to, like, how do you manage your time?” Aigbe says. “I learned what I didn’t know, and it grounded me and made me a more knowledgeable entrepreneur.”

Aigbe, an engineering graduate of Texas Tech University, reconnected with the MassChallenge community when she participated in a panel discussion at MC | Innovate 2023, a conference held July 11-13 at the Pegasus Park biotech research and innovation campus in Dallas.

The event was Mass Challenge’s first-ever in-person conference combining a kickoff for its flagship Early Stage Accelerator cohort with an invitation-only gathering of corporate partners, philanthropic sponsors, investors, mentors, and community members.

MassChallenge Advisory Board member Josh Boger, executive chair of Alkeus Pharmaceuticals and founder of Vertex (center), talks with MC | Innovate attendees at Dallas’ Pegasus Park. Left to right are Jasleen Khaira of Parama Care, (behind her) Jose Nuno of Narval, Dr. Kike Oduba of WellnessWits, Boger, David Anderson of Engora Inc., Maeve Wang of IAMBIC, and Christina Inge of Thoughtlight. [Photo: Jackie Loubriel/MassChallenge]

MassChallenge teams with Lyda Hill Philanthropies

MassChallenge collaborated on the global conference with Dallas’ Lyda Hill Philanthropies, which helped develop Pegasus Park and partnered with the startup accelerator when it expanded to North Texas—landing in a space at the biotech campus—last year.

Since its founding in 2009, the nonprofit accelerator has conducted programs in 24 countries, supported more than 4,000 startups, and awarded more than $18 million in equity-free cash and prizes.

MassChallenge CEO Cait Brumme

North Texas was an ideal spot for the pioneering conference because of the region’s momentum in innovation and entrepreneurship, according to Cait Brumme, the MassChallenge CEO. “The idea of bringing hundreds of innovators and founders into Dallas to help showcase the potential here was really exciting,” she said.

The partnership with Lyda Hill Philanthropies was critical to making it happen, Brumme added. “We’re fortunate to be part of their grantee portfolio and part of their future-forward vision for Pegasus Park and for North Texas,” she said.

“We deeply believe in two things the foundation is working on: science is the future, and how do we create a science and biotech and innovation economy off the coasts that harnesses the research, expertise, and knowledge here in Texas and the Southwest region in a way that creates critical mass?”

Matt Crommett, managing director at Lyda Hill Philanthropies, told conference attendees that the organization is a big fan of MassChallenge. “When we were dreaming up our vision for this campus, we were hoping that people exactly like you, for events exactly like this, would come here,” Crommett said. “So, we’re just thrilled that you all are here.”

Conference attendees at lunch [Photo: Jackie Loubriel/MassChallenge]

The 2023 Early Stage Accelerator cohort consisted of 186 startups—out of 1,100 applicants—that typically have generated less than $1 million in equity-based funding and $2 million in annual revenue.

Among them were about 20 startups from Texas and a few from North Texas, including co-founders Rick Tett and Peter Bartnik of Glydr, a Plano-based company offering a foot-operated game controller with a variety of applications across industries. The Early Stage Accelerator is a four-month program presented in a hybrid format.

The “cross-pollinating” nature of MC | Innovate was especially attractive to Tett. “We were sitting at lunch today with a guy who has experience in manufacturing, which is one of the areas that we’re looking for help in,” Tett said.

“Another guy sitting next to me said, ‘We used this company that was able to get me a PCB board from China in four days.’ Then I walked into the hall and saw a guy with an IP firm here in Dallas. I talked with him and he’s got connections with a company that’s doing virtual reality in Atlanta.”

The more than 200 attendees would forge a number of connections like that over the three days of the conference.

Tapping into your community

Fahad Khawaja, CEO and founder of Hue, talking with Bryetta Calloway, Vice President of Marketing, MassChallenge [Photo: Jackie Loubriel/MassChallenge]

Things began with a keynote discussion about the “transformative power of community” between Fahad Khawaja, the founder and CEO of New York-based Hue, and Bryetta Calloway, the MassChallenge vice president of marketing.

Khawaja, who was born in Pakistan, emigrated to the U.S. shortly before 9/11. He worked in marketing and product development for Johnson & Johnson before founding Hue, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization aimed at amplifying opportunities for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) talent in the workplace.

During the talk, Khawaja stressed the importance of trust and community-building in the innovation process.

Trust is foundational for creating community, he said, which ideally consists of “family” (with whom do you share values and common ground?), “fans” (who’s cheering you on?), and the “future” (who’s “looking forward” with you?).

Startups with a solid community can glean valuable data from their community for research purposes, Khawaja said, adding that “it’s like having an insight engine on an ongoing basis.”

He advised founders to tap into their communities as early as possible—and, he added, to be deliberate about building inclusivity into their networks.

“Reach out to those who are different” from you, he counseled. “Be human-centered, and talk to them like people.”  

‘Hold fast and stay true’

“Leveraging the MC Community” panelists were, from left, Amanda Schnetzer of FirstThen Inc.; Romy Antoine of One Stop Wellness; Shireen Abdullah of Yumlish; and Tushar Sharma of Vivifi Medical. [Photo: Jackie Loubriel/MassChallenge]

After being welcomed by Tiffanie Tovar, community manager for MassChallenge in Dallas, attendees heard a discussion called “Leveraging the MC Community,” featuring four Texas panelists who were members of the nonprofit’s U.S. Early Stage Accelerator last year.

Under moderator Jose Chairez, an associate with MassChallenge’s Early Stage Program in Greater Houston, the panel consisted of Amanda Schnetzer, co-founder and CEO of Dallas’s FirstThen Inc., a digital therapy provider of ADHD innovation and support services; Shireen Abdullah, CEO of Dallas-based Yumlish, a healthcare startup providing nutrition guidance for people with chronic conditions like diabetes; Romy Antoine, founder and CEO of San Antonio digital workplace wellness company One Stop Wellness; and Tushar Sharma, CEO and founder of Houston’s Vivifi Medical, which offers minimally invasive technology for patients with BPH and male infertility.

During their freewheeling talk, Sharma credited MassChallenge’s “selfless mentors and advisers” with helping guide the 2022 Early Stage cohort. Schnetzer recalled one mentor taking the time to walk her through the intellectual property process, before advising attendees: “Think about what you need, but also about what you can give.”

The panelists also discussed the importance of your “why” as a company founder. Schnetzer’s “why” derived partly from the fact that she herself had a child with ADHD, while Abdullah’s had to do with democratizing nutrition education.

And when the inevitable bumps in the road occur, Sharma counseled the newest members of the Early Stage cohort to hew to the old nautical saying, “Hold fast and stay true.”       

Learning to run with a lean canvas

Ash Maurya, CEO and founder of LEANSTACK [Photo: Jackie Loubriel/MassChallenge]

MassChallenge recently adopted the Lean Canvas business-plan template as the cornerstone of its acceleration framework, jump-starting a partnership with Ash Maurya’s LEANSTACK. The latter is a continuous innovation platform combining battle-tested playbooks with advanced tools enabling early-stage entrepreneurs to develop scalable business models.

Maurya, the Austin-based author of the best-selling book “Running Lean,” kicked off a packed workshop for the Early Stage cohort explaining how “Running Lean” came about in a sort of trial-and-error manner.

Similarly, the book’s key message is that fledgling companies often waste time and money producing the wrong product, when they should be constantly stress-testing their product’s viability with faster iterations.

“Life’s too short to build something nobody wants,” Maurya said.

The workshop served as an introduction to his methods, which will be integrated into the Early Stage cohort’s curriculum.

Identifying the right market, in the most cost-effective way possible, is always a challenge for startups, Glydr co-founder Peter Bartnik said. “Having MassChallenge here in Dallas—and having the Lean startup methodology run by Ash—will be particularly valuable to us in figuring out where we go,” he said.  

Developing connections in your own backyard

“Community, Sales, Marketing, Oh My!” panelists were, from left, Craig J. Lewis of Gig Wage; Ayodele Aigbe of Hangio; Ashutosh Prasad of KoiReader Technologies; and Robert Kirk of InterGen Data. [Photo: Jackie Loubriel/MassChallenge]

At a panel discussion titled “Community, Sales, Marketing, Oh My!” moderated by Calloway, attendees learned about customer acquisition from four North Texas entrepreneurs who’d participated previously in MassChallenge programs.

They were Craig J. Lewis, founder and CEO of Gig Wage, a Dallas-based payroll platform for handling Form 1099 payroll, payments, and compliance; Aigbe, the Hangio founder and CEO; Robert Kirk, CEO of Plano-based InterGen Data, which uses AI and machine learning to provide data to financial institutions; and Ashutosh Prasad, founder and CEO of Dallas-based logistics and supply chain platform KoiReader Technologies. 

Lewis, like Kirk, said he’d been a member of the organization’s FinTech cohort, which facilitates partnerships between startups and enterprises to spur innovation. Prasad, like Aigbe, a previous member of MassChallenge’s U.S. Early Stage Accelerator, said he got involved in the program to develop connections for his global company in his own backyard.

Addressing marketing strategies, Prasad said that any B2C company (KoiReader is B2B) needs to utilize social media to engage with customers. Lewis agreed, while advising startups not to “go too big too fast” on social, or to worry about posting something that might backfire. “If you make a mistake, pivot,” he said. “Nobody cares!” Added Prasad: “Don’t forget your 3C’s: Cash flow, cash flow, cash flow.”

After the panel, Lewis told Dallas Innovates that Gig Wage had been able to broach a partnership with life insurer MassMutual, thanks to the MassChallenge FinTech program. “Did the MassMutual ecosystem of companies need access to our technology and, vice versa, could their services be distributed through us, as a payroll provider?” Lewis said the two companies asked.

Because of the complexities and legalities surrounding 1099s, Gig Wage and MassMutual are continuing to talk and “working through a lot of hurdles” before they can make the partnership official, Lewis said.  

How to craft a compelling handshake pitch

Kirk Barnes [Courtesy]

Kirk Barnes, co-founder of a sales-excellence firm called TransPharMed, conducted an interactive session showing the Early Stage cohort the benefits of networking. He stressed the need for them to be ready at a moment’s notice to explain their company’s purpose—succinctly and compellingly.

Keying off his book, “Networking: The Path to Profit, Promotions, and Power,” Barnes led a practical exercise for crafting this “handshake pitch,” with participants dividing into small groups led by industry experts and corporate partners including Citizens Bank, NexPoint, and Zendesk.

During the afternoon session, the cohort was charged with developing a captivating elevator pitch or tagline that could be conveyed in 10 seconds, or about the time it takes to shake someone’s hand.

‘Reduce the time to launch, increase your learning cycles’

Addressing attendees at the welcoming reception, Brumme, the MassChallenge chief executive, encouraged founders to leverage the accelerator’s 13 years’ worth of knowledge about startups, networks, and access to capital.

But even more important to them, she said, would be the community and the connections they would make.

“By taking advantage of the community—the network that we’ve built over the last decade-plus—you’ll have access to those doors, those channels that can make a difference for you, reduce the time to launch, reduce the early failures, increase your learning cycles,” she said.

The message seemed to strike a chord.

Aigbe, the founder and CEO of Dallas’s Hangio, says she was “energized” by reconnecting with the MassChallenge community at MC | Innovate 2023.

“It helped to remind you that you’re not alone—that there are other people experiencing what you’re experiencing, and that we’re all better together after going on this crazy journey of building a company,” Aigbe said.

Dallas Innovates is a media sponsor of MassChallenge MC | Innovate. This story is independently written by the author for Dallas Innovates.

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