Louisville-based CableLabs launching UpRamp accelerator

LOUISVILLE — CableLabs —  the Louisville-based nonprofit research and development consortium for the cable industry — announced this week at a conference in Florida that it is launching an accelerator geared toward startups looking to bring their goods and services to cable providers on a large scale.

Long-time entrepreneur Scott Brown — who joined CableLabs in September to head up startup and technology outreach — said the program is geared toward later-stage startups that have already raised $1.5 million or more in venture capital or have sustained customer revenue. That’s different from many popular accelerator models such as Techstars or Boomtown that offer seed money to mostly early-stage startups looking to get their ideas off the ground and find investors. UpRamp, he said, could serve as a sort of “executive MBA for startup entrepreneurs.”

“They’re awesome but they’re not ready to sell to a large enterprise or even a large market like the cable industry,” Brown said Thursday in a phone interview.

CableLabs, which is sponsoring UpRamp along with a handful of industry members such as Liberty Global, will take a 3 percent equity stake in participating companies, similar to other accelerators. And, like Techstars began doing in 2014, CableLabs will offer an equity-back guarantee so that participants who aren’t satisfied with the end result can have their shares back.

CableLabs will pay for participants’ expenses for the 12-week program. While UpRamp is a non-resident program, every other week will be spent either at Cable Labs’ Louisville or Sunnyvale, Calif., offices. But instead of providing seed money and a culminating demo day pitch to investors, Brown said the key value provided by CableLabs will be the insider connection to CableLabs’ 55 member companies around the nation such as Comcast, Cox and Time Warner.

That connection is twofold. Program participants will be able to work directly with those members to hear about the challenges they face and then hone their own innovative products to be responsive to the cable companies’ needs. But the startups will also then have the inside track at landing contracts with those same cable companies at the end of the program.

In that respect, Brown said the program is more like a “fiterator” than an accelerator as it helps startups find just the right fit for their niche.

“At this stage of the company, it’s not about raising money,” Brown said. “What they don’t know how to do is get access to the 55 buyers of their product and figure out what they really need to do sell to them.”

Of course, further funding could also come out of the program. Brown said eight of CableLabs’ 55 members have venture-capital arms of their own that could very well be interested in investing in the program’s graduates.

CableLabs will begin taking applications for the first UpRamp cohort in March. UpRamp will accept only four startups to each class. But the range of companies that could take part, Brown said, is quite broad. That includes those that provide technology or hardware that makes it easier for cable companies to deliver broadband connectivity to consumers, “the stuff that drives consumers’ experience with cable companies.” But it would also include companies that provide advertising tech, human resources or other services that help the cable firms run their businesses more efficiently.

The UpRamp model has already played out successfully, Brown said, with one company that did a pilot run over the past few months. Deepfield, a network technology company based in Ann Arbor, Mich., had a product that Brown termed “80 percent there” when it began the program but little traction in the cable market. In working with CableLabs and UpRamp, the company tweaked its product to fit the needs of the industry. Six months later, Deepfield’s product is utilized by 85 percent of the U.S. cable industry, Brown said.

The whole idea of UpRamp, Brown said, is to “find a way to capture the innovation and research and development value and excitement of the startup world and bring that innovation into an industry that’s excited and interested to work with young companies to accelerate their growth.”