Calvin Chu, managing director of the R/GA Connected Devices Accelerator, can hardly contain his excitement as he recounts a recent conversation with Ramón González, co-founder of Kytelabs, one of 10 start-ups in the accelerator program. Ramón had just gotten off the phone with his wife, who, though excited, was concerned the program would not live up to his high expectations. His response? After only two days, the Connected Devices Accelerator was already ten times more impressive than what he expected.
Ramón isn’t the only person impressed with the newly launched R/GA Connected Devices Accelerator program—and for good reason: it’s the first agency-based accelerator program of its kind. Powered by Techstars and housed within R/GA’s New York office, the accelerator program is uniquely positioned to take advantage of Techstars’ proven process and methodology as well as R/GA’s expertise in business and brand consulting, product and services innovation, and marketing and communications.
“People around the country who are involved with device accelerators are buzzing,” says Chu. “Everyone is curious and watching for what will happen next.”
The FutureVision team sat down with Chu and Stephen Plumlee, chief operating officer, R/GA, to learn more about why the Connected Devices Accelerator is attracting so much attention:
FutureVision: What was the impetus behind creating the accelerator? Why the theme of connected devices?
Stephen: The Connected Devices Accelerator focuses on start-ups creating innovative physical products and applications that will help expand the growing “Internet-of-Things” field. R/GA is already a recognized leader in the connected devices space because of our work with the Nike+ FuelBand. But to remain a leader, we need to continue to innovate.
Calvin: It’s a really exciting time for hardware innovators right now, especially in New York City. With manufacturing returning to the United States and companies like Quirky, MakerBot, and Kickstarter fueling the “maker movement,” it’s never been easier for designers, engineers, and tinkerers to work together to create their own devices. At the same time, devices are becoming more valuable because they can connect to the cloud. Devices are not just devices anymore but a means to an end. They have greater importance today because of what they connect to and what they enable.
New York has never seen such a dense pool of talent, and it has the global diversity that a new product needs for testing. The R/GA accelerator is moving talent to NYC, helping to fuel the connected devices movement.
FutureVision: The 10 start-ups selected in the R/GA Connected Devices Accelerator span a wide variety of industry verticals, including healthcare, the connected home, childcare, retail, and social navigation. Can you walk us through the selection process?
Stephen: The majority of accelerator programs focus on a specific platform or industry, but the R/GA Connected Devices Accelerator has a very broadly defined theme. The decision to take a portfolio approach was deliberate and conscious inasmuch as the range of companies and products promises to appeal to (and benefit) a wider subset of R/GA’s clients rather than focus on a specific industry. The 10 start-ups selected for the Connected Devices Accelerator merge technology and product development in ways that are truly innovative, expanding our perceptions of what’s possible within the ever-growing Internet of Things.
R/GA saw to it that the selection criteria for our agency-led accelerator differed from those for other accelerator programs. We not only had to take into consideration standard criteria like teams, idea feasibility, and exit potential but also had to think about how start-ups fit within the larger R/GA ecosystem. Client fit was an important factor, as was brand fit.
FutureVision: Stephen, in light of what you just mentioned about how client fit within R/GA’s ecosystem was important, how does the accelerator complement R/GA’s current business model and benefit clients?
Stephen: First, this is not a one-off experiment. We’re committed to multiple programs with Techstars, and clients have already approached us on how we can help them set up their own incubators and how an accelerator can help them innovate.
We are excited to learn from the start-up mentality so we can become faster and more flexible. The accelerator becomes a new offering in the R/GA suite of services, but it also has the potential to benefit clients indirectly: by creating new insights and ways of thinking, we learn from the experience.
Clients will also be able to benefit from the program as mentors, learning through hands-on experience and identifying the potential of early opportunities to evolve. Hopefully, the same insights R/GA gleans from the start-ups can be brought back more broadly to our client teams.
Calvin: One of the most exciting aspects of the accelerator is that it’s housed within the R/GA office. A dedicated service team of 40+ R/GA staffers across disciplines will work with the start-ups on a weekly basis and hopefully learn as much from those start-ups as the start-ups will from them. It’s a great opportunity for the accelerator DNA to infiltrate the R/GA process and for staff to learn how to move faster and smarter for clients.
FutureVision: We’re only a week into the accelerator, but what’s been the biggest surprise so far?
Stephen: Well, this is new, so everything is a surprise. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how quickly we’ve been able to move, which is something that R/GA really wanted to discover from this experience.
Calvin: On the second day of the program, the start-ups learned about R/GA’s philosophy and business model, and it has already transformed their mindset. Instead of thinking solely about their products, the start-ups are now thinking about their brands and how to connect with their audiences. We can only imagine what the impact of working within R/GA will be at the end of the three-month program!
The start-ups in the Connected Devices Accelerator will work in-house at the R/GA New York office for the next three months. Their experience will culminate with a showcase on March 8 at SXSW Interactive 2014 and a private demo day in New York City on March 18.