Meet Pioneer, the accelerator embracing the founders of “weird and different” startups

Daniel Gross is there for the underdogs. Its accelerator, Pioneer, aims to democratize the startup funnel for technological talents whose background or geographic location places them far from the usual funding streams. “The way our incentives are set up, we won’t be able to fund the Stanford postdoctoral fellow who works at a machine learning company,” he says. “We are here to attract strange and different people, and we firmly believe that tomorrow will be made by those who don’t fit in. “

You could say he’s looking for himself. Gross was 18 when he left Israel in 2010 to become the youngest founder (at the time) to be accepted into Y Combinator. “The life I was going to lead had to be quite different from the one I ended up leading,” Gross says. “And that was the result of a relatively small business start-up and come to Silicon Valley intervention.” The Pioneer accelerator has also accepted aspiring entrepreneurs from Argentina to South Africa, some of whom entered Pioneer before developing any semblance of a business. In some cases, Gross has even stepped in to help potential founders register business entities in Delaware.

In this sense, Gross, who was a partner at Y Combinator before launching Pioneer in 2018, positioned his new company as “X Combinator”. He now announces a formalization of Pioneer terms that draws even more parallels with the comparison. Where his former employer invests $ 125,000 in exchange for 7% equity in his accelerator companies, Pioneer will now offer either $ 20,000 in exchange for 2% ownership or no money. , but the ability to join Pioneer’s accelerator network and get mentorship — for 1%, as first reported in the Midas Touch newsletter.

“What we’ve learned is that $ 20,000 is the minimum effective dose of capital required for a business to reach another milestone,” Gross said. It’s the amount, he adds, that allows a startup to build a minimum viable product, hire an employee or two, get an AWS account, or fly to Silicon Valley and get started. to sell his product. “You just need to take the first step to create the next Google, Facebook, Stripe or Instacart. “

Pioneer has not produced any company of this caliber, but three years later it has shown promise. The approximately 130 companies she has supported with funds have collectively raised more than $ 100 million from investors such as Sequoia, General Catalyst and Y Combinator. They include cryptocurrency startup Iron Fish, which raised $ 27 million in a Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz last month, and Roboflow, a computer vision company based in Des Moines, Iowa, which raised $ 20 million in Round A led by Craft Ventures in September. Pioneer has also started to engage in seed funding, with its largest investment north of $ 1 million in Banana ML, a machine learning tool for developers. “Our business model is really based on the fact that most businesses don’t perform well, but a small number of them perform phenomenally,” Gross said. “As long as we are able to capture ten, 20, or 30 of the working ones, that will be fine.”

Gross does not have a specific target for how many companies Pioneer plans to invest in. It has the backing of investor Marc Andreessen and fintech firm Stripe, although Gross would not share the capital that investors have contributed. Pioneer is not structured as a venture capital fund, Gross says, but as an operating company, much like the startups it has supported. Like a real startup, Pioneer has iterated its own product, an automated application (informed by Gross’s experience leading machine learning efforts at Apple, which acquired its startup Y Combinator Cue in 2013) who selects potential accelerator companies.

Entry into its accelerator is via a free gamified application in which developers and aspiring entrepreneurs register their technological projects in a “tournament”. Taking a page from game ratings, Pioneer uses a points system that ranks projects on self-submitted metrics such as website engagement, user reviews, and the amount of code being written. Progress and momentum catapult participants to the top of the rankings; the top 50 each week are reviewed by the Pioneer team, with the potential to receive support.

“The tournament is the most valuable part of Pioneer,” says Erik Dunteman, founder of Banana ML. “It was gamified in a perfect way to make me want to log in and give my updates and build in public. I was following my place in the leaderboard.

For Karen Serfaty, founder of sales software startup, Pioneer was the very reason she was able to become a tech entrepreneur. After rising through the tournament ranks, Serfaty officially joined the Pioneer community in April 2020. At the time, she didn’t know any investors and Palabra was just a project she was building from her living room in Argentina. On a virtual demo day at the end of the Pioneer program, Serfaty met investor Jason Calacanis, who invited her to his Launch Accelerator. From there, she wrapped up her first corporate cycle and grew the Palabra team to ten people.

“I am startups and have been watching Y Combinator for a few years. It’s something that is close to my heart, but it has always been so far away from me. I’m from a country that’s extremely far away, ”says Serfaty, who has now been granted a visa to settle in Los Angeles next month. “[Pioneer] opened doors for me that were unlike anything I had known.

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