RALEIGH – Steven Guido had a full-time engineering job lined up straight out of graduating from NC State University earlier this spring. But in the end, he turned it down.

Instead, he chose to gamble on his fledgling company, Aeva Labs, accepting a coveted spot in RIoT’s [Regional Internet of Things] startup accelerator program to help get it off the ground.

“There was no better time to take the risk and hop in,” said the 22-year-old who has developed with his business partner, Zachary Fearnside, new technology that speeds up alcohol’s aging process by almost 100 times.

“As first-time founders, we were looking for a way to plug into the local entrepreneurial community, and this opportunity was too compelling to pass up.”

Increasingly, promising startups are turning to accelerator programs — which often offer investment and mentorship in exchange for equity — to help put them on the fast track to success.

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Left to right, Aevalabs’ Steven Guido and Zachary Fearnside with Doug Greene and Mike Warner. WRAL TechWire)

On Monday, the pair was on hand to talk about their experience as part of Big Top’s Startup Crawl held this month at Pendo’s new break room on the fourth floor of the Wells Fargo building in downtown Raleigh.

With string lights hanging overhead and a ping pong table tucked away in the corner, the atmosphere was genial and informal as investors and local talent from the Triangle’s startup community mingled and heard stories from a few of those taking part in RIoT’s inaugural program, which kicked off last month.

Known as RAP, the RIoT Accelerator Program aims to help facilitate entrepreneurship end-to-end from academic research and education through to rapid commercial growth.

But unlike most accelerators, the 12-week intensive program based out of RIoT Labs space at Glenwood headquarters doesn’t require startups to give up equity. To boot, it’s free to the lucky ten startups selected.

For these recent college grads, it was a no brainer. “We felt we could greatly benefit from the mentorship, networking, and resources provided,” said Guido. “It has [already] opened so many doors for us.”

Accelerator programs on the rise

In recent years, the number of startup accelerators in the US has spiked dramatically.

There are more than 170 accelerator programs in the United States right now and that’s more than 10 times the 16 accelerator programs there were in 2008, according to a recent research report from the Brookings Institution.

It’s a trend that is also finding traction in the Triangle’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Funded by a federal economic grant, RIoT – short for “regional Internet of Things” — launched its program this year and focuses on companies that seek to bring wireless connectivity to billions of devices.

“We want the Triangle to be the global convergence point for IoT,” Rachael Meleney, Program Director of RIoT Accelerator Program (RAP), told WRAL TechWire.

“In previous years, RIoT has done a lot of one-to-one support of IoT entrepreneurs as a piece of this mission. The accelerator program allows us to parallel process many startups at once, which scales our efforts.

”RIoT has a rich ecosystem of over 70 corporate partners, so our startups also engage directly with many of them to build their networks, find technical support, and explore potential collaborations.”

While taking equity is incompatible with RIoT’s current nonprofit status, the group is exploring ways to support early-stage entrepreneurs with capital. That might include raising a fund to invest from, but it’s not an immediate consideration, she admits. “We’re currently well supported by our partners and the [federal] grant, which allows us to provide very accessible resources.”

No second thoughts

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GreenToGo’s Amy Eller and Crystal Dreisbach. WRAL TechWire)

For Crystal Dreisbach, 40, success isn’t so much about financial gain, but more about bringing about social change.

 Last year, she and business partner Amy Eller, 37, launched GreenToGo, Durham’s first reusable, to-go container service founded under the non-profit Don’t Waste Durham, which Dreisbach also started.

When the chance to participate in RIoT’s accelerator presented itself, they also couldn’t refuse.

Calling themselves “radical innovators”, the pair is on a mission to end single-use plastic and eliminate Styrofoam from people’s diet and environment.

“We live in a take-and-trash economy right now, and I feel very motivated to do something about this,” said Deisbach, who also presented at Big Top’s social.

Already, GreenToGo has more than 425 users and 22 participating restaurants – and is growing steadily. Now they’re keen to add IoT technology to enhance their business.

“This accelerator will enable us to grow smarter, scale faster, and prototype and test technology we believe will take us to the next level,” said Eller.
It hasn’t come without sacrifice, though. Mother-of-two Dreisbach admits she has had to spend a small fortune to cover childcare costs while taking part in the program, but believes it’s worth it in the end.

“This is a huge chance to make the circular reuse economy in Durham stronger, and then take it globally to make an even bigger impact.”

To find out more about Big Top’s monthly Startup Crawl, go to itss website.