William Leonard

Hey everyone! Welcome back to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. My name is William Leonard and I’m your co-host for today. And this conversation is going to be so exciting and so informative for our audience. CREATE-X is an innovative program at one of the world’s leading tech universities. Georgia Tech is launching more startups than any other tech university except for Stanford and MIT. Part of that magic is the man that you’re about to meet Rahul Saxena, who runs Create-X. Valor Ventures actually has a close relationship with Georgia Tech and Create-X. Valor is extremely proud that Georgia the Georgia Tech Foundation is one of our investors in our fund. And not only that one of our general partners, Robin Bienfait sits on the board of Create-X, and she works closely to support this program. Another one of our general partners, Lisa Calhoun, is a regular venture judge for the students and has been involved with Create-X really since the beginning. In fact, it’s interesting that Valor just led the seed round in a startup we discovered through Create-X, Senteon. And we know the value of this high-performing student pipeline. You’ll love this interview with a true leader in innovation. And you’ll learn a lot about the behind-the-scenes of innovation in one of the fastest-growing startup ecosystems in the country, Atlanta. Let’s jump in ladies and gentlemen. Rahul, great to have you on today.

Rahul Saxena

Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

William Leonard

Awesome. To kick it off and level set the knowledge here for our listeners, we would love for you to give us the introduction to what CREATE-X is.

Rahul Saxena

CREATE-X is Georgia Tech’s initiative to help students launch real startups. Our mission is to instill entrepreneurial confidence and have the students want real companies. Historically, I’m a Georgia Tech grad from the late 90s. Georgia Tech wasn’t as great as it is now on pushing the entrepreneur side of it. When CREATE-X was started, it was really to help students identify, as, “Hey, I can be an entrepreneur. I can go and start my own business and not be intimidated.” It’s been a great initiative since it started in 2014 to help students do that.

William Leonard

Awesome. I love it. Before we dive in a bit further, I would love for you to kind of share the whole story a bit. I know you mentioned you’re a Georgia Tech grad. I know you have a fairly diverse background of being an investor and also a founder. We’d love to get more color on that, how you eventually fell into this role here at CREATE-X.

Rahul Saxena

Definitely. I’ve had a windy path. More or less from Atlanta, I’ve lived all over. But most of my time was from Atlanta, went to school at Georgia Tech, Mechanical Engineering. From the late 90s, did academic research in mechanical heart valves. Afterward, I went to Europe to do European Masters and then moved to the Bay Area in 2000, right at the peak of the bubble, and wrote it down. The best experience that could have gotten was working for a startup surrounded by graduates from all the local schools, just really smart people working at a company that was helping to build automation robotics equipment for the genetics industry. Once the bubble kind of burst, I came back to Atlanta to do some entrepreneurial things and decided with the economy and everything during that time was to go to business school, went to Emory. I was able to plug into the entrepreneurs’ community at that time and ended up working at a venture capital firm here in town. The Seraph Group that was newly formed, we were an entrepreneurial VC firm. During that time, we just did a lot of early-stage investing, a lot of our portfolio was on the West Coast. Got to meet some great entrepreneurs, founders, and companies during those days and backed a bunch of great companies, passed on some companies. We probably should have backed. It’s just great being around a group of really smart investors. We then took over one of our portfolio companies that had gone sideways in 2010. Basically did a turnaround that was one of the largest providers of health inspection reports, health inspection software in the country that was sold to the state and local government agencies. They used to call it boring, interesting companies out there because we used to be in the background inspection software. All the restaurants and everything depended on it. Websites were high in traffic because of the valuable data contained and after helping turn the company around, grow it some, sold it to Tyler Technologies, which is a public company. Afterward, I opted not to go back to venture capital. I was looking for my next thing and decided to visit some people at Georgia Tech. They told me about this opportunity to join CREATE-X which was just about hitting its strides and strong momentum and just couldn’t pass it up to solve this problem that I saw when I was an undergrad or just helping entrepreneurship on campus.

William Leonard

What year did you start with CREATE-X?

Rahul Saxena

2019.

William Leonard

Got it. 2019. It’s going on for three years now. And so I guess we’d love to understand and help our listeners understand as well, what types of companies? Are you all working at CREATE-X? I know you all have a cohort structure as well, we’d love for you to give us an overview of the program and how you all are helping these startups on campus?

Rahul Saxena

Sure. I mentioned earlier, our mission is to instill entrepreneurial confidence. We have some academic side of programming, which is three umbrellas – Learn, Make, And Launch. We’re helping students learn how to do evidence-based entrepreneurship. I think back in the day, there was this notion that entrepreneurs were born, not made, and all this type of rhetoric that you couldn’t teach entrepreneurship, but what we found is you actually can teach it. It’s a process and that process if you adopt it, can lead to successful startups coming out of it. We have a class under the Learn program called Startup Lab, which does just that. You’re expected to spend 10 hours a week going out and doing customer discovery. Students often come in and say, “Well, if I had a product that did X, Y, and Z, would you buy it?” That’s the worst question to ask. It defines the problem first and explores the problem rather than jumping to the solution. We have a program under the Make umbrella, which is an idea to the prototype that will reimburse up to $500 of our expenses and carve out three hours of your schedule to build a real startup, or to at least build a prototype of your idea. And then Startup Launch is the accelerator side, which is helping students take this idea will incorporate you over the summer. It’s a 12-week summer program, we say, instead of interning for one of the other big companies, go intern for yourself and launch the company. We incorporate you, we’ll provide coaches and mentoring. The whole goal of the summer is to show product-market fit.

William Leonard

Is there a specific criterion that you have to meet? Because I know some of the founders that CREATE-X is professors as well. Are there more general criteria that you have to meet to be admitted into the accelerator?

Rahul Saxena

There’s no somatic approach to who we let in. It could be any industry, we don’t necessarily want you to go start a franchise or expand that out. But if you want to build your own franchise, and build the concept, we’re very supportive of that. The main thing that we look for is commitment. Have you done the work to be able to explain why you think this company, this idea, or this problem you’re going after is interesting? Show us some evidence that you’re willing to go out and talk to customers to support that you have found an interesting way to solve whatever problem that is that they’re tackling.

William Leonard

That’s interesting. Given the diverse types of startups that have been in previous cohorts and current cohorts, you’ve got a medical device, you’ve got B2B software, you’ve got consumer marketplace, you’ve got everything, right? My question for you is, how are you and the creative team helping the startups think about formulating a go-to-market strategy? Or how are you helping them think about growth, scale customer acquisition, given the various types of businesses, customer profiles, and business models as well?

Rahul Saxena

No, that’s a great question. And it gives some additional context to that. So this past summer, we launched 80+ startups, the year before that we did 70. In the year before that, 46. We’re constantly growing, we see a wide range of different ideas that are out there. We’re lucky enough to have just some great coaches and mentors and be within Georgia Tech. We have a great, very accomplished alumni group that can help provide mentorship. Everyone loves to help and mentor student founders which is a great opportunity for students to try it. I always tell them, the resources and some of the people you meet that are willing to talk to you now would be much harder to reach if you’re outside of school and academics to do it. We split up our batches into mini-batches of 10 startups within each mini-batch. We have a couple of just great coaches who are either seasoned entrepreneurs meaning they know certain industries really well. We match it up to the different industries, whether it’s a med device or consumer app, consumer product, or B2B software. We meet once a week to basically help drive what are the goals we’re working on this week. How do you measure it? How are you achieving the Northstar metric that you want to set for yourself? The goal of the overall summer is to show product-market fit. We incorporate the teams during the summer so they’re very early. We expect the teams to pivot. The part of the reason that we do so many startups is so many teams in the program is that it’s hard to say which idea has the potential to be the next unicorn. We expect all of them to be able to reach great success but it’s too early to be able to tell. What you find is by having this large number and just giving them the path to say go understand your customer as well as possible, go talk to them, that they can find those niche problems or the one thing that gives them that ability to leap over and find a solution that actually makes sense.

William Leonard

I think Georgia Tech’s network of alumni, advisors, and mentors is so robust and really not only regionally focused, but I’d say nationally focused as well. I think you’ve worked with probably over 100 or 200 startups since you’ve been the interim director. Is there a particular area where you’re seeing CREATE-X startups? Putting more emphasis, and I guess I’ll dive into that a bit more, the help that they’re needing around fundraising? Is it pitch practice? Is it the go-to-market? Is it sales? Obviously, all of these are the most important for an early-stage startup? Do you see your founders honing in on a particular area versus other areas?

Rahul Saxena

Often, the startups and the founders are solving the problems that they know. I always joke, “Well, at the age of 18 to 21, what problems do you know?” They are often around how do I get my food faster? How do I meet people more easily? Those types of things. We do see some startups that have some founders who have experience growing up around certain industries that tackle those problems. The main thing that we do in CREATE-X is that we want to help them connect the dots. They take such interesting approaches to solve these problems, that they can have an application to other areas where they just don’t know about it. Our job is to just kind of expose it and say, here’s a potential area, here’s a hypothesis for you to go tackle that this solution may be good, and you’re pursuing, but check this area out where it could really have a big impact that they don’t know about. Go talk to some customers and validate that because I never want to dictate to our founders what they should do. But I want the market to be able to validate and let them see for themselves. Is this something that I could go after? But we do see a broad range of B2B from med devices. We have a fantastic industrial design department, where they’re designing great consumer products of it, and just really taking interesting approaches to solving it, because they’re tinkering with so many different software. AI tools to computer vision to all of these things they’re not encumbered by legacy to figure out what a solution does look like.

William Leonard

I think with your personal experience of being an investor and then going to help turn around a startup that was on the decline. Knowing and seeing that path from your own viewpoint, and helping some founders who are maybe at that point in their business, pivot and going that upward trajectory is really great and probably increased very meaningful for them. I’m curious. You’ve been interim director. Now, what is your vision for CREATE-X, and then how do you see the local ecosystem helping to foster that vision that you have for the program, both founders of later-stage companies here in Atlanta and also the investors here as well?

Rahul Saxena

And it goes to the earlier question. The founders know how to build the product but they don’t have the sales, marketing, and some of those experiences as part of what they do want to come in and be able to learn during our programs. The biggest thing is, I think mentoring in the Atlanta ecosystem, to find mentors who can really support some of these startups who have been there that’s in other geographies where you have rich startups. You have people who are serial entrepreneurs who are willing to give advice and feedback. In Atlanta, we’re now seeing just so many unicorns come out. People have done it that there’s just a wealth of experience that’s there that can help guide these entrepreneurs to move forward. The beauty of Atlanta being just the right size and having a community and ecosystem of corporations and companies that also want to see Atlanta succeed. We’re seeing and would love to just see even facilitate more is, how do you help students or just entrepreneurs and founders understand the problem they want to solve better? What are the problems that are there? So that it broadens the horizon of those different areas where the students can participate. There’s just a rich ecosystem that’s developed with funds like Valor, the Startup Runway, and everything that are also doing. You guys have a great practice of the mock board meetings that you do in the Startup Runway, where you bring founders and people together where they can just take care of fresh perspectives on and feedback on their ideas, and just getting more and more of those interactions going. I think it’s what just creates this vibrant community.

William Leonard

I agree. I mean, you look at the ecosystem here. It’s becoming increasingly mature in terms of the later stage household names that are now unicorns, and then some of the earlier stage companies that are coming out of TechStars, in Georgia Tech, and equally Morehouse and Spelman. You’ve got other universities here in the metro area, as well, that are really contributing as a whole to the ecosystem, and several venture funds here in town, that are working with Georgia Tech and other universities to help pay it forward in a sense and make those connections possible. 

Rahul Saxena

I think you saw it a lot with the pandemic, too. The pandemic created this amazing need for really digital transformation services, things that just didn’t exist beforehand, who would be willing to be able to create products and solve these problems the fastest, and it was startups. It’s just a great example of how being open to those types of solutions. The pandemic really brought a lot of our startups in the spotlight with their solutions, because they took different approaches that bigger companies would have had to make and would have taken much longer for them to pivot to address the needs that emerged during that time.

William Leonard

What are some of the startups that you saw really thrive throughout the pandemic? Can you give a shout-out to any or some that you think are going to have a breakout year in 2022?

Rahul Saxena

We saw towards the end of last year with Stord which is our first unicorn out of CREATE-X. They were already on a great path and had some strong investors managing their supply chain management, software, and warehouse ability to help companies out. The pandemic just accelerated their growth significantly. They’re on a great path. We saw a company like Reframe, which is an alcohol reduction app, that helps you reduce the amount of alcohol consumption that you have which became more prevalent during the pandemic because people were at home. They had just an amazing breakout year last year and consistently growing. One of our other startups was Sora Schools, which started off bringing homeschooling in 2019 when they launched to bring in better resources and redefine high school education for largely homeschooled children with innovative curricula and different ways of just teaching content. During the pandemic, there was a huge need for it. They’re expanding just significantly by bringing more students and more people who are saying that this is a really viable option now.

William Leonard

You mentioned the pandemic, accelerating trends, and bringing trends to light. I think of those companies you just mentioned, the supply chain is top of mind for everybody right now. Education, learning in virtual and hybrid environments, and health are top of mine as well. Adjacent to mental health as well. Having that focus, really incubating, and helping grow these companies that are now capitalizing on what they make and going on to grow continuously is amazing. Reflecting on what we saw in 2021, Stord and some of the other companies performed extremely well. Looking forward to the rest of this year, what gets you in the team over at CREATE-X most excited? I know you all are hiring as well and made some new hires, Daniel. What gets you, Daniel, and the rest of the team really excited about 2022 and maybe even the rest of the decade ahead?

Rahul Saxena

I’m excited with the Atlanta ecosystem growing the way it is, being able to support the startups, and seeing the growth within our vision is to get to 300 startups a year. This year, we’re gonna do probably 80 to 100 that we’re gonna launch. Just see more entrepreneurship as an option. Every year is a lot of fun to see, we’re in the application process right now. It’s just a ton of fun to see what the students are coming up with the problems that they see and their approaches to it. Every year is just great. You don’t know which startups are going to break through and really find that product-market fit and grow the traction, and just watching that journey going. Every year is kind of a restart of seeing that. And then just seeing that Atlanta ecosystem, different partners, and the different programs that are out there to help support these startups now more than ever before and give these founders an opportunity to grow is super exciting. We do have great staff on board with some of the new hires that we brought in. The previous group did a great job of just building the momentum, establishing a great foundation. For us now, we’re at the scaling stage ourselves – how do we impact more and more students? How do we get them exposed to this as a viable option? It’s great to see we have students coming into Georgia Tech as I came in, because of the entrepreneurship program. We want to be a thought leader, we have the leadership, and everyone at Georgia Tech wants Georgia Tech to be the number one startup campus in the country. We want to have the thought leadership to help provide us, you can go from a way to reach students to explore this as an option, provide this type of expertise so that even on other campuses, we can bring the same type of energy and movement there.

William Leonard

I love it, man. That’s it. That’s a great goal this year to be set, eventually, to get to launching 300 startups a year, you’re planning for 80 to 100 this year. You mentioned you all are in the application phase right now as well. Can you give some high-level insight maybe into what that application process is like?

Rahul Saxena

We do our best to meet with the students who are applying and really give them feedback. We want them to come back. This isn’t a filtering process. We’re not trying to only pick who we think are winners to allow him to the program we want because, as I said before, we don’t know who they are. That’s how working with so many startups and letting the founders also be around some new people is important. We go through the applications, which is a relatively easy, simplified application. We want to just hear, “Okay, why do you think this problem is important? Why? How are you taking an approach to solving it?” Customer acquisition is always a big deal. What if you do have a focus and definition, how am I going to get the first 10 customers, the first 50 customers then 100, then 500 type of thing, and we’re really focused on those first few customers where somebody can show engagement? 

William Leonard

That sounds amazing because the students have to come extremely prepared. They have to articulate the value prop, the customer acquisition, the strategy to go-to-market, all that at the very early application stage.

Rahul Saxena

For us, we try not to have such a big hurdle off of it, we know that they’re not going to know it. We have that expectation there but how well do they understand the problem that they want to solve? That’s probably number one and foremost, we want them to really say that I’ve talked to 20,30, or 100 customers that have all said this. We’ve pulled out this nuanced issue that really is the crux of the problem that we can solve with this type of solution. 

William Leonard

That’s awesome, man. I love it. Well, I think with that, we certainly delved into CREATE-X, your background some of the companies that you all have helped incubate, and now that are growing, and building a successful presence here in the region, and then some of the things that you and the team are most excited about for 2022. I appreciate your time and look forward to seeing what the year brings for you in the CREATE-X team.

Rahul Saxena

Now, I really appreciate all the support, providing this type of medium to see Atlanta startups and everything you and your team do, from Robin and Lisa. The mentorship they provide a lot of the startups or a lot of our founders really appreciate it. 

William Leonard

I appreciate it. What’s the website for CREATE-X and are there any social channels that some of our listeners can go check out?

Rahul Saxena

@gtcreatex is Instagram and Twitter. We’d love for you to come to create-x.gatech.edu and learn more about us. We’ll be doing also website refresh in a couple of weeks. Perfect.

William Leonard

Awesome. I love it. Rahul, thanks for your time, and see how you lead the team to grow this year.

Rahul Saxena

Thank you. Appreciate the opportunity.

Lisa

We’re thrilled to have you as an Atlanta Startup Podcast listener to help you get the most out of the experience. Let me invite you to three insider opportunities from our host Valor Ventures. First, want to be a guest on this amazing show. Reach out to our booking team at atlantastartuppodcast.com. Click on booking, It’s a no-brainer from there. Are you raising a seed round? Valor definitely wants to hear from you. Share your startup story at valor.vc/pitch. Are you a woman or minority-led startup valor sister program? The Startup Runway Foundation gives away grants to promising startups led by underrepresented founders. The mission of the Startup Runway Foundation is connecting underrepresented founders to their first investors. Startup runway finalists have raised over $40 million. See if you qualify for one of these amazing grants at startuprunway.org. You can also sign up for our next showcase for free there. Let me let you go today with a shout-out to Startup Runway presenting sponsor Cox Enterprises and to our founding partners, American Family Institute, Truist, Georgia Power, Avanta Ventures, and Innovators Legal. These great organizations make Startup Runway possible. Thanks for listening today and see you back next week.