Internet entrepreneurs need a support system

Published in UT San Diego, July 10, 2012

By Barbara Bry and Neil Senturia

We are seeing an explosion in enthusiasm for entrepreneurship in San Diego. Just last month, the first Startup San Diego event attracted 300 participants, and the fourth San Diego Startup Weekend, which we’ll write about in a future column, drew 80 spirited contestants who worked in teams to create a mini-product/application/company in 54 hours.

Serial entrepreneur Maha Achour is the local leader of Startup San Diego, an affiliate of the StartupAmerica Partnership, an initiative that was launched at the White House in early 2011. The prestigious board of directors includes AOL co-founder Steve Case; Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings; and Tory Burch, CEO of the fashion company that bears her name. She says that the Startup America Partnership’s goal is to bring startups together with the resources they need and to scale this effort by creating similar networks all over the country.

Startup San Diego is primarily focused on helping Internet entrepreneurs because Achour contends this is the group that has the weakest support system. She says that the region lacks angel investors who understand the DNA of Internet companies. She also says San Diego lacks focused accelerators with direct funding to participants, as well as adequate software development talent and mentors who have experience with Internet startups. Internet companies do not require large amounts of capital to get launched, and Achour would like our region to challenge Silicon Valley and Los Angeles in this area.

As the founder and CEO of StarsVu, her first Internet startup, Achour speaks from personal experience. “In biotech and wireless, you have fewer startups because more capital is required. Internet startups don’t require a huge budget to build the initial application. At StarsVu, we leveraged an open source platform so we didn’t have to start from scratch, and we were able to hire contractors on a part-time basis. I raised $150,000 in seed capital, our first patent is about to be issued, and we have enough funding to get to profitability. Compared with other technology companies, it’s inexpensive to prove the concept and see if you can attract customers.”

Achour, who earned her doctorate in physics from MIT, was previously a co-founder of two telecom companies that raised significant amounts of venture capital. She got the idea for StarsVu from her teenage son who wanted to create videos with his friends and couldn’t find online tools that allowed for collaboration. So in 2011, Achour founded StarsVu, which has developed a cloud-based platform that empowers users to work together on high-quality video productions, sharing the process and results both online and on mobile devices.

She grew up in Algeria and came to the United States to attend UCLA. “In a Third World country, I wasn’t encouraged to study. I found a lot of resistance when I wanted to come to the U.S. because the culture didn’t encourage women to live abroad, but I managed to convince my parents that I would have no future in Algeria,” she said.

Achour first heard about Startup America when they were soliciting videos for the Super Bowl, and her team won second place. “I listened in on conference calls and participated in some of their Web events. Their goal is to break down barriers between the regions, and I asked if they planned to start something in San Diego. So I accepted when they asked me to lead the launch here.”

Future plans for Startup San Diego include programs focused on funding, pitching and positioning. The long-term goal is to foster a friendly, noncompetitive environment for people to share experiences and to provide honest feedback. Sponsorship from the law firm of Cooley LLP paid for the food at the first event.

We applaud Achour for seeing a void in the community and for raising her hand and volunteering to get Startup San Diego off the ground.

Rule No. 70

If you see a problem for which you can provide a solution, then it isn’t a problem. It is an opportunity.

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