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New program mixes mentors, investors, and entrepreneurs to spawn a dozen new ventures

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 30, 2010 08:00 AM

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At a private dinner at the Liberty Hotel last January, a group of local executives and investors convened to consider a new approach to assembling start-up ventures in Massachusetts. The evening's speaker was Jonathan Kraft of the New England Patriots; a Waltham advertising company in which he'd invested, Quattro Wireless, had just been acquired by Apple for $275 million. Governor Patrick stopped by to make a few comments about the role that entrepreneurship plays in the Commonwealth's economy.

The dinner was a hush-hush kick-off event for a new initiative called "12 x 12," which intends to create connections between a dozen venture capitalists, a dozen established CEOs who will serve as mentors, and a dozen younger entrepreneurs, with the goal of creating and funding a dozen new companies with big potential. The program's slogan is "Multiplying Entrepreneurship in Massachusetts."

Pushing the new initiative are venture capitalist Michael Greeley of Flybridge Capital Partners and Andy Ory, chief executive of Acme Packet Inc., a publicly-traded Burlington telecommunications company. 

What's most unique about the idea is its focus on enabling already successful CEOs to develop ideas in collaboration with entrepreneurs without requiring them to abandon their day jobs. Among the CEOs who've committed to being involved in the program are iRobot CEO Colin Angle, Netezza CEO Jim Baum, EnerNOC CEO Tim Healy, and Communispace CEO Diane Hessan.

"Most VCs would give seed funding to almost anything that Andy Ory or Colin Angle comes up with, because of who they are," says Greeley. "In our shop, we'd say they are 'blank check' guys. So the question we wanted to ask was, 'How do you get Andy's next great idea started today?'" 

Greeley suggests that in many cases, 12 X 12 companies will take shape around the germ of a CEO's idea. (The potential for distraction was apparently too much for some CEOs or their boards; Akamai CEO Paul Sagan is participating in 12 X 12 as an advisor, but won't be launching any companies of his own.) In other cases, Greeley says, the program will help introduce entrepreneurs with an idea in a given sector with CEOs who have been thinking about that same space.

The dozen CEOs in the program will serve as mentors, board members, and potentially investors in the companies that get formed. "We look at this as a way to increase the velocity of these new enterprises," says Ory. "It's incredibly valuable for a first-time founder to have someone on their board who has been there and done that before."

The first company funded through the initiative is Cambridge-based Lighter Living Inc., a Web site that offers information about healthy lifestyles and also sells products like organic body wash and probiotic snack bars, all under the Lighter Living brand. Founder Marjolein Brugman helped popularize the pilates exercise regimen, and was a frequent guest on QVC selling pilates-related gear and DVDs. As part of the 12 X 12 program, she's working with Shoebuy.com CEO Scott Savitz, who Brugman says has been helped her understand how to create a "hassle-free  shopping experience online. Our intention is to reach millions of women through the Internet, which I've never done before." Greeley's firm, Flybridge, invested $3 million in Lighter Living late last year; Greeley says the deal was a kind of beta test for the 12 X 12 program, which took a bit longer to assemble than he'd originally hoped.

12 X 12 was spawned as a result of the Tech Hub Collaborative, a group brought together by Governor Patrick in 2009 to improve the competitiveness of the state's tech sector. But Ory says, "There's no political agenda to this. Starting companies and hiring people is a good thing for everyone involved."

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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