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Bolt, new accelerator program for start-ups designing physical products, looking to put down roots in Boston

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 17, 2012 04:00 PM

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Update: Bolt has found about 10,000 square feet of space at 110 Chauncy Street in downtown Boston (at street level and below ground). In February 2013, the program told the SEC that it has so far raised $3.5 million in launch funding. Bolt's website says that it will "accept 10 teams for the Winter 2013 class. Teams must relocate to our facility in Boston and spend a majority of their time here for the duration of the 6 month program." The word "winter" there would suggest that they may soon announce who'll be part of this first crop of startups...

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Boston has been home to two major "accelerator" program so far: TechStars Boston and Y Combinator. And both of them have focused almost exclusively on start-ups developing Web sites, mobile apps, and software-as-a-service offerings. (Y Combinator, of course, now operates exclusively in Silicon Valley.)

Ben Einstein, right, wants to change that. He's out raising money and laying the groundwork for a new accelerator program, Bolt, that would focus exclusively on entrepreneurs who want to design physical products. Einstein, previously a principal at the product design consultancy Brainstream, moved from Northampton to Boston last month to make Bolt a reality.

Einstein says that Bolt will focus on "connected devices," including consumer electronics and robotics, but avoid medical devices and other products that would require extensive, blank-sheet-of-paper engineering. "We're thinking mostly about off-the-shelf components being combined in new ways, where you might have a new device that works with a web service, or plugs into a mobile phone," he says. Bolt's offices will include useful tools that the chosen entrepreneurs will have access to, such as drill presses, band saws, 3-D printers, PCB prototyping equipment, and CNC milling machines.

Einstein says his goal is to admit 10 teams into the first Bolt program. The program would supply office space, mentorship, access to equipment, and a financial stipend, in return for a chunk of each start-up's equity. Bolt would run for six months, unlike many of the three-month-long accelerator programs. "Physical products just take longer to build," Einstein says. Teams would get a larger stipend than the typical $30,000 to cover living costs during the program, "and some teams will likely need to buy tools or special equipment," Einstein says.

The goal, Einstein says, is to create "a way to bring physical products to market less expensively, even though they will never be as cheap as software." He's trying to raise enough money from local investors to support the first year of the Bolt program, and says he has made good progress already. Unlike other accelerators, one potential financial avenue for the start-ups that participate would be licensing their product idea to a bigger company that would produce and market it. That could create a different kind of payback for investors in Bolt (as opposed to a sale or IPO.)

The program could start as soon as this summer. Einstein says he's about to start scouting for space in Cambridge, Fort Point, and the South End. In addition to providing a home base for the Bolt teams, Einstein says the digs may also include "some co-working space for people manufacturing goods and making things."

Earlier in its gestation, Einstein called his idea "Maker College," and was planning to launch it in Holyoke.

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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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