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CloudTop, MIT $100K winner, moves west for Y Combinator

Posted by Scott Kirsner  July 6, 2012 04:17 PM

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The latest winner of MIT's $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, CloudTop, has moved to Palo Alto to take part in the Y Combinator summer program for startups. A number of Boston-area entrepreneurs and investors tried to persuade the CloudTop team to stick around, though it sounds like no one offered to write a check.

The company is building "dead simple" uploading tools for digital files that can be used by web sites and mobile app developers; an example of the early product can be seen at Filepicker.io.

"The four of us rented a house [in Palo Alto] and are cranking away," CEO Brett van Zuiden, right, writes via e-mail. "We're actually planning a launch of our mobile product soon..." Zuiden, who is originally from the Bay Area, says that "investors" and "culture" played a role in CloudTop's decision to head west.

Bill Aulet of the Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship tells me that CloudTop won entrance to Y Combinator shortly after winning the $100K, but before MIT started taking applications for a new summer accelerator program of its own, the Founders' Skills Accelerator. Y Combinator, born in Cambridge but now operating exclusively in Silicon Valley, offers $150,000 in convertible debt to every startup that gains entrance, as well as exposure to a wide range of angels and venture capitalists at its concluding "demo day" event. But it also takes an average of 6 percent of a startup's equity at the outset. (The Founders' Skills Accelerator doesn't ask for any equity, but also doesn't guarantee as much funding...and it's only in its first year.)

It sounds like several local lights, including Rich Miner of Google Ventures, Jo Tango of Kepha Partners, and serial entrepreneur Andy Palmer, tried to persuade van Zuiden and the CloudTop team to build the company in Boston. In particular, they emphasized the challenges of hiring programmers in the Valley, and the assistance that the MIT alumni network could provide them in Boston. But the company may have seen bigger benefits in being close to major cloud players like Dropbox (founded by another group of MIT alumni), Facebook, Apple, and Flickr, says Russ Wilcox, an entrepreneur who spoke with van Zuiden around the time that CloudTop won the $100K.

No one locally seems to have offered to invest in CloudTop. And even if a VC firm had been willing to write a $250,000 or $500,000 check to the fledgling company, says Palmer, the team's California ties might still have won out. "It would have been a long shot, but I'd argue that we should be trying those kinds of long shots in Boston," says Palmer, a co-founder of Vertica Systems (which was acquired by HP). "Even if we can keep one out of ten, it's worth doing." Boston-area companies like Akamai, Myomo, Brontes Technologies, and K-Splice have come out of the $100K competition in the past — and remained in Boston.

van Zuiden says that the team is "currently heads-down building out the product, working on getting additional traction before we go out and raise" money from investors.

Antonio Rodriguez of Waltham-based Matrix Partners says he met with the CloudTop team, but didn't twist their arms about staying in Boston. While the idea and team were interesting to him, Rodriguez writes via e-mail, "I think we've got plenty of that kind of raw material here though and our collective time is better spent nurturing the folks that want to take advantage of that, rather than trying to convince those with Silicon Valley sparkles in their eyes to stay here."

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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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