Walk into the Nassau Street space sandwiched between the Ivy Inn bar and Small World Coffee on the east end of town, and you will find an unusual environment. The drop ceilings and partition walls are gone, replaced by high, airy ceilings crossed by wooden beams and clean white space, accented with fluorescent orange, yellow, and green.
The high-energy vibes of this setting are in perfect synch with its new occupants, who sit in the space at the invitation of Tigerlabs, a new entrepreneurship center in Princeton, which celebrates its grand opening on Friday, March 15.
Bert Navarrete, Tigerlabs’ cofounder, general manager, and managing partner, shares what they had in mind for the center’s new digs: “We wanted to find a space that replicates a New York loft, with a high ceiling and exposed brick.” With the help of architect Steve DeRochi and restauranteur and real estate developer Jack Morrison, Navarrete has created that space in 8,000 square feet on the second floor of 252 Nassau Street.
It’s not just the visuals of the open architecture, intended to spark creativity and collaboration, that defines Tigerlabs as an unusual endeavor in the Princeton community. But even the language that Navarrete uses — “24 and 7 startup culture,” “hustle,” “student entrepreneurs” — speaks of something young, fresh, and vital.
Tigerlabs provides a flexible coworking, education, and meeting center for emerging startup companies and entrepreneurs and offers startup education workshops and events open to the community. In addition, Tigerlabs University and Tigerlabs Health are accelerators that provide startups with seed capital, mentorship, perks, and a shared workspace.
Over the last five years life-long Princeton resident Navarrete found himself spending lots of time in airplanes — upwards of 200,000 miles a year — flying predominantly to the San Francisco Bay Area, where the venture capital culture he was part of was thriving. On those flights he had lots of time to think and the result was his new venture. “Tigerlabs was born out of the frustration I had living on United Airlines for the last five years,” he says.
What he often wondered, both privately and out loud with entrepreneur and investor friends, was why Princeton did not have a culture similar to that of the Bay Area. “All the right ingredients were here,” he says. “It’s near a major university, is in close proximity to major metropolitan areas, and is surrounded by big industry and other universities; and, most important, the second largest and growing VC capital in the world is in New York City.”
In pondering why this was true, the answer he came to was simple: “Because there was nowhere to coordinate and galvanize this fragmented entrepreneurial community.”
And thus was the genesis for Tigerlabs, which, according to its website, www.tigerlabs.co, is “an entrepreneurship campus founded by serial entrepreneurs and venture capitalists with the goal of organizing the fast growing but disjointed startup ecosystem of Princeton, NJ.” Today Tigerlabs provides a flexible coworking environment for emerging startups; and offers educational workshops and other events to the community; and hosts two entrepreneurship accelerators, Tigerlabs Health and Tigerlabs University.
Navarrete knew about the entrepreneurial culture because he was part of it. In 2010, he cofounded the startup Connected Sports Ventures, for which he raised $4 million. Connected Sports develops a companion app for live sports broadcasts that integrates them with software on tablets and phones and gives people watching an opportunity to interact through trivia, games, and a social experience around Twitter and Facebook.
Jason Glickman, Navarrete’s co-founder and now CEO of Connected Sports Ventures is also a venture partner and co-founder of Tigerlabs and was formerly founder and head of of Tremor Video, a large video advertising company in New York City. The company’s executive team is in the Tigerlabs coworking center in Princeton, and its development team is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the street from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As Navarrete would make his way about town, he noticed the fragmented situation of local entrepreneurs — sitting in Panera, subletting from the grad school, or in apartments by themselves. At its most basic, Navarrete’s idea was to solve the loneliness of entrepreneurship by providing a coworking space. “By sitting and cohabiting with other entrepreneurs, we can share experiences and resources, and it engenders an overall better culture for them to be sitting in a shared workspace,” he says.
So the first item on the Tigerlabs agenda was to find an appropriate space. “We didn’t want office space that would be better suited for an investment bank, pharma, a consulting firm, or a law firm,” says Navarrete. “We wanted open space and collaboration.” In 2011 Tigerlabs opened its first office at 20 Nassau, a small space of about 1,300 square feet, and eventually had to add a satellite office at 17 Hulfish.
The new coworking center, dubbed Tigerlabs Commons, occupies 8,000 square feet at 252 Nassau Street. Here entrepreneurs can get short-term desk rentals for $300 per desk per month, with no lease, as well as the benefits of a shared workspace; Internet access; showers (so that they never have to stop working); a kitchenette with an industrial espresso/cappuccino machines, an icemaker, and vending machines for snacks and drinks; meeting space; an address; and, adds Navarrete, “most important, they have a community they can rally behind.” He continues, “For me, part of the real genesis and impetus for creating Tigerlabs is galvanizing community; and to make that happen, you need shared space, programs, and a venue that is open to the community for events.”
Through organic growth fueled only by word of mouth Tigerlabs quickly outgrew its earlier spaces. Currently the Commons has about 35 people between its coworkers and the first class of its newest accelerator, Tigerlabs Health, and receives on average one new inquiry a week.
Teams of two to five individuals are at work on a variety of projects. One is a smart sensor to read commercial and residential energy usage in real time. Another is a social competition network, where friends get to vote, for example, on whether Joe Shmo’s claim that he can make better brownies than Jane Smith’s is true — what Navarrete refers to as “formalizing a dare.” Another company is focusing on lead-generation sales software for enterprise companies.
Tigerlabs’ next venture, Tigerlabs University, is an accelerator for student entrepreneurs that grew out of Navarrete’s experience over the last five years as an advisor to the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club at the university. “I like talking to student entrepreneurs and imparting some of my professional learning and advice on how to do a startup,” he says.
Over his five-year tenure as a mentor at the club, Navarrete has seen its membership, which includes current students as well as alumni, swell from 100 to 2,000 members. “Entrepreneurship is growing in terms of career destinations for many undergrads,” he says. “While banking, law, medicine, and academia are still very popular for kids coming out of Princeton, I have found that the most ambitious wanted to be entrepreneurs.” He traces the source of this interest both to the recession, which he suggests has motivated students to start their own businesses, and to the success they have seen among younger entrepreneurs.
Navarrete’s experiences with students inspired him to launch Tigerlabs University in the summer of 2012 — mostly as a side project intended to help student entrepreneurs. “We did it because Tiger Inn was available in the summer, and the kids lived there for 13 weeks,” says Navarrete. They slept on the floor or on couches or just put their heads down for a couple of hours here and there so that they could keep on working.
The accelerator model that Tigerlabs uses, says Navarrete, is to invest both capital and resources in student entrepreneurs in technology startups and give them space for 13 weeks during the summer. Each startup receives $20,000 cash and over $100,000 worth of services from Tigerlabs’ sponsors that include free legal, public relations, and accounting support as well as software from sponsors such as Microsoft and Rackspace, a cloud computing service. “The value proposition is this,” says Navarrete. “If you are a team that is sitting in Pennsylvania and would have to hustle your way to accumulate all these collective services, capital, and mentorship, you would use a lot of time and effort to aggregate them. The idea is that we are giving you enough so that you can accelerate the development of your product in 13 weeks.”
The model for Tigerlabs University depends in good part on the mentorship of individuals who have had personal and professional success in their careers and have a “pay forward” mentality — a willingness to advise and assist young startups to become businesses. The mentors range from those who started companies as undergraduates themselves to those who have funded those companies, and everything in between.
Last summer the students who participated in Tigerlabs University came from the University of Chicago, Harvard, Penn State, Lehigh, Princeton, Virginia Tech, Oxford, and the Lawrenceville School. The products the students brought to the accelerator were mainly consumer apps, for example, a communication platform that enables people to message others on their phones without using text messaging — in order to avoid message chargers, an app that helps people to discover excellent apps on the Android market; and a business intelligence tool for small corporations.
Tigerlabs University has generated four portfolio companies. Eko has a cross-platform mobile app that makes communications between groups of people more intuitive, enjoyable, and organized by organizing conversations into threads. Mapsaurus offers a service that allows users to easily find great mobile apps by exploring a graphical representation of the app market.
Another, Panther, empowers companies to track competitors online by aggregating news, social media, hiring activity, and more. The fourth, Phonar, is a platform that uses location data to help people keep track of all their important assets, whether they are people, pets, or vehicles (or anything else).
In the wake of Tigerlabs setting up its coworking space and its success with Tigerlabs University, something unexpected happened, which propelled the evolution of Tigerlabs to what it is today” It started to receive visits from executives of medical and pharma companies and a host of others in town. “The overwhelming feedback was that we should expand the program outside the need of shared workspace and can galvanize a community of companies and individuals to provide more programs,” says Navarrete.
Tigerlabs decided to expand in the middle of Tigerlabs University in the summer of 2012, and Navarrete left Connected Sports Ventures. He partnered with Jack Morrison, the owner of the Blue Point Grill just two doors away, around Thanksgiving to develop the space at 252 Nassau, and the renovations began the next week. Pushing 24/7 to get the space done quickly, Navarrete was also hustling in the community to gather supporters.
“I was able to secure financing from lots of local investors,” he says. “The individuals who are investing in Tigerlabs are doing so because they believe in the mission of supporting the town and galvanizing this community, and all are active, hands-on investors, and are active mentors to our portfolio companies.”
Toward the end of February Tigerlabs opened its second accelerator program, Tigerlabs Health, which is focused exclusively on information technology in health care, which seems perfectly fitted to Central Jersey. As Navarrete says, “It is natural to think of this area of New Jersey as the Silicon Valley of health care. Health care information technology is a nascent industry, in the early days of development.
“I have had conversations at the C level with large pharma, medical device companies, and hospital systems in New York, Princeton, and Philadelphia, and everyone realizes this is an area where we can leverage human capital,” says Navarrete.
Tigerlabs Health’s opening set of entrepreneurs includes teams from Denver, Chicago, London, Princeton, New York, and Connecticut. All are in residence. Because over the 13 weeks individuals will be refining their ideas and perhaps pivoting their mission slightly based on early learnings or feedback from mentors, Navarrete was only willing to give away a little about what they are working on: senior care, incentivizing wellness, a self-diagnosis app, aggregating health-care information (the “big data” problem), and disease detection. Tigerlabs Health will run all year and applications can be submitted at any time.
One thing that has surprised Navarrete about the companies in the first “class” of Tigerlabs Health is that many have already received financing. “Of the companies in the class now, they came at later stage than we anticipated,” he says.
With money in hand and products built, they were looking for something different. “They are coming to help continue to develop their ideas and are taking advantage of the proximity we have to industry partners,” he says.
When evaluating companies for its accelerators, Tigerlabs looks not only at the merit of their ideas but also at the strength of their management teams. “We look at companies with working prototypes as well as addressing real world problems through technology,” Navarrete writes in an E-mail. “We generally look for applicants to have developed some prototype — whether it is a web service, mobile app, or softward application — but it is not a strict guideline.”
Each 13-week accelerator program ends with a demo day, where press, investors, industry partners, and venture capital firms are invited. The goal is that at this point the startups will be good enough to receive their first round of financing and/or a significant commercial contract.
The third leg of Tigerlabs: The community events it will host to educate entrepreneurs and bring them together. “The goal is to be as inclusive as possible to promote entrepreneurship in Princeton,” says Navarrete. Events will include technology meet-ups; classes ranging from iPhone development to how to read a capitalization table if you are not legally inclined; hacker hours on Wednesdays when a bunch of developers come in for 24 hours and write code; and founder dating sessions, where business people and developers come to meet potential cofounders for startups.
Tigerlabs is structured as a venture capital fund and takes an equity stake in each portfolio company, at a percentage that is around the industry standard for other accelerators.
In addition to Navarrete and Glickman, the team includes three others. Venture partner Charlie Kemper is currently a founding partner at Revel Partners, an early-expansion stage venture firm, where he led the firm’s investments in Tracx & MediaBrix, and a co-founder and general partner at ER Accelerator, a seed-stage investment program in New York City. James Smits, partner and program director of Tigerlabs, was formerly a business development associate at Banyan Water. Tom Hawkins, senior advisor at Tigerlabs, is currently the managing partner and founder of Fort‚ Ventures, a stage-agnostic venture capital firm headquartered in Atlanta that invests with corporate partners in information technology and industrial technology companies throughout North America.
Navarrete grew up in Princeton and graduated from the Delbarton School in Morristown and then from Harvard in 1998 with a degree in economics. Both of his parents were management consultants, his mother in education and his father in consumer goods.
Navarrete started his career at Merrill Lynch, where, he says, “I was a banker for five seconds — which is a year in banking terms.” He then moved to the company’s technology group, where he became vice president of technology strategy and business development. He ended his time at Merrill doing early stage technology investment for two Merrill Lynch venture capital funds.
Next he was an investment partner for Mitsui Corporation’s venture capital fund for about a year, and then moved on to do more of the same for Internal Capital Group, a venture capital fund based in Philadelphia.
At the beginning of 2011, with Jason Glickman, Navarrete jumped into the entrepreneurial fray and cofounded Connected Sports. And now, he says, “Here I am in a space with green walls.”
Navarrete’s wife is a homemaker, and he has three children ages 13, 6, and 3, with one more on the way.
Tigerlabs has had tremendous responses from corporations in central Jersey and is now working closely with some large pharmaceutical companies about partnering with them regarding their innovation strategy. “Their needs are to understand startup culture a lot more,” says Navarrete. “They have been unable to attract startup companies and are using us to get insight on early-stage companies.” Navarrete, for his part, is trying to gain access to commercial partners and potential acquirers of Tigerlabs’ portfolio companies.
Tigerlabs is also developing another kind of relationship with big pharma that it will be announcing in a couple of weeks. “We are talking to them about having our companies participate onsite as entrepreneurs in residence,” says Navarrete. This innovation track will be part of Tigerlabs Health. The idea is that pharmaceuticals will select entrepreneurs who are working on problems that have been challenging for them; these entrepreneurs will work with the company’s internal staff to accelerate the development of solutions. Although similar ventures have happened with technology venture capital firms, Tigerlabs is the first to bring this model to the pharmaceutical and medical device arena.
Navarrete himself is in fact a perfect fit for the 24/7 environment he has created. When asked how he manages to keep up the mentoring and hustling that keeps Tigerlabs moving forward, his response is a simple one. “Just keep working.”
Tigerlabs, 252 Nassau Street, Princeton; 609-454-5042; Bert Navarrete, general manager and managing partner. www.tigerlabs.co.