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A Nurturing Ground for Startups and Founders: Creative Destruction Lab at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business

It’s only day one of a week-long “super session” and the energy is palpable. In the virtual room, there are investors, entrepreneurs, scientists, and economists - all might be willing to invest in a founder if their idea is strong enough. Waiting anxiously are the founders who must each take turns articulating their progress. They all come from a program that helps founders create ventures to change the human experience. The “super session” is part of Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a global initiative that has one of its bases at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business.

It’s the nurturing ground for seed-stage, science-and technology-based companies and their founders. For a start-up, CDL-Atlanta is an unimaginable place where participation could make the difference between success and failure. It’s a founder’s dream, where each inventor is given the opportunity to learn from mentors, scientists, venture capitalists, MBA students, and angel investors. They can receive help in raising capital, make connections with other founders and industry contacts, and gain invaluable feedback throughout their company’s early stages of evolution. And it’s open for business.

What is Creative Destruction Lab?

The name comes from the economic concept of “creative destruction,” which asserts that to build something new, there must be a breakdown of the old ways of doing things.

It’s the perfect name for a program that supports founders determined to break molds and create products, services, and solutions that have never existed before. The mission of CDL is “to accelerate the commercialization of science for the betterment of humankind,” and it’s in its ninth year of operation, with Atlanta being one of just three locations in the U.S. The other two are at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington and the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Altogether, there are 10 locations throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

“When CDL and Scheller began conversations back in 2019 about setting up a location at Georgia Tech, we immediately knew it would be a great fit with the Institute and with Scheller,” said Peter Thompson, co-lead of CDL-Atlanta, Hal and John Smith Chair in Small Business and Entrepreneurship and professor, strategy and innovation, at Scheller.

The program offers 16 different “streams” including AI, climate, health, oceans, and supply chain, among others. CDL-Atlanta focuses on the commerce stream, bringing together entrepreneurs, leading scientists, and investors to “help scale ventures focused on technologies that support the transformation of the retail and consumer packaged goods industries, and commercial exchange.” The program doesn’t compete with incubators or maker spaces but is complementary to them for early-stage ventures.

How Does It Work?

The CDL-Atlanta program lasts nine months and is open to founders throughout the world. There are no fees to enter the program and CDL takes no equity position in the ventures. It is instead supported by individual philanthropists and corporate partners. CDL-Atlanta launched with generous support from Sid Mookerji, founder of Silicon Road Ventures; Frank Blake, former CEO of The Home Depot; Truist Bank; and legal partner Morris, Manning and Martin.

A key requirement of the program is that founders attend five one-day sessions with mentors between November and July, during which their company’s objectives are established.

The program is founded on the notion that technical founders lack the experience necessary to sift through the hundreds of tasks that they could be working on and helps identify the small number of tasks they must work on to move the venture forward. The CDL model is unique in its laser focus on setting three objectives to focus on over the eight weeks between sessions. Its community of mentors give generously of their time and expertise to help ventures identify these time-critical objectives.

For example, during one mentoring session, advisors gave feedback to an e-commerce fashion start-up Reflekt Me, which has developed a scalable way to create personalized shopping experiences for online shoppers by using their characteristics to deliver videos and images of people like them engaging with a firm’s products. Mentors discussed the company’s strengths and weaknesses and identified two urgent tasks for the founders: clearly articulate the value proposition that distinguishes their innovation from the competition and use this to close their first commercial contract.

Tope Mitchell, CEO of Reflekt Me, explains. “I was so focused on being able to sell across verticals that I didn’t assess the variation in profitability, accessibility, and adoption across them. I received great feedback regarding work-life balance, fundraising, and sales strategies,” she said.

During that same feedback session, one of the mentors offered to introduce Mitchell to some of his contacts in the fashion industry. Within CDL, there are numerous notable business, science, economic, and marketing mentors including Frank Blake; Sid Mookerj; Dennis Hayes, founder of Hayes Microcomputer Products; John Avery, director of Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) at Georgia Tech; and Loren Padelford, founder and general manager of Shopify Plus.

In addition, mentors from Scheller include Sudheer Chava, Alton M. Costley Chair, finance; A.J. Kohli, Gary T. and Elizabeth R. Jones Chair, marketing; Karthik Ramachandran, associate professor, operations management; and Deven Desai, associate professor, law and ethics.

How Can Georgia Tech Students Get Involved?

Scheller’s TI:GER (Technology Innovation: Generating Economic Results) program is the educational arm of CDL-Atlanta and provides Georgia Tech MBA and PhD students with the opportunity to participate in the CDL program in their second and third courses.

Students in the TI:GER program work directly with founders in a collaborative relationship that allows MBA students to develop financial models, evaluate potential markets, and fine-tune strategies for scaling. PhDs with a prototype for a start-up can gain insights into the entrepreneurial world of massively scalable science-based companies and get help in starting their own companies.

The annual application deadline is October 1 for the cohort starting in January of the following year.

Why Should Founders Apply to CDL-Atlanta?

More than 4,000 founders from over 1,700 companies have participated in CDL since 2012 and over $10 billion in equity value has been created through the program. Statistics like these are impressive, given that CDL focuses on early-stage, innovative (and therefore high-risk) ventures. The value that founders receive from going through the nine-month program places them at an advantage over their competition.

Applications to the program are accepted until July 30 through the CDL website. Accepted founders are informed whether they’ve made it to the interview phase at the end of August. In late September, candidates are interviewed, and admission decisions are made by the committee based in Atlanta.

Looking Ahead

CDL-Atlanta is only in its second year but has made great strides towards its goal of helping technology-based ventures in the Southeast scale.

Founders have reaped the benefits of sharing successes and failures with their cohorts, absorbing the expertise from the CDL network, and moving on to the next phase of building their company with unique knowledge only few founders possess.

“CDL was a large part of our success across so many pivotal goals,” said Mitchell. “Our mentors are hands down the best people in the world. It has been fantastic.”

For more information on the program, application process, and ways to get involved, visit the CDL and TI:GER websites.

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