‘Create in times of chaos’: Amid pandemic, global tech accelerator launches in Reno
RENO, Nev. — For three years, Shaunt Sarkissian, a serial entrepreneur who moved from Boston to South Reno in 2017, has kept a sharp eye on the region’s growing tech startup scene.
The ecosystem, he felt, was missing something.
“I felt, how come Reno hadn’t really taken off to the extent of Austin, Texas, and some of these other emerging markets?” Sarkissian said in a phone interview with the NNBW.
A lack of venture capital?
A lack of incubators?
A lack of talent?
Sarkissian found none of these factors to be the case. What he realized, though, was the Biggest Little City’s startup ecosystem was missing a big component: a true tech accelerator. Meaning, there was not a cohort-based program for startups with a focused curriculum, seed investment, mentorship, and an office space.
Sarkissian saw to that. The seasoned tech executive, who got his start in Silicon Valley, recently launched Northern Nevada’s first tech accelerator: RNOX. The program was co-founded by Vahe Sarkissian (CEO) and Cameron Crain (VP of marketing and investor relations).
On April 2, RNOX announced it’s accepting applicants for the inaugural fall class of its premier entrepreneurship acceleration program, called R.E.A.L. (Rapid Entrepreneurial Accelerated Launch).
“It’s very much like a Y Combinator, where they come in, they get capital, they get an office location, and they get, most importantly, really focused training in a 16-week program that we put together,” Shaunt Sarkissian said. “It’s to take them and give them everything they need, so by the time they come out they could be a truly funded Series A startup, getting anywhere from $2 million to $5 million from very seasoned VCs.
“We felt that that engine was really the one thing that was missing (in Reno),” Sarkissian said.
Applicants for RNOX must have a founding team assembled and be a startup focused on one of five areas: fintech (with a focus on payments and commerce), SaaS (Software as a Service), data security, DLT (distributed ledger technology/blockchain), and gaming innovation.
‘WE’RE ALIGNED WITH OUR STARTUPS’
What’s more, RNOX is looking for applicants that have their minimum viable product (MVP) at least “well-thought out,” said Sarkissian, adding: “If it’s not a well-thought-out idea and you put that through an accelerator, it falls apart.”
RNOX, which has a 6,000-square-foot Class-A office space at 10615 Professional Circle in South Reno, plans to bring in five companies for its first 16-week class, slated to start in August. The accepted startups will receive a $100,000 equity investment right off the bat.
“The economic model for RNOX is we want to succeed when our companies succeed,” said Sarkissian, noting RNOX gets a small equity position in the companies. “We’re aligned with our startups, we want them to succeed, because that’s our capital return. We’ve always felt that’s the best model — everyone’s got to be tied at the hip and rowing in the same direction.”
Along with seed capital, the accelerator offers a collaborative work environment, executive mentorship, focused business optimization, and investor and venture connectivity.
At the end of the program’s 16 weeks, the accelerator hosts a “pitch day” in which the companies present their products to venture capitalists and funders from Silicon Valley and beyond.
Each year, RNOX plans to run five companies through its program in the fall and five more in the spring.
Sarkissian said RNOX is casting a nationwide net in its search for the right companies to plug into its accelerator. However, he said tech startups from out of state have to be willing to not only move to Reno but also grow their companies in Northern Nevada after completing the program.
“We’re not interested in vacationing companies,” he explained. “The job of RNOX is to really to promote and continue to grow the ecosystem here. As part of that, you have to be here and very likely have a plan to stay here in the area. We don’t want journeymen companies, we want companies that really want to tap into the economic value Nevada and Reno has.”
When asked if he was hesitant to launch an accelerator in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Sarkissian didn’t hesitate in his response.
“Nope,” he said. “We have a very long vision and we felt this is going to be a short-term disruption. And the best time to start stuff is when it’s crazy … it’s always an opportunity to create in times of chaos.”
Economic development leaders in Northern Nevada echo Sarkissian’s assessment.
“We’ll probably see some entrepreneurial efforts as we move through this,” Jeff Brigger, director of business development at NV Energy, said during an April 3 videoconference discussing Nevada’s economic recovery options after the COVID-19 crisis. “I think they’ll be a lot of problems that will need to be solved for the long-term and there’s going to be some pretty creative folks that will put together business plans to do so.”
Patricia Herzog, director of rural economic and community development for GOED, agreed with Brigger during the April 3 discussion.
“We’re going to see entrepreneurs rising to the challenge to find solutions to the challenges that we’re going to face, and I think that’s the opportunity we’re going to see in Nevada,” she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated from its original version (published 7 a.m. April 13) to report that RNOX was co-founded by Cameron Crain, Shaunt Sarkissian and Vahe Sarkissian. We’ve also replaced the original photo with a new image showing the three co-founders; the initial story and photo included former RNOX President and COO Rusty Shaffer as a fourth co-founder. However, Shaffer no longer has a stake in the company, RNOX officials confirmed. The NNBW apologizes for the error.
Heather Ashbridge, who started with Nevada State Development Corporation in 2008, previously served in several roles with the organization, including assistant vice president and loan officer. She is based in NSDC’s Reno office.