Startmate launches Founder Fellowship program to support the earliest-stage startups

Lauren Capelin (third from right) and the Startmate team. Source: supplied.

Aussie accelerator Startmate is launching a new Founders Fellowship program designed to support entrepreneurs at the very earliest stage of their journey and ultimately improve their startups’ chances of survival.

The new program launches alongside the new Student Fellowship program, which was piloted over the summer, offering students and graduates a glimpse into the startup world.

Speaking to SmartCompany, Startmate principal Lauren Capelin says the fellowships are about “trying to push the outer edges of the startup community”.

The idea is to reach people who might be considering launching a startup or a career in startups, helping them explore the space and access the mentorship and support they might need to get started.

The Founders Fellowship, in particular, was conceived to address a gap in the startup ecosystem.

Startmate receives hundreds of applications for each cohort, many from startups headed up by “incredible founders”, and people who are working on ventures with great potential.

For those that are not quite ready for the accelerator, Capelin says it became clear the team could be doing more to support them in the early days.

Participants might be looking for a technical co-founder, for example, or need help building their minimum viable product.

In a way, this is “preparation work” for founders that might be in line to join Startmate at a later date.

But it’s about more than just boosting the pipeline, she says. It’s also about raising the bar in the sector more broadly, and helping more startups to launch, survive and thrive.

“Just getting better startups and better founders generally speaking, outside of the accelerator, is a good thing.”

It also helps create a community for those founders, connecting people who are in the same boat.

“So much of those early years are spent you’re in the dark, making a whole bunch of assumptions and often operating by yourself,” Capelin explains.

“This gives people a peer group to do that with.”

The student program is designed to address a slightly different issue, presenting startups as a viable and accessible career path, as opposed to other more ‘traditional’ graduate pathways.

There’s still a perception that startups don’t offer secure career opportunities, Capelin notes. But with the tech ecosystem ever growing, that’s simply not true anymore.

It also makes it easier for founders themselves to access graduate talent. They’re constrained in their own resources, and not always able to dedicate time to creating student and internship roles.

Designed for diversity?

The two new programs follow the success of Startmate’s Women’s Fellowship, launched last year to help create pathways for women to secure jobs at startups.

About 75% of participants in that program are now employed in startups and tech companies, Capelin says.

“We’ve seen the power that comes from bringing the people who have the inclination in the space, but are lacking confidence, networks or perhaps specific skills,” she explains.

Again, the model ‘borrows’ the principles that guide the accelerator program, and maintains a strong focus on talent and potential.

However, the Women’s Fellowship comes with a $2,000 fee, plus GST, which raises questions around whether it’s accessible to everyone.

While there’s no pricetag attached to the Student Fellowship, the Founder Fellowship is $1,000 plus GST for those who are still working full time, and free for those who have quit their day jobs to focus on their ventures.

Capelin explains that one of the questions in the application process for the Women’s Fellowship asks if applicants can afford the fee. If they say no, that’s no deterrent to the judging panel, and she hopes it’s no deterrent to the applicant either.

Typically, about 25% of women take part on a scholarship basis, with their fees covered by Startmate’s industry partners.

But Capelin says there is benefit to asking participants for a cash commitment. It’s about having skin in the game, she says.

“It’s really important that they see it as an investment in themselves,” she explains.

“If you’re investing in it, you attach more value to it.”

At the same time, the team is focused on improving diversity, she says.

Applications are screened blind, so there’s no room for unconscious bias. And Startmate has set targets around diversity, in terms of gender balance and representation of marginalised groups such as First Nations and Maori people; those from migrant and refugee background; people with disabilities; and people who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

“We’re thinking about equitable design and making sure we have some specific targets,” she adds.

“We are monitoring our program intakes to make sure we see the representation we think is appropriate, and improving on that all the time.”

Applications for the Startmate Founder Fellowship program are open now until June 6.

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