7 cool start-ups spawned by Techstars that snared millions

Cameron Albert-Deitch, special to CNBC.com
Xaume Olleros | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Since its founding in 2006, Colorado-based start-up accelerator Techstars has worked with 762 companies. The results have been impressive: To date, the companies have raised a combined total of $2.04 billion, and 90 percent of them are either currently active or have been acquired. Here are seven of the most successful ones that have passed through Techstars' doors — or gone through one of the many programs the accelerator runs around the world.

— By Cameron Albert-Deitch, special to CNBC.com
Posted 21 June 2016


Sphero robot.
Source: Sphero

Location: Boulder, Colorado
Founded: 2010

Sphero is best known for developing the consumer version of BB-8, the scene-stealing droid from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Co-founders Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson created the first Sphero robot at Techstars in 2010. Six years later the Colorado-based robotics company has surpassed $90 million in funding, including $45 million in venture capital from Mercato Partners, Disney and Foundry Group.

It's now dipping its toes into wearable tech (its first prototype, a device called ForceBand that controls BB-8 from your wrist, is, of course, Star Wars-branded). How did a small start-up score such a huge licensing deal? That's actually thanks to Techstars, too: Sphero went back to participate in Techstars' Disney 2014 accelerator program, developing the consumer BB-8 there. The ensuing success must have been nice: The toy sold out its first day on the market.


Baran Ozdemir | Vetta | Getty Images

Location: New York City
Founded: 2011

DigitalOcean is one of those companies whose function needs a bit of translation for those unfamiliar with it. Put simply, it's a cloud-based hosting company that allows software developers to scale their applications across multiple computers at the same time. It's the most highly funded company ever to pass through Techstars: Additional big-name investors, like Andreessen Horowitz, have helped DigitalOcean pass $123 million in total equity funding.

In 2015, DigitalOcean become the second-largest hosting company in the world in terms of web-facing computers, behind only Amazon Web Services, according to research website Netcraft.

Next Big Sound

Xaume Olleros | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Location: New York City
Founded: 2009

The first iteration of Next Big Sound appeared in 2007 as a website developed by four students at Northwestern University for an entrepreneurship class. In mid-2009, Techstars gave the founders an undisclosed amount of seed money to launch as a full-fledged music-focused data analytics platform for artists, labels and brands (Techstars also contributed to a $1 million round of seed funding in late 2009).

Next Big Sound tracks mentions across social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as music websites like Last.fm and MySpace. It partnered with established music brands, including Spotify (allowing artists to see and track their Spotify data) and Billboard, raising almost $8 million in funding before getting acquired by Pandora in May 2015 for an undisclosed amount.


Grove Ecosystem
Source: Grove

Location: Somerville, Massachusetts
Founded: 2013

Want your fish tank to double as an herb and veggie garden? Grove, which was born in 2013 in an MIT fraternity house (Sigma Chi, to be specific), is hoping you'll say yes. Roommates Jamie Byron and Gabe Blanchet created the company after Byron's casual experiments in aquaponics — cultivating fish waste from aquariums to feed plants without the need for soil — started producing both food and a fresh-smelling haven amid the hallway's stale beer-filled atmosphere.

Grove's smartphone app monitors your ecosystem's health and helps optimize for specific plants you'd like to grow. It's still early going for the company, but it has raised more than $4 million in funding so far from investors such as Tim Ferriss, Jamie McCourt and Gary Vaynerchuk, as well as an undisclosed amount of venture capital from the Techstars R/GA accelerator.


Mail-order drug company PillPack prepackages consumers' pills for daily or hourly use.
Pat Greenhouse | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Founded: 2013

PillPack started making headlines shortly after coming together in 2013 as an online pharmacy that delivers medications in single-dose packets — a model that's particularly useful to patients who need to keep track of multiple prescriptions at once. Techstars was involved in PillPack's 2013 seed round and Series A investment, which totaled $550,000 and $3.5 million, respectively.

The company has now raised a total of $64 million and is licensed in 49 states (Hawaii is the lone holdout). PillPack founder TJ Parker told Inc. earlier this month that his company has shipped more than 500 million packets to date and that his employee base, revenue and valuation have increased 10-fold in 2015 (he declined to reveal specific numbers).


ClassPass is a service that allows users to take classes at a variety of fitness studios.
Cyrus McCrimmon | The Denver Post | Getty Images

Location: New York City
Founded: 2012

Over its first few years of existence, ClassPass was the talk of the fitness industry: a monthly flat-rate subscription service that allowed users access to a network of participating gyms and fitness classes in cities across the United States, Canada and England.

It's pulled in a total of $84 million in funding, including an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Techstars in 2012, and was valued at $200 million by 2015, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Recently, the company has begun to increase its prices dramatically — from $99 per month in New York to $125, for example, and then from $125 to $200. The hike was met with widespread outrage on social media, but it's too soon to tell whether ClassPass's business will be affected significantly.


Tim Robberts | Getty Images

Location: New York City
Founded: 2010

Contently participated in one of Techstars' first accelerator programs back in 2011, which led to a $335,000 debt round from Founder Collective. That money has gone a long way in helping the six-year-old tech company grow as a platform for matching freelancers in creative fields with companies looking for content. The company has raised a total of $12 million to date, including $9 million Series B round in 2014 from investors such as Sigma Prime, Sigma West and Lightbank.

Contently, which had $7.5 million of revenue in 2015, now claims a talent network of more than 55,000 writers, designers, photographers and other content creators. (Disclosure: The author of this article has previously contributed to one of Contently's digital magazines, The Content Strategist.)