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Mozilla goes full incubator with ‘Fix The Internet’ startup lab and early stage investments

After testing the waters this spring with its incubator-esque MVP Lab, Mozilla is doubling down on the effort with a formal program dangling $75,000 investments in front of early stage companies. The focus on “a better society” and the company’s open-source clout should help differentiate it from the other options out there.

Spurred on by the success of a college hackathon using a whole four Apple Watches in February, Mozilla decided to try a more structured program in the spring. The first test batch of companies is underway, having started in April an 8-week program offering $2,500 per team member and $40,000 in prizes to give away at the end. Developers in a variety of domains were invited to apply, as long as they fit the themes of empowerment, privacy, decentralization, community, and so on.

It drew the interest of some 1,500 people in 520 projects, and 25 were chosen to receive the full package and stipend during the development of their MVP. The rest were invited to an “Open Lab” with access to some of Mozilla’s resources.

One example of what they were looking for is Ameelio, a startup whose members are hoping to render paid video calls in prisons obsolete with a free system, and provide free letter delivery to inmates as well.

“The mission of this incubator is to catalyze a new generation of internet products and services where the people are in control of how the internet is used to shape society,” said Bart Decrem, a Mozilla veteran (think Firefox 1.0) and one of the principals at the Builders Studio. “And where business models should be sustainable and valuable, but do not need to squeeze every last dollar (or ounce of attention) from the user.”

“We think we are tapping into the energy in the student and professional ‘builder communities’ around wanting to work on ideas that matter. That clarion call really resonates,” he said. Not only that, but students with canceled internships are showing up in droves, it seems — mostly computer science, but design and other disciplines as well. There are no restrictions on applicants, like country of origin, previous funding, or anything like that.

The new incubator will be divided into three tiers.

First is the “Startup Studio,” which involves a $75,000 investment, “a post-money SAFE for 3.5% of the company when the SAFE converts (or we will participate in an already active funding round),” Decrem clarified.

Below that, as far as pecuniary commitment goes, is the “MVP Lab,” similar to the spring program but offering a total of $16,000 per team. And below that is the Open Lab again, but with ten $10,000 prizes rather than a top 3.

There are no hard numbers on how many teams will make up the two subsidized tiers, but think 20-30 total as opposed to 50 or 100. Meanwhile, collaboration, cross-pollination, and open source code is encouraged, as you might expect in a Mozilla project. And the social good aspect is strong as well, as a sampling of the companies in the spring batch shows.

Neutral is a browser plugin that shows the carbon footprint of your Amazon purchases, adding some crucial guilt to transactions we forget are powered by footsore humans and gas-guzzling long-distance goods transport. Meething, Cabal, and Oasis are taking on video conferencing, team chat, and social feeds from a decentralized standpoint, using the miracles of modern internet architecture to accomplish with distributed systems what once took centralized servers.

This summer will see the program inaugurated, but it’s only “the beginning of a multiyear effort,” Decrem said.

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Allen Institute for AI’s Incubator expands with $10M fund from high-profile VCs

The Allen Institute for AI (AI2) started its incubator up two years ago, helping launch companies like Xnor.ai, Blue Canoe, and WellSaidLabs. Their success has attracted funding from not just local Seattle VC outfit Madrona, but Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins, and Two Sigma as well, resulting in a new $10M fund that should help keep the lights on.

The AI2 Incubator, led by Jacob Colker since its inception in 2017, has focused on launching a handful of companies every year that in some way leverage a serious AI advantage. Blue Canoe, for instance, does natural language processing with a focus on accent modification; Xnor.ai is working on ultra-low-power implementations of machine learning algorithms, and was just acquired yesterday by Apple for a reported $200M.

“We think the next generation of so called AI-first companies are going to have to graduate into building long term, successful businesses that start with an AI edge,” said the program’s new managing director, Bryan Hale. “And the people who can help do this are the ones who have helped build iconic companies.”

Hence the involvement of household names (in the startup community anyhow) Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins, and Two Sigma from New York. Seattle-based Madrona also recently invested in AI2 company Lexion. It’s a pretty solid crowd to be running with, and as Colker pointed out, “they don’t often come together.”

“But also, they looked up into the northwest and said, what’s going on up there?” added Hale. Indeed, Seattle has over the last few years blossomed into a haven for AI research, with many major tech companies establishing or expanding satellite offices here at least partly concerned with the topic: Apple, Google, Nvidia, and Facebook among others, and of course local standbys Amazon, Microsoft, and Adobe.

Practically speaking the new fund will let the incubator continue on its current path, but with a bit more runway and potentially bigger investments in the startups it works with.

“We just have a lot more resources now to help our companies succeed,” said Colker. “Previously we were able to write up to about a $250,000 check, but now we can write up to maybe $800,000 per company. That means they have a lot more time to build out their team, aggregate training data, test their models, all these points that are important for a team to raise a bigger, better VC funding round.”

AI2 prides itself on its large staff of PhDs and open research strategy, publishing pretty much everything publicly in order to spur the field onwards. Access to these big brains, many of which have bred successful startups of their own, is no less a draw than the possibility of more general business mentorship and funding.

Colker said the incubator will continue to produce 3-5 startups per year, each one taking “about 12-18 months, from whiteboard to venture funding.” AI, he pointed out, often needs more time than a consumer app or even enterprise play, since it’s as much research as it is development. But so far the model seems to work quite well.

“There are very few places in the world where an entrepreneur can come to take advantage of the brain power of a hundred PhDs and support staff. We’ve got a new research center with 70 desks, we’ve got plenty of space for those teams to grow,” he said. “We’re incredibly well positioned to support the next wave of AI companies.”

Source: TechCrunch