Join Virtual Thursday Gatherings Across the World!#VCVirtual
Join #VCVirtual!

startup connect


Startup Connect is one of the strongest and most utilized offerings from the Captains of Innovation menu.  It is also one of the most replicated across the Venture Café community –– in part because Startup Connect is a powerful way to leverage the harnessed value of the CIC and Venture Café communities and surrounding ecosystem.  While there is an art to any engagement, the science behind Startup Connect is very strong, and this instruction is dedicated to sharing a proven, successful process formula that has become the standard for the engagement.


Startup Connect is the entire process that eventually leads to in-person connections between a Captains of Innovation (COI) corporate client and 10-15 startups.  COI passes through funding to Venture Cafés for their efforts, and victory in a Startup Connect is measured by the number of meetings the client takes: 10-15 one-hour meetings is the goal, 9 meetings is a fail.  The effort –– which begins with the initial research of startups and runs all the way to hosting the meetings –– is described in detail below.


  • The client’s “shopping list” (provided by COI)
  • Ability to speak about the client and their value prop (briefing provided by COI)
  • A few templates (below)
  • A researcher or three – not the Executive Director
  • Time to coordinate with startups
  • Space to host meetings, if local to your Venture Café
  • A particular font suite


Startup Connect consists of roughly three phases each of which require a specific skill-set and timeline: (1) research + vetting (2) contacting + coordinating with startups, and (3) hosting meetings. While the devil is certainly in those details, the overriding trajectory of Startup Connect can be described in a pretty pious manner, subject to a highly repeatable process:

  1. Receive criteria from the client (provided by COI)
  2. Research, vet, and provide the client with a list of startups in template form.
  3. The client will prioritize and return the list.
  4. Contact the prioritized startups and arrange meetings for the dates the client will be in town.
  5. Host the meetings, when applicable.


Well before the engagement begins, Captains will work with the client on the scope of their Startup Connect.  When Captains contacts a Venture Café site about the engagement, most of the elements that will be of use to the site –– the client’s shopping list of emerging technologies, verticals, industries, stages, and other boundary conditions, their value prop, timeline, etc –– will be known.  Typically the client will have an explainer containing some of this information. Captains will upload all gathered intel about the project to the partnered Venture Café.

Once the Venture Café has confirmation of the project, the first step will be to project what will be needed to accomplish the task.  Typically, this will entail arranging 1-3 researchers (that are *not* the Executive Director), briefing them, and confirming the timeline with Captains.  A researcher may need to be a contract hire (not necessarily whatever intern is within reach at the moment). A few ideal profiles:

  • someone that is an inventive, active pursuer of startup and innovation news that attends conferences and reads everything they can about verticals of interest
  • someone that is semi-retired and has worked in the innovation space for years

Once identified, the Venture Café should work to prepare the researcher(s) for the project. The researcher(s) should read this document as well as the materials provided by the client. Here is a job description that Captains has used in the past to source in-house researchers.  Feel free to adapt this to your needs and use.


Once the researcher(s) understand the full scope of the engagement, they can begin the process.  Typically the goal for initial research should be in the range of 75-150 startups, with accompanying notes and other information called for in the research template.  Researchers should be instructed to include in their findings the contact information of individual(s) from the startup that are most likely to respond well to the project, when possible, including their email address.  General, “info@“ email addresses should be considered a back-up plan.

FAQ: Should we contact the startups at this point?

No, startups should *not* be contacted during the Research, Vetting, and Delivery phase. Aside from the fact that it is impossible to predict which startups the client will prefer, rendering the effort premature, the sheer volume of the initial list makes early contact with the startups untenable.  Remember, victory is 10+ scheduled meetings, not how many startups were contacted.

Should a Venture Café have multiple researchers, Captains would recommend that they work separately and not contribute to the same spreadsheet.  Researchers each have their own method and perspective, and by allowing them to cross-pollinate, unique perspective and diversity –– major factors in a successful list –– could potentially be lost.  If they are working on the project concurrently, Captains recommends directing them to research completely on their own, producing entirely discrete lists (of 75+ startups each).

No matter how many researchers a Venture Café employees for the engagement, Captains recommends that the ED not do any of the heavy lifting involved in deep research.  Rather, we recommend that the ED contribute to the list in the following ways, concurrent with your researchers’ efforts:

  1. Top of mind. Add any startups that might be top of mind, culled from your knowledge of incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, and more from within your community.
  2. Utilize CIC. If you have a CIC on your campus, write to the local RM’s and provide language tailored for their quick understanding of the engagement and its shopping list.  RM’s are attached to their clients throughout their stay in CIC, no matter where the client might move in the building, and typically have a rich, current understanding of their portfolio of companies.  The RM’s should be able to quickly ascertain whether or not any of their clients should be considered.
  3. Target connections, targeted recommendations. Use your network of venture capitalists and connectors in your ecosystem to ask for targeted recommendations.  Results here are normally scattershot, but sometimes produce unexpected hits.

When these ED-led entries arrive, hand them over to the top researcher for further vetting. The applicable additions should be added to their master list.


When the researchers are finished with their initial efforts, the ED should collect any and all lists that have been created, combine them, remove the duplicates, and perform a final pass of vetting before delivery.  This is a crucial step, for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is the 1-800-ACCOUNTANT RULE™.  At times, researchers can lose perspective during their efforts, and will include companies that should obviously not be.  For example, a researcher might include startups that have been acquired because they’ve grown frustrated that a great technology they’ve uncovered has been functionally removed from the market.  In the infamous example that lends its name to this rule (which actually happened during a Captains engagement), one of the best researchers that has ever contributed to Startup Connect once included 1-800-ACCOUNTANT on a list of emerging technologies being prepared for one of the Big 4 accounting firms.  The list was otherwise masterful, and the inclusion of such an eyesore was an anomaly that would have cast doubt on the rest of the list upon first glance by a reviewing Executive. For these reasons we recommend that the ED themself review every entry to make sure each passes the basic “smell test” –– Is the company’s website a disaster?  Are they obviously outside the scope of the project? Have they relocated out of the ecosystem? Is there something about them that just doesn’t feel right? –– and packages for the final product for delivery.


Please use this template (including fonts and font sizes), to package your research for delivery to the client.  When complete, if you have already been connected with the client, deliver it to them directly. If you have yet to be connected to the client, send it along to COI, who will deliver it on your behalf, and connect you when client returns with a prioritized list.

A few notes on delivery:

  1. Assuming all reviews have been done, the delivery deck will take about 20 minutes to prepare.
  2. It is recommended that you make a copy of the original research deck before making alterations.  It should be preserved, as you will need it later in the process.
  3. Note that several columns will need to be removed.  For example, it would not make sense to share Contact Information with the client at this point.
  4. Remove the example entry.
  5. Fonts are here


There will be times when the original startup delivery list fails to inspire an interest in at least 10 meetings by the client.  In fact, this will likely happen frequently and should be anticipated by the Venture Café. There are many reasons why this might occur, and many are not necessarily the fault of the site or researcher.  For example, the client may be comprehensive in their approach to connecting with startups, and many from your list may simply be ruled out because the two parties have already met. This instance would be a great sign –– one that demonstrates you are on the right track.  

Alternatively, it may be that the research was not robust enough.  This may be because a Venture Café or research team misjudged the project.  Both cases above are likely scenarios, and should be anticipated. The solution is simple –– be flexible, make adjustments based on the feedback, and work quickly to provide a secondary or even tertiary list.  This may involve deploying additional researchers or generally refining the approach. Typically, results from the first list will be known when the second list is begun, so the scope and goal lines for the second list should be clear.

Sometimes, an ecosystem itself does not fully match what the client is hunting. Typically, this is known before the engagement begins, and Captains will have worked to expand the site’s ecosystem to encompass regions beyond those local to the Venture Café (e.g. Rotterdam might expand to Amsterdam, Miami might extend to Austin).  However, if this ecosystem expansion wasn’t pre-planned, sites are encouraged to coordinate with Captains to do so in response to a client’s lack of enthusiasm to a site’s list. Part of what makes Startup Connect a safe option for clients is Captains’ willingness to expand and deliver, no matter the issue.


Whether the client selected twenty startups from your primary list or five, upon receiving the first list back, startup wrangling can begin.  Captains will have prepared the client to prioritize your list, so the wrangling should be able to begin once you have received the client’s initial response.

Unless you have an existing relationship to a startup, or they came through a CIC RM, the first step is to send a “cold outreach” email.  Contact emails can be culled from your researchers’ lists. Here is a sample “cold outreach” email.

This effort typically results in active contact with at least half of the prioritized startups.  After some a few days without response, the rest will need to be pursued by the next best point of contact –– via an alternate email, phone, LinkedIn, etc.  A friendly reminder that 10-15 strategically recommended meetings from your list is the goal.  The client –– and Captains’ contract with them –– will fundamentally count “victory” by the number of meetings arranged, not by how big the priorities list is or the outcome of those meetings.  If it makes sense and can be done with relative ease, going beyond 15 meetings is encouraged; the range is included to set client expectations.

When the meetings have been set, create a schedule and share it with the client.  Here are some recommendations:

  1. Empathy is key.  Keep in mind jetlag, travel time, meals, meeting space, and other human-centered elements when making the schedule.
  2. Ensure meetings are the right length. On-site meetings are typically booked for 60 minutes (including Q&A), followed by 10-15 minutes for bio-breaks, debriefing, etc.
  3. Allow enough travel time. Off-sites will require additional travel time, and directions (e.g. include Google Maps screenshots) –– see below.
  4. Make it printable.


Simple rule of thumb: if the startup can come to your campus, then the meetings should be hosted on site and include the Venture Café’s ED or someone at that approximate level in order to ensure the proceedings run smoothly.  If the startup cannot come to your campus –– either because of distance or because the tech they’d like to demo cannot travel –– then the Venture Café should still arrange and coordinate the effort, but the client can be expected to attend on their own.

Here are some hosting best practices:

  1. Arrange a comfortable space that has a projector, screen, and at least a modicum of privacy.
  2. Have water and snacks available.
  3. Create a holding area for startups that may arrive before the current startup is finished presenting.

FAQ:  Does Venture Café pay for the client’s food and travel?

  1. TRAVEL.  The client pays for all of their travel (flights and rental cars) and hotels and arranges both on their own.  They may ask for recommendations.
  2. FOOD.  If there is a stack of meetings in your space, with a meal break in between, you should cover food costs, as a good host.  Otherwise, the client should pay for their own.


Once the meetings have wrapped, and the client has left your region, that’s a wrap! Typically, there is nothing more required –– no reporting and no follow up with the client.  Captains will then continue to manage the master relationship, and carry the engagement forward from there.  Often, sites are interested in the results of an engagement, which they would like to report to their board or similar.  If known, these will be shared with the site, but typically you will not know whether or not deeper connections were formed with the client and startups.  This is because Captains’ contact within the client corporation has KPI’s that are aligned with meetings and introductions, not implementation of the new technologies.  Captains often has to measure its success simply by the fact that the client signs a contract for another year, thus making clear the value add for them.

FAQ: Are there Pro-Rated Versions of Startup Connect?

Yes!  Sometimes a client will want more or less from a Startup Connect.  The Venture Café would simply be asked agree to the altered scope before the engagement would commence.

FAQ: Fine, but how is this different from Captains “Weak Ties” offering?

The difference between this and Weak Ties is that these are startups found based on a shopping list with desire for partnership, investment, B2B, or similar.  Weak Ties are more focused on introductions, and meetings could include academics, labs, or other ecosystem stakeholders.