In Conversation at MuseumNext: Startups & Accelerators in the Cultural Sector

MuseumNext-2017-Portland-Transcript.png

If you couldn’t make it to MuseumNext 2017, don’t worry, we have the next best thing! Brendan Ciecko, Cuseum’s CEO & Founder spoke with Rick Turoczy, Co-Founder of Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE) in a session focusing on Startups & Accelerators in the Cultural Sector. Read on to relive the MuseumNext conversation, and learn how museums and cultural institutions could benefit from adopting startup mentalities!

Brendan Ciecko:

Over the last couple of years we’ve noticed something very interesting - the methodologies that drive the startup community have made their way into museum practice and culture. What really caught our eye is that museums are now starting to create incubators, accelerators, and coworking spaces.

Rick, in diving deep into your background, I came across your original Kickstarter campaign for the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE) and you wrote “What is it and why should I care?” So in keeping with that spirit - who are you and why should we care?

Rick Turoczy:

I’m a serial entrepreneur based here in Portland. I’ve been in the startup community working in, on, and around startups for around 20 years, primarily in tech, but also more and more in traditional industries. About eight years ago, we started this project called PIE, which was a collaboration between the Portland startup community and an advertising agency in town called Wieden+Kennedy. It’s taken on any number of permutations and we’ll get into some of that a little bit later. I think the most important thing to keep in mind with PIE is we take the word experiment in our title very, very seriously.

We are constantly trying to reinvent the project and constantly trying to look for ways that we can both better serve the community and better serve well-established organizations like museums or universities or corporations who are interested in collaborating with the community to mutual benefit.

We’re not looking for this to be a one-way street for the startups, we always want our partners and more well-established organizations to get something out of the relationship as well.

Brendan Ciecko:

I’m the founder and CEO of a company called Cuseum. We help museums with visitor and member engagement. We’ve worked with over 100 museums across the country in these areas. I started designing and developing technology when I was 11 years old and used that as a tool to break into the music industry where I worked with Katy Perry, Mick Jagger, Lenny Kravitz, and entertainment brands, and then six or seven years ago a New York City museum, located on Museum Mile, reached out to my company looking for a leg up the digital world. We took on that project and quickly saw how painful and frustrating a lot of the elements of technology were and took on that project as a passion - but it all started to evolve into something larger.

As it pertains to this discussion, my company went through a startup accelerator called Techstars, over in Boston. I’ve invested in companies that have gone through Techstars, Y Combinator, and 500 startups, which are some of the world’s top incubators. I also mentor and advise companies at the Harvard Innovation Lab as well as the MIT Enterprise Forum. I’m at the intersection of a lot of different worlds.

We want to give you a couple of definitions before we dive any deeper.

Rick Turoczy:

In our lexicon, the way we think about startups is that it doesn’t have anything to do with the age of the company or the size of the company. It really has to do with the ability of that company to scale rapidly, the ability of that company to be efficient with financial resources, and the aspect that it’s not really at a point where it can survive on its own, it’s not generating enough revenue, or it’s not really a proven product market for us specifically. A lot of people have come to me and said, well, if a company’s ten years old can it still be a startup? Yeah, it can. It can change its strategy, it can come up with a new product offering, it can come up with a more efficient way to scale thanks to technology that now exists. We don’t put a lot of parameters around the types of startups we work with, we’re just really interested more in the people engaged in that business and their desire to scale the business.

Brendan Ciecko:

Summed up, I look at startups as new companies that are looking to achieve high growth with limited resources in either uncertain times or yet to be proven markets. If you look at some elements of that definition you could even apply it to museums and cultural organizations today.

Rick Turoczy:

Totally. I think museums today have been built for a specific purpose and have acquired assets for a specific purpose, but they are creatively thinking about other ways. We were talking about this space as an example: creatively thinking about ways that you can activate those assets in different ways for the community or in different ways to engage the population is pretty startup-y, from a museum perspective.

Brendan Ciecko:

For a lot of startups, we’ll often find that they go through things called “incubators” or “accelerators” to help them speed up their development, the rate they go to market, or to even find funding. To just lay out two or three more definitions, an accelerator usually operates under a cohort model where there’s maybe 10, 20 companies that are together for about three or four months to take what would otherwise been achieved over maybe a year, a year and a half, condense that to about three or four months, and to present to the world through a demo day. They’re typically infused with some level of seed investment, whether it’s $10,000 or $100,000, and surrounded by mentors who have “been there, done that” - grown organizations to $100 Million in revenue or even an IPO. It’s really about that mentor process.

Rick Turoczy:

I would say Portland is the land of misnomers. We call ourselves an incubator, we function as an accelerator half the time, so just call it PIE and ignore what the I actually stands for. The difference, for us, between incubators and accelerators is we feel that an incubator is a space that’s very protective of the company being formed. It’s still fledgling, still can’t really survive on its own, still doesn’t really understand who its potential customer might be, whereas an accelerator, to Brendan’s point, we feel that is real life.

There’s still some protective buffer there for the company, but it’s really designed to expose you faster to the real world and kind of stress-test whether your business, team, and concepts can actually survive in the real world.

Brendan Ciecko:

To add to that, historically the incubators have been set up to take a bunch of brilliant people, throw them together, and inject them with capital, to have them generate new ideas or new companies. The term “startup factory” and incubator have often been used interchangeably.

That brings us to our next point about incubators, accelerators, and coworking spaces - everybody’s doing it! All humor aside – we’re seeing more corporations, universities, and even governments launching incubators and accelerators to jump-start R&D and/or spin-up new ventures. A few weeks ago, the United States Air Force announced its accelerator program through a partnership with Techstars, and here in Portland, you’re home to the Jaguar Land Rover Tech Incubator.

There are over a thousand accelerators and business incubators around the world, but taking it to the museum context, the New Museum in New York City was the first museum to really latch onto this idea. I think many of the concepts paralleled their needs at the time as well as some of the interactions the museum leadership had with titans within the NYC tech, venture capital, and creative sectors to leverage these frameworks as a way of driving innovation and extending what a lot of contemporary art museums have today: a great interest in cultivating creative output, creative ideas, and places for new ideas. NEW INC refers to themselves “the first museum-led incubator” and then over in New Zealand, over at Te Papa, they have a full-blown seed accelerator called Mahuki. This was the first museum in the world, with support from corporate partners and the New Zealand government, to commit to supporting companies tens of thousands of dollars individually to solve some of their deepest problems using technology. The museum, in exchange, will have skin in the game through the form of equity in these companies – it’s been really interesting to see this unfold.

Rick, based on your interactions, do you see things like this happening in Portland? Do you see more of this happening across different sectors?

Rick Turoczy:

Absolutely. I think there are two distinct trends. One that’s positive and one that’s more negative. The negative one involves people recasting the existing activity as an incubator or an accelerator. You’ll see a large corporation R&D shop go, “Well, we’re not research and development anymore… we’re an incubator, or we’re an accelerator,” which is really just doing the same activity and putting a new name on it.

The stuff that is positive and really exciting is when people who are looking at these accelerator models, be it through programs like Techstars or taking these models and creating their own programs, taking and learning from the community because this is still relatively new. Even the most successful accelerators in the world are ten years old or so, they haven’t been doing it that long and a lot of them, I’d say Techstars and Y Combinator aside, are still trying to figure out the model that will work for them. I know. We wind up in that situation as well.

Here in Portland, Jaguar Land Rover is a great example. We have the North American headquarters for Daimler Trucks here in town as well. They built an accelerator focused on employees. They bring employees into a three-month cohort and give them a hot potato problem and say, “Go fix this.” There’s no political suicide in the “go fix this problem and figure it out” equation.

We’ve also had collaborations with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry across the river. We’ve had some collaborations around coworking space and incubators.

Brendan Ciecko:

I’ve been around the country and I’ve tasted a lot of delicious pie, but I have not tasted “PIE.” Tell us about PIE, your inception of the Portland Incubator Experiment.

Rick Turoczy:

PIE was originally a collaboration between the Portland startup community and a corporation called Wieden+Kennedy. You’ve likely encountered some of their work. They are things like Nike “Just do It,” they’re the Coca-Cola polar bears, the Old Spice guy, Colonel Sanders – they do big-brand advertising. People always ask: what was Wieden’s motivation to get involved with the startup community?

At the time, in 2008 or 2009, there weren’t a lot of startup people or people with significant tech acumen that were drawn to go to work for an advertising agency, yet Wieden was getting inbound interest from clients, both existing clients and new clients, that required that high technical expertise. PIE originally served as a think-tank coworking space for Wieden. They would be able to come to us, we were downstairs in their building, and hang out with the startup types, say, "Hey, how would you go about solving this problem?” Or, “We have this idea – is that viable or should we pursue a different path?” “Is there someone we can partner with?” It was really just a collaboration around models and businesses.

Brendan Ciecko:

Please expand upon this approach and PIE’s partnership with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI).

Rick Turoczy:

With OMSI, we saw that they had an available asset and we collaborated to activate that asset.  

They were renovating their IMAX theater and transitioning it from traditional to digital projection. As you visit OMSI, there’s this glassed-in area that we call the “fishbowl” now, but it was the projection unit. You could walk up, see how the projection unit worked and watch all the moving parts.

When they shifted to digital, they no longer needed the space for the projection unit, so they wanted to dedicate about 2,000 square feet of space and they were like, “We’re really interested in engaging with the startup community, but beyond events we don’t really have a way to do that.” We brainstormed about how we could get the startup community more engaged and that space really became the nexus of it. With that space we created a coworking space in collaboration with them, and then eventually a version of PIE called the Oregon Story Board, which works particularly on companies that are focused on digital storytelling; web designers, filmmakers, virtual reality, and augmented reality producers. These were all things that the museum was interested in from a communication standpoint, but they could, again, hang out, understand how the startups were approaching the problem, and look for opportunities for extended collaboration with the museum.

Brendan Ciecko:

This specific collaboration reminds me of what’s taking place at ACMI over in Australia right now. Similar to this, they had some growth and real estate needs. They needed additional office space, and in this process of growth they looked at ways to better leverage this asset and created a coworking environment, and demonstrated that they’re fully invested in this creative community, want to engage these audiences, and could benefit by having this community shoulder-to-shoulder, interacting with their staff in new ways. Did you see a lot of that take place?

Rick Turoczy:

Yes, we did. Just to define the term, coworking is basically a shared workspace, generally an open shared workspace for a variety of companies that wouldn’t otherwise be able to take out a lease on that space. It’s kind of like a shared lease space.

Brendan Ciecko:

Today, even large companies are starting to use coworking spaces to tap into this bubbling energy. And, for startups, let’s say one month you’re 50 people, and the next month you’re 80 people. To sign a several year lease on a commercial office space is daunting and costly, so coworking allows for a level of agility with physical space, and “plug-and-play” amenities.

Rick Turoczy:

We see a lot of that activity here in Portland where we’re experiencing a tremendous amount of growth around regional offices. Companies that are headquartered in the Bay Area or Seattle or New York City want a Portland presence because of our talent base and leverage coworking spaces for much of this.

Brendan, to get back to your question about collaborations with the museum, we did find very much the same behavior we observed at Wieden+Kennedy. Executives and staff from the museum would often take the chance to engage with the companies we had brought into the space to aid with brainstorming. It provided opportunities for deep exploration on both sides as it really pushed the museum’s creative boundaries as well as the startup’s.

Brendan Ciecko:

It reminds me of the Artist-in-Residence, Creative-in-Residence, or the Entrepreneur-in-Residence. Having an exceptional “outsider” practitioner in your space helps creativity and ideas permeate across departments and gives everyone early access to these ideas, which is hugely valuable.

Rick Turoczy:

Having the chance to engage in conversations with people who aren’t generally immersed in your field of expertise is super valuable. And especially from the tech perspective because the tech sector is notoriously guilty of being an echo chamber. My motivation was to get different perspectives for those people to hear and I’m confident the museum benefited from this.

Brendan Ciecko:

What do you think were some of the tangible and intangible benefits in addition to some of the things we just mentioned?

Rick Turoczy:

For tangible benefits, it was the few projects that were spurred – engagements of creative resources for the museum that they might have otherwise had a harder time coming across. They simply weren’t engaged with that community in that fashion. I think on an intangible basis, we saw the museum become more willing to risk on things and accept failure as an outcome. We’ve had example as simple as hosting startup events or participating in hackathons, and this all dovetailed really nicely with their initial engagement with Maker Faire. They were exploring a variety of tangents simultaneously which all fed off of one another.

Brendan Ciecko:

This all reinforces results of inspiration, new perspective, and off of what you mentioned, the idea of accepting failure. Failure has increasingly made its way, as far as a few years back, into the museum dialogue, not only at the technology conferences, but also at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) conferences to the point that directors are saying “fail fast, fail often, fail forward…” but “fail off Broadway.” This traditionally “startup” attitude towards failure is becoming an accepted part of leadership, and accepted part of growth and experimentation. Startups are often “building the bicycle while riding” or “building the parachute after jumping,” versus the ways of traditional institutions that have been around for a century.

Shifting gears, if we look at museums as “experience factories,” are there any opportunities to open these places, these venues, these communities up as a “sandbox” to entrepreneurs, technologists, hackers, and creatives to drum up new ideas? Beyond hackathons and bringing it back to these incubators and accelerators, Rich, what do you think? What does “MPIE” – Museum Portland Incubator Experiment look like?

Rick Turoczy:

There’s definitely an opportunity there. The challenge is, at least in my experience, that there are two things. One: I feel like many folks in the museum environment, whether intentionally or not, play more of a “landlord” role where there isn’t an interest to get engaged immediately. “We have space you can use.” As a Portland startup community, we’ve done a number of tech events in this very space right here (Portland Art Museum). We’ve hosted tech events over at OMSI, and that relationship works fine, but it’s a very transactional relationship. The challenge has been engaging the staff in a valuable and meaningful way and engaging the staff broadly.

Other challenges emerge when we’re dealing solely with executives and people higher up in the organization; this division might not be where the best ideas are coming from. Best ideas usually come from a diverse array of folks in the organization. One of our jobs is meeting folks where they are and trying to engage the full staff of the museum. We find that to be really effective, especially from a mentor standpoint. We’ve dealt with huge brands like Coca-Cola , Nike, and Google, as well as local corporations and corporations that provide mentors. Consistently, the challenge is helping people take off their “museum hat” or their “brand hat” and just be successful people expressing their opinions and guidance about ideas. Once we can crack that, then this all becomes a more authentic and realistic engagement and allows the museum staff to get a deeper conversation going with people outside their field, and can take a new perspective back to the organization.

Brendan Ciecko:

It’s definitely a tough nut to crack. Just speaking from my experiences in Boston, one of the great opportunities for cross-pollination that is starting to be explored is related to inviting leaders from innovation economy to join the museum’s Boards of Directors or Trustees. There has been proactive action taken by a few museum directors who see how the startup and tech sector is inventing the future, disrupting traditional models, achieving unimaginable success in doing so. In Boston, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, which is one of the oldest museums in the country solely dedicated to contemporary art, they have the cofounder of Android, and nearby, the deCordova has the support and braintrust of the cofounder of Brightcove and Managing Director of Sigma Prime Ventures - all titans of industry.

They’ve hosted events and panels to bring in the minds of the tech community so that there are interactions that the cultural community can benefit from, and vice-a-versa. Various initiatives have been driven by the inner passion that these individuals in tech have for culture and education, as well as the director leveraging this specific community. With museum audiences shifting, how do museums attract this audience and gain from their perspective and expertise?“

Rick Turoczy:

We’re starting to see some of that activity in Portland. We have project that we’ve been working on for a couple of years. While it doesn’t have a formal name, we refer to it as the Innovation Quadrant, but it is a project among OMSI, Portland State University, Portland Community College, and Portland Art Museum. It’s a variety of organizations that have typically served as independent cultural and educational institutions who are now trying to work together to help better provide the resources that startups and companies need to build upon.

It’s a balance between vision and execution. I think one of the challenges with any established organization is you get very much in the mode of thinking about big vision, distant future, and achieving those goals. What I’ve learned from the startup community is that most successful founders are equally visionary, and in reality, most everyone can be visionary. Wouldn’t it be great if this existed? Wouldn’t this be an idyllic presence if in five years from now we were able to accomplish X?

I think the best organizations and the best startups have this back-and-forth battle with themselves. That’s the greater vision. That’s where we want to go. But, this is what we’re doing today. This is what we’re doing in the next hour. This is what we’re doing before lunch. All to take the next step forward toward achieving that greater vision but not getting too wrapped up in that greater vision.

Brendan Ciecko:

Across leadership panels the topic of data has increased in popularity and priority. Even AAM has published a blog series suggesting that museums need to operate like “data startups,” ultimately becoming more data-driven in their processes. It looks like a bright future in the transfer of information and concepts between those two sectors.

It’s part of the proactive and Socratic search for new models, but with a healthy leaning towards ones that aren’t going to disrupt or completely flip things on their head: the appetite to learn from from sectors outside of your own. It’s a beautiful thing that is applicable to any sector. If you work in a museum, what can you learn from what’s being done in the entertainment industry, the music industry, or from the startup sector? And, if you work at a startup, what can you learn from what’s happening in museums, higher education, the sciences, or other spaces?

Did you attend MuseumNext 2017? What was your favorite part? Let us know!