As the coronavirus pandemic emerged in 2020, the Minnesota Twins assembled employees from various departments to address one question: how could the franchise expand its brand beyond baseball?
After contemplating several ideas, the group thought it would make sense to launch an accelerator program for startups, but it knew it did not have the available in-house expertise. That prompted the Twins to form a partnership with Techstars, an investment company that runs several accelerators each year across various industries.
On Thursday, the Twins and Techstars are announcing the 10 pre-seed and seed-stage companies chosen to participate in the accelerator. The 13-week program, now in its third year, begins next Monday (Nov. 6) and runs through Feb. 15 when the firms will make pitches in front of investors, executives and others at the Fillmore venue in Minneapolis.
“We have always striven to be an innovative team,” said Chris Iles, the Twins’ senior director of innovation and growth. “To bring yourself some credibility in the space you actually need to be investing in companies that you’re partnering with is the way that we see it. While we’ve always been involved in innovation, we saw this program as a way to take that ultimately to the next level and to make the Minnesota Twins name synonymous with sports, tech and innovation.”
Iles said the Twins are the second Major League Baseball franchise to have its own accelerator, following the Los Angeles Dodgers, which launched an accelerator in 2015.
Techstars, meanwhile, doesn’t have any other sports franchise-specific accelerators, but it does sponsor the Techstars Sports Accelerator, a 13-week program that takes place in Indianapolis. The Indiana Pacers, NCAA and Indiana Sports Corp. are among the founding partners of that program, which began in 2019.
Techstars is familiar with the Minneapolis market, as well. It previously had a retail accelerator with Minneapolis-based Target Corp. from 2016 to 2018, and it currently has an accelerator in Minneapolis known as Farm to Fork that’s focused on food and agricultural technology.
The Twins accelerator targets early-stage companies in the sports technology, media and live entertainment industries. This year’s cohort includes three companies from Minneapolis (Camperoni, Refr Sports and SportsVision) as well as three from outside the U.S.: Cup Carrier Media from Calgary; Lowr from London; and PandoPartner from Toronto.
The other four are GUDEA from Columbia, Md.; PromoShare from Chicago; Reifi from Miami; and the Playbook from Atlanta.
“We keep our thesis broad intentionally because we want to simply invest in the best companies regardless of what they’re doing,” Iles said. “I do want to be able to draw some tie to what they’re doing with the Twins. But there are cases where we have invested in companies that have very little strategic alignment with what we’re doing as a baseball club.”
Sarah Bain, managing director of the Minnesota Twins Accelerator by Techstars, said her team speaks each year with 1,000 to 1,200 companies that inquire about the program and that hundreds of startups apply.
During the accelerator, the 10 companies that are selected have dozens of meetings with Twins personnel and other executives, entrepreneurs and investors, learn about how to develop a company throughout its various stages and work on pitching their startups and their value-proposition.
“I firmly believe, no matter what stage a company is at, they have to be able to effectively tell their story, whether that’s to customers, to investors or to potential talent,” Bain said. “They have to be able to clearly get their point across and what it is that they’re trying to sell and what their business does.”
As part of the program, the Twins and Techstars provide the companies with a stipend to cover the cost of living and working in Minneapolis for the 13-week program. They also receive an equity stake in each of the startups.
The Pohlad family, which has owned the Twins since 1984, have been supportive of the accelerator and taken a long-term approach, according to Iles. The goal is for the program to benefit the franchise off the field financially and possibly carry over to the team itself.
“Venture (capital) is a very long tail endeavor,” Iles said. “We don’t expect to see returns on the companies that we’ve invested in for six to nine years. At that point, when we do start seeing those returns, it’s not a stretch to think that those returns could be used to help us fund player contracts, fund various on-field upgrades. That’s not really what exactly it’s intended to do. But it’s not a stretch to say that that could happen down the road.”