KANSAS CITY -- Sprint's new Accelerator in Kansas City, Missouri, is not your typical telco endeavor.
For one thing, the idea for it was formed in March of last year and approved by Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) higher-ups in May. A partner was secured in August. Ground was broken in October, and it opened its doors on New Year's Eve. That's not telco time. It's startup time, says Kevin McGinnis, VP of Sprint's Pinsight Media+ by day and head of the Accelerator by nights and weekends.
That's exactly the mindset Sprint wants to promote in its new Accelerator. That's also why the lab was opened in downtown Kansas City, away from Sprint's suburban headquarters, in the much hipper Crossroads art district. Light Reading checked out the new digs this week, before the doors officially open in March. Click on the image below to see inside.
Like most of the wireless operators, Sprint has actually had a developer program in place for 12 years and has been working on exposing its application programming interfaces (APIs) for nearly as long. But the Accelerator is Sprint's first large-scale move to put its money where its mouth is. The wireless operator is doing things differently than its larger competitors, too.
McGinnis says that, unlike Verizon Wireless , which treats its Innovation Labs like internal R&D facilities, or AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), which he says is more open, but on an invite-only basis, Sprint wants to be truly open -- to any startup and any idea, whether enterprise or consumer. (See AT&T Opens New Innovation Labs and Photos: Inside Verizon's Developer Playground.)
Healthcare in focus
The carrier is actually narrowing it down much more than that. The Sprint Accelerator was built in partnership with TechStars, an entrepreneurial organization that provides mentorship and VC funding to startups across the country and in London. It runs its own accelerator programs, as well as partners with companies including Disney, Barclays, Sprint, and others for accelerators with a unique focus, like cloud, connected devices, or education. Its collaboration with Sprint is homing in on healthcare, a vertical in which Kansas City is well entrenched as the home to companies such as Cerner and KU Medical Center.
During the open application period that ended on January 6, startups across the globe pitched their health-care related apps, services, and products. Sprint plans to pick 10 finalists to move to KC for 90 days and execute their visions with the support of Sprint, TechStars, and their many local partners. In return, TechStars gets a six percent stake in their company, and Sprint will offer a convertible note to fund the company.
The goal for Sprint is to bring innovative new services to its healthcare practice, which McGinnis said currently under-indexes, compared to AT&T and Verizon. It also wants to find new partners ultimately or, he admitted, find attractive companies to acquire, seeing that new Sprint owner and SoftBank Corp. CEO Masayoshi Son has a predilection for M&A. (See AT&T Opens Up on Health and Report: SoftBank Preps $19B Bid for T-Mobile.)
"At the Accelerator, if we don't end up doing business with [the startups], Sprint won't be upset," McGinnis said, adding that it's more likely than not that Sprint will work with the startups in some capacity.
Sprint's other hope is to convince these innovative new companies to stay in Kansas City once their 90 days are up, thus building the entrepreneurial community in the city. (However, whether Sprint's headquarters stay in KC is another story entirely -- see Sprint: Heading to California?)
An even loftier goal at which McGinnis is aiming is to change the culture at Sprint by exposing it to risk-taking and operating without a safety net. Indeed, this is the message that Son has pushed on his new employees, even yelling at top-level executives when he's seen things he doesn't like. (See SoftBank's Son Keeps Sprint on Short Leash.)
The carrier certainly does have its hands full in trying to build out its patchwork Spark network, to complete Network Vision, to keep customers from straying, and to weigh a merger with T-Mobile US Inc. Despite these formidable challenges, the Sprint Accelerator is its biggest indication that it's not giving up on innovation in the meantime.
"We want to expand this nationally, but we are focused on natural, organic growth," McGinnis said. "We want to show how you operate as an entrepreneur. We want to change the DNA at Sprint."
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading