Excelerate Labs: Will it Accelerate Deal Flow in Chicago?

Sometimes you can’t get too much of a good thing. So believes serial entrepreneur Sam Yagan, who is right now organizing a new, 13-week, Chicago-based training camp a la TechStars for high-tech entrepreneurs that’s modeled after the Boulder, Colorado program. Called Excelerate Labs, applications for its program, which will award between 5 and 10 startups as much as $20,000 in seed capital, are being accepted through April 2.

“We’re treating this as much as a venture fund as we are a community activity,” says Yagan, who co-founded the file-sharing service eDonkey in 2002 and the online dating site OkCupid in 2003. “We want the investments to be good. We also want to make a contribution to the city.”

Judging the startups will be a four-member board that includes include Yagan; Chicago entrepreneur-turned-VC Michael Ferro (he founded Click Commerce), serial entrepreneur Troy Henikoff (currently CEO of OneWed.com); and a representative from the early-stage venture fund and incubator Sandbox Industries, which along with the Illinois Innovation Accelerator Fund has also invested in Excelerate Labs.

Yagan, a Chicago native who right now lives in New York, says that Excelerate has raised a little more than $200,000 to get it through this first summer, which he calls a “beta.”

Already the program, in which startups will work out of shared office space, has lined up a meaningful number of mentors from around the country, including VCs from Trinity Ventures, August Capital, General Catalyst Partners and Point Judith Capital. Also involved is a “who’s who of Chicago” VCs and entrepreneurs, says Yagan, including Ferro and OpenTable founder Chuck Templeton.

So far, half the applications have come from Chicago-area startups but teams from around the world are encouraged to apply. (Indeed, Yagan recently received applications from as far away as Europe and China.)

Asked why Yagan thinks now is the right time for Chicago to host a program like Excelerate, Yagan says that it boils down to “engaging the community.”

“I’ve lived in New York, San Francisco, other hubs of the Web, but there’s a feeling of camaraderie in Chicago unlike anywhere else I’ve lived,” he says. He’s hoping Excelerate cements that feeling further still.

Excelerate begins the first week of June and goes until Labor Day. Soon after, the program will host a demo day for what Yagan anticipates will be more than 100 accredited investors.

“There are enough incubators going on that we don’t need to reinvent concept,” says Yagan. “Give smart companies some room, a little money and a lot of advice. It’s a recipe that works.”