- Troy Wolverton
Andy Rubin has a different take on how a startup incubator should operate.
This past week, while showing off the new Essential Phone, which a Playground company designed, Rubin talked about the philosophy behind the organization.
“Playground has a unique structure,” he said. “We’re a venture capital firm mashed up with a design studio.”
Incubators offer a large office space for many startups to share. They frequently provide entrepreneurs with funding and mentoring from experienced executives and founders. Often, they will also handle administrative functions like human resources tasks.
But Playground offers something different, Rubin said. In addition to offering startups cash and a place to work, it also provides them with a pool of engineers and access to a whole bunch of high-end prototyping and test equipment to help them develop their products.
Playground has some 60 engineers of its own, Rubin said, and they have expertise in a variety of areas, including hardware, software, and electrical engineering. When the incubator invests in a startup, the engineers work side-by-side with the startup’s employees.
“It’s an accelerant,” Rubin said. “It helps companies build their products faster.”
When startups launch out of Playground, the incubator’s engineers and designers who have been working with them may leave with them, he said. Eventually, those engineers may make their way back to the incubator.
“There’s a potential – we haven’t done this yet – but there’s a potential they can recycle back,” Rubin said. “And it just keeps happening and happening and happening.”
Essential, Playground’s consumer electronics startup, which just launched its smartphone, serves as a model for how the process can work. About 18 people developed the company’s core technology, Rubin said. Of those, a majority came from Playground.
In addition to engineers and designers, Playground also offers startups the chance to work with a collection of high-end equipment. Its lab is a kind of inventor’s paradise with 3D printers, computer-controlled laser cutters and milling machines, and a band saw.
It also has environmental chambers that can be used to subject devices to a variety of climatic conditions, high-speed and thermal imaging cameras, oscilloscopes and spectrum analyzers, and enterprise-grade camera testing equipment.
- Troy Wolverton
Because Playground has all that equipment in-house, its startups don’t have to buy or lease it on their own.
“That means a much more efficient use of capital when we invest in these companies,” Rubin said.
As for the types of companies Playground is looking to back, Rubin said it evaluates startups largely based on the expertise of its own engineers and executives. Like other tech investors, Playground scrutinizes startups’ founding teams, their technology and the market segments they’re pursuing, a process he called “pattern matching.” But the incubator also is looking for companies that are looking to fill the holes in the market that Playground’s own leaders perceive based on their own experience.
That’s a “different type of pattern matching that we’re uniquely qualified to look at,” he said.