In 2015, Simardev Gulati and his business partner Bradley Feinstein needed help getting their fledgling hydrophobic textile company off the ground.
A year later the duo had a flourishing business called Dropel Fabrics, which infuses cotton fibers through nanotechnology to develop fabrics that are water, stain and odor repellent. It came to fruition largely through the support of the New York Fashion Tech Lab (NYFT Lab) program, and Gulati said if he hadn’t participated in the accelerator, Dropel would never exist.
Aspiring fashion brands have become the latest incubator beneficiaries, participating in programs traditionally designed for Silicon Valley tech startups that provide resources and mentorship from corporate sponsors. While these programs aid nascent businesses, the growing number of them can make it difficult for entrepreneurs to determine which programs are valuable.
Despite appearances, brands aren’t launching these ventures out of the kindness of their hearts. For legacy companies, investing in startups often means access to new technology, innovative strategies and fresh ways of thinking. Companies like Visa have dabbled in incubators as a way to tap tastemakers and glean the cultural currency of influencers into their business models.
Last month, TopShop announced a wearable technology fashion accelerator called Top Pitch. Top Pitch is funded by L Marks and according to Business Insider is “the latest in a long line of startup accelerators that have been set up by older companies that are keen to stay relevant.” Among them is Cadillac, which also announced a partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America last month.
Asos joined the fray just last week, announcing its own program in collaboration with Wayra UK, part of the telecommunication company Telefonica. The program complements Asos Ventures, the company’s corporate venture arm, and is designed to identify innovative startups catered to the company’s 11 million customers and 80,000 products.
Asos CIO Cliff Cohen said that the Asos program differentiates itself from the slew of other programs by allowing a longer, more concentrated incubation period.
“Compared to most other fashion tech accelerator and incubator programs, the eight-month period is substantial given that throughout the program, start-ups undergo intensive training and mentoring from coaches-in-residence,” Cohen said.
Cohen added that it will provide direct investment to a select number of startups and access to services and office space at Wayra UK in London.
“We’re looking for more than ideas on paper,” Cohen said regarding companies Asos plans to select. “We want ‘scale ups’ – those businesses that have at least a beta version of a product or service, early-stage investment, clients, and are generating revenue.”
NYFT Lab runs a three-month accelerator program which operates similarly to Asos. However, because it is a nonprofit, it does not invest or take equity stakes, which is “much more favorable to the entrepreneur” said Jackie Trebilcock, managing director of NYFT Lab.
“At the end of the day, it’s business development, it’s resources, it’s access. That’s what we’re really doing for them,” she said.
NYFT Lab involves its retail partners —including LVMH, Ralph Lauren, J. Crew and Estee Lauder, among others —from the onset, collaborating to choose teams which must be “beyond ideation, fully formed and market ready” and providing guidance along the way.
Gulati said Dropel was an “anomaly” in the sense that it wasn’t as firmly grounded as many of its peer companies, which he felt ultimately helped them rise to success. Despite a seemingly saturated accelerator market, he lauded NYFTL for its fashion-forward focus.
“There are so many tech incubators and accelerators when you think about Silicon Valley,” he said. “But when you think about fashion, there are not that many in comparison to other industries. It’s great for the industry, and for a business that’s been very traditional in so many ways.”
While some may be skeptical of corporate oversight, Gultai added that the mutually beneficial nature of the programs draws participants on both sides of the aisle.
“The thing that I’ve noticed with corporations is they more really slow — lots of red tape and a lot of bureaucracy,” he said. “With startups you can run fast, and [accelerators allow] for collaboration and innovation where it has mutual benefit.”
As the programs continue to rise, Treblicock encouraged entrepreneurs to be diligent about finding a program that best fits with their vision.
“Every day I read about another [startup program]. There are a lot of resources for the entrepreneur, ” Treblicock said. “It’s about finding out which field is best for them and evaluating which program or programs is best during the course of their entire journey. ”
Rebecca Robins, director at Interbrand, echoed Treblicock and said that as brands are looking to participate in venture programs, they should focus on identifying with organizations that adhere to their company goals and mantras.
“Platforms and partnerships are crucial to the evolution of all brands, so it’s no surprise how prevalent they are,” Rollins said. “What is vital is that brands to look to the central organizing principle of their brand to inform their decisions on strategic collaborations and partnerships.”