IVCA Profile: Neal Sáles-Griffin, Managing Director of TechStars Chicago, on the Class of 2022

June 22, 2022

One of the most successful accelerator and founder facilitation programs in Chicago is Techstars, an annual mentorship course that allows entrepreneurs, start-ups and companies to participate in a 13-week forum that teaches them how to improve and execute their business ideas. The program culminates in Demo Day – where the Techstars participants will pitch their concepts and businesses to the investor community. Demo Day 2022 will take place on September 1st, after completion of the program that will convene during the summer.
Techstars is based in Boulder, Colorado, and has a global footprint. The Chicago branch began locally as Excelerate Labs – which was the brainchild of Sandbox Industries, the I2A Fund, Sam Yagan (OK Cupid, Sparknotes) and Troy Henikoff – before it merged with Techstars in 2013. Troy Henikoff was the primary Managing Director until Logan LaHive took the reins in 2017.
Neal Sáles-Griffin, an associate in Venture Capital and a Chicago founder, was named Managing Director of Techstars in July of 2019. Sáles-Griffin also ran for Mayor of Chicago in 2018. For the list of the Class of 2022, click here.
In a comprehensive interview, Neal Sáles-Griffin spoke to the IVCA about his expectations as for the Class of 2022.
IVCA: On June 6th you announced the 2022 Class of Techstars Chicago. What do you think characterizes both the applications you received and the eventual dozen companies and start ups you have decided to mentor?
Neal Sáles-Griffin: They are real businesses. Real businesses that have the potential to generate real revenue and add real value. We don’t have Founders that are trying to fundraise their way out of their problems, our Class are all focused on figuring out product and service, in addition to their market and business as soon as possible, and they are obsessed with customer service and discovery. That’s what we’re doing in the bullpen right now.
IVCA: One the major changes in 2022 is the two tiered TechStars with J.P. Morgan becoming a contributor to one of those tiers … explain the difference between what you are currently doing … the regular Techstars that people are familiar with, and the second tier with the J.P. Morgan involvement.
Sáles-Griffin: They are both equal when it comes to program, quality and intention. The only difference with the J.P. Morgan support is that we have more resources and the opportunity to invest in more investments and companies year to year. Also, there is an explicit focus on making sure we have as many diverse entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds as possible.
That’s J.P. Morgan’s commitment, that is Techstars Chicago commitment, and Morgan stepped up to engage their network to provide the means for us to put together a collective fund to invest in another 400 companies in the next three years. It’s an unprecedented partnership, and we couldn’t be more excited about it.
IVCA: What did you learn during the pandemic era with Techstars that you were able to implement in the TechStars that emerged in 2022?
Sáles-Griffin: The main thing we learned in last couple of years is that there is a ton of opportunity to provide a larger scale in access and participation within the program while doing it remotely, regardless where a Founder is anywhere in the world. So we invested in companies and founders that would not otherwise be able to physically relocate themselves for the three months uninterrupted like we used to do traditionally.
So now we have hybrid offerings and the traditional in person. In-person offerings will be as comprehensive as they always have been, but the hybrid offerings will include only a partial in-person participation … most likely the first and last weeks of the program, when they have to be on site for initial meetings and Demo Day. It’s a pretty cool way we’ve learned to run our programs seamlessly while still providing a quality of scale and flexibility.
IVCA: I see health and food as five of your companies in the Techstars class. Why, in your observation, has food emerged as the next wave of innovation?
Sáles-Griffin: Well, if you know Chicago this is a place where people eat, and know how to eat well. So we have businesses solving food at many points of the spectrum, like Meal Village – a service for Senior Citizens –  who are trying to move their concept beyond Chicago and Illinois.
At the same time we have another group called Zest, who are focusing on Gen Z, young people who are interested in learning how to cook and becoming more effective at it. They’ve done some amazing work on Tik Tok, Instagram and other social media … getting tens of millions of views. We’re working on turning those views into dollars.
IVCA: Currently, we are going through a wave of commitment-to-run candidates for Chicago Mayor. Since you have the experience of running, what can you tell us about the motivation to run?
Sáles-Griffin: I’m glad you asked. The most important thing that has to happen right now is the people of Chicago need to focus not on the person but to their positions and platform. And if there is one thing I learned when I hit the campaign trail back in 2017 and ’18, there are a lot of Chicagoans who are disconnected from how important that the decisions Mayors and other office holders make to influence our daily lives, and more importantly that it can make a significant difference.

So part of my commitment right now is not necessarily telling folks who to go with or support, but focusing more on unpacking and unravelling what their platforms mean, what these policies and positions will actually do to change your life, affecting your bottom line and your comfort level in the city  … and your willingness to stay here. Because at the end of the day that is what matters most.
IVCA: What kept you out of the race so far this time around?
Sáles-Griffin: I’ve got some moves behind the scenes and right now I’m enjoying my role as an investor, specifically to grow Chicago’s tech ecosystem, because that means more jobs, more people who will be comfortable here, and in turn want to stay here and live meaningly lives. I’ve got my priorities straight, and I can wait to weigh in more significantly, to allow people to understand what they are signing up for in regard to individual candidates.
IVCA: Finally, what is your pitch to the Venture Capital and even Private Equity community about TechStars 2022, in anticipation of both the second tier of the J.P Morgan program AND your Demo Day on September 1st?
Sáles-Griffin: We have more Chicago/local businesses – nine out of the 12 – in this class than I think I’ve ever worked with before. That’s pretty exciting, and if you’re already here you’ll have a chance to meet these entrepreneurs in the next three months, leading up to the September 1st Demo Day. And in the Fall, we’ll be running the next accelerator with J.P. Morgan’s support. If you have any questions or suggestions, contact me at neal@TechStars.com .
The Demo Day that culminates the TechStars Chicago program will be on September 1st, 2022, time and place TBD. For more information about TechStars Chicago, click here.

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