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McClatchy-Tribune  06/19/2014 12:01 AM ET
American Family Insurance, Microsoft partner to boost home automation startups [The Wisconsin State Journal :: ]

June 19--Fledgling companies with good ideas for using technology to make homes safer and more connected could get help finding their feet through a new mentoring program developed and publicly announced this week by American Family Insurance and Microsoft.

Described as a business accelerator for startups focused on home automation, the first-of-its-kind program will take place from August through December at Microsoft's corporate campus in Redmond, Wash. It will provide the selected companies with something like a crash course in networking and resource-sharing, with industry experts providing market data, business advice and introductions to investors and potential customers.

Known as the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator, it was unveiled Tuesday at the tech giant's Global Startup Day in San Francisco, with venture capital staff from Madison-based American Family, ranked the eighth-largest homeowners insurer in the U.S., onsite for the event.

"We are focused on helping early stage companies bring new products and services to market that can make our policyholders' homes and lives safer," said Dan Reed, managing director of American Family Ventures, a direct venture capital arm of American Family that invests in emerging technology companies.

Home automation involves "smart" devices programmed to complete certain beneficial actions under a given set of circumstances, Reed said.

A home security system set up to automatically call the fire department and blink a home's front porch light when the smoke alarms go off is one example of the kind of new technology that could be developed by startups in the program, Reed said. Another might be an alarm system that works with a homeowner's home entertainment system so that a stereo could play loud music if someone enters the house through a window.

"There are a lot of companies in this space, and there are a ton of possible applications," Reed said in a phone interview. "We think it's the next wave of innovation within the insurance industry, and we're interested in exploring new ways that people are engaging with technology. It's definitely a developing market."

Per the partnership, American Family will offer an optional minimum $25,000 equity investment to each participating startup, along with deep industry data and a "wealth of homeowner knowledge" to try to help the new technology companies succeed, Reed said, while Microsoft provides the workspace and additional mentoring and investor/customer introductions.

Startups interested in participating in the program can apply now at www.microsoftventures.com.

"Home automation is ripe for startup innovation," Microsoft vice president Steve Guggenheimer said in a news release. "We are working closely with American Family Insurance to provide a one-of-a-kind experience for entrepreneurs. Startups accepted into the program will gain critical industry insight to build companies with the potential to have an enormous impact on our lives."

Microsoft already runs startup accelerators in Bangalore, Beijing, London, Paris and Tel Aviv, but the program with American Family is the first one based in the U.S., the first one operated with a partner and the first to be aimed specifically at home automation startups, Reed said. Microsoft's international accelerators are open to all types of promising startups.

 

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