How to Get Started

You can read as many articles and books as you want about value propositions, product-market fit, business model design, blue oceans, and everything under the sun about startups, but at some point, you just need to get started.

That’s something that can only be learned by experience. As the saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Here are the very very first steps that some of our Accelerator ’20 founders took after coming up with their ideas.


We presented for Lean Launchpad and horribly failed because we didn’t understand the market. We did our work, and the initial judges of Lean Launchpad later became our first investors.

—William Steenbergen, Founder / CTO of Federato


We interviewed over 100 families to deeply understand their journey from when they decided they wanted to start a family, to pregnancy, and beyond.

We then dove deep into studies and literature to identify the drivers of poor outcomes and understand what interventions could be leveraged to address them.

Through this research and input from our mentors at Harvard, we identified the group model of care as a powerful tool for impacting health outcomes.

We then set up our first beta cohort in early 2020 with 3 expecting women and a provider. They met bi-weekly and messaged over a group chat we created for them.

These beta customers are still with us today, over 9 months later, and continue to see June as a resource to support them through the never ending questions & challenges of being a parent!

—Sophia Richter, Founder / COO of June


We used Google Forms quite a bit to experiment including whether or not individuals wanted to share notes in a 1-to-1 or group context. We collected nearly 5,000 notes via Google Forms before transitioning to a more functional prototype.

—Sohale Sizar, Founder / CEO of Illume


I called every person I knew that worked in data science to understand if they also had the problem. I tracked each of the calls in a spreadsheet and gathered notes. I also called people that were on the OTHER side of the equation (the data owners) to understand their frustrations with the process. The idea evolved quite a bit from these conversations, but it gave me real confidence that this was a ubiquitous issue in almost every company.

—Austin Osborne, Founder / CEO of Spotlight AI


Immediately after having the idea to create workflow-ready video conferencing, we built an initial version for use within our professional connection platform and in our team meetings. We were delighted to find that we genuinely enjoyed using our own platform much more than all other alternatives and realized that it had a potential far beyond what we’d initially thought.

—Martin Aguinis, Kamil Ali, and Josh Payne; Founders of AccessBell


We started building a website and speaking with early adopters.

—Robert Monaco, Founder / CEO of Exporta Technologies


We went to a freight event and stood up on stage to pitch it!

—King Alandy Dy, Founder / CEO of Expedock

Lookback: A History of Pear Demo Day

Sometimes the best ideas aren’t planned at all. They grow organically. That was how Pear Accelerator and Demo Day began.

In 2014, Mar and Pejman invited some talented Stanford engineers to hack in the Pear offices. They also offered their mentorship with no strings attached. That community of hackers became the first ever Pear Garage cohort, which continued into the summer by popular demand from the community.

During the summer, Mar and Pejman thought it might be helpful for the founders to practice presenting their ideas formally, so they decided to host an event and invite their network. 

“It wasn’t like a ‘Demo Day’ or anything else. We just thought it would be great to invite some of our friends to come and provide feedback,” says Pejman. 

So, 40-50 great investors from the likes of Sequoia and Accel crammed into the Pear offices to listen to seven founders pitch. 

“We had handwritten name tags and it was definitely not a sophisticated production with all the bells and whistles, but the teams were great and did their thing,” recalls Lily Johnson from the Pear Ops team. 

Those teams got the attention of TechCrunch however, which ended up publishing an article deeming the event “Silicon Valley’s Favorite New Demo Day.”

That was that. Pear now had a ‘Demo Day’. From then on the team decided to put one on every year, leading to the development of a formal Accelerator program. Demo Day moved into the more spacious Cooley offices. 

Pear Demo Day 2016

Still, Demo Day kept growing. And the Pear team’s visions alongside it.  

“The next year we needed a bigger space, so we were looking at different venues and we really wanted something to still have that Pear touch—not as sterile, or conference feeling. Pejman suddenly said, ‘What about Filoli?’” Lily remembers.

It was a dreamy idea. The historic Filoli Gardens are pristine and meticulously manicured, with 700 volunteers who landscape the entire 600 acres of gorgeous property. 

“I went to many Demo Days—you go and it’s very transactional. I thought, ‘What if we change the scenery, so you can have the same conversations in a nicer environment?’” says Pejman. 

But it was also a bit unorthodox for something like a tech Demo Day. The team wondered if it would confuse investors, or if they would even be able to find the venue, since it was a little farther out from the usual Demo Day locations in Mountain View. 

Ultimately, they decided to go for it. 

“Pear is a special type of VC firm, so I think it resonated with the brand, and it just worked with us and who our team was,” says Lily. 

Pear Demo Day 2017

With that, the big event planning and production process began—always an intensive project.

“It’s like a wedding times two or three, because there are just so many logistics that go into an event of this scale,” says Lily. “It’s such a whirlwind. I remember literally running from location to location.”

Pear Demo Day 2017

Since that first Demo Day in the garden, the event has just kept on growing and growing.

“Last year, we kept sending invites out, and then we started moving past 300 RSVP’s, which is the capacity of the auditorium. I’m starting to get nervous, like ‘Alright. What if everyone shows up?’—which never happens at an event, but in the case that it did, how were we going to fit everyone into this room?” Lily recalls. “Then we got to 600 RSVP’s and it kept climbing. So we were thinking of creative solutions. We ended up reaching out to this rental company and getting chairs that were more narrow, and we were able to fit 500 chairs and it was just an absolute miracle. I remember showing up the day of  and meeting with the equipment rental manager and we were literally going with a measuring tape across the room and just squeezing the chairs together. That was a classic.”

On top of the logistics of producing the event, there’s also the important job of supporting Accelerator founders to be on top of their game for the big day, with hours spent polishing slide decks and rehearsing pitches. 

Pear Demo Day 2017

All the hard work pays off when investors and founders gather to imagine the future together for a few hours. Plus, migrating to the massive lawn terrace from the conference room is always a showstopper.

“The garden, my God, the garden—everybody loves the garden!” Pejman laughs.

Indeed, with the beautiful garden environment, live band, hors d’oeuvres, minibar, and product demo booths, Pear Demo Day has become a righteous, glittering party over the years, far more than a mere networking event. 

“We try to keep it interactive and promote relationship building in a fun Pear-ish way,” says Lily. “The style of Demo Day is a nod to how Pejman has approached everything, where he was thinking, ‘I really want the networking afterparty to feel like an opportunity for people to chat and hang out. I want people to get to know each other, but still have a good time in the process.’”

Pear Demo Day 2018

At the end of the day, in spite of all the glitter, Demo Day is really about something quite simple — getting to celebrate the hard work of Accelerator founders.

“As corny as this sounds, it is always one of my favorite moments: where you just high-five each other and you’re like, ‘Damn, we did it—YES!’” says Lily.

While we won’t be gathering in the gardens this year, that is the spirit of Pear Demo Day that will never change.

How Biotech Company Xilis Successfully Fundraised and Commercialized Their Technology

This case study is about Pear portfolio company, Xilis, founded by David Hsu and Xiling Shen.

Using academic research to help patients
Go commercial, or continue academically?
Pitching a technical product to investors
What’s ahead for Xilis

Using academic research to help patients and make a real impact

Xiling Shen still remembers the moment he bumped into David Hsu in the hallway at Duke University during his first job interview. The two chatted only briefly, but David made an impression. Later, David formally interviewed Xiling for his second interview, and the two discovered that they shared many research interests. 

“I just remember…sometimes, you just feel like it’s love at first sight,” Xiling jokes. 

“As an academic junior faculty, you’re focused on publishing papers. But when I was talking to David, he asked ‘How do you think about how to help patients?’ and that suddenly opened a door—that’s where you really make an impact. 10 or 20 years down the road, do you really want to be remembered for how you published this many papers that probably no one reads anymore?”

The conversation also convinced Xiling that he had to move down to Duke. There, he and David worked together over the next three years. They focused on the big question of how to use patient-derived models of cancer as a potential diagnostic tool. 

Patient-derived models of cancer are created by growing small versions of tumors taken from tissue donated by patients.

“Patient-derived models of cancer are great for research or discovering new tools for discovering new drugs. The problem is, they’re not very useful in a clinical setting,” says David. “The main reason is that a lot of these models take too long to make, so I can never use them in real time to guide patient care. I don’t have time to grow these models to do all this testing.” 

That was where Xiling fit in, with his biomedical engineering research and expertise in organoid formation. The two developed “micro-organosphere technology,” a microfluidic-based method of growing miniature organoids. David saw that this new technology had the potential to be used as a diagnostic assay in real time to guide patient care.

“I’d been doing patient-derived models of cancer for a decade, and until we started making these droplet organoids, I never felt that there was going to be a patient-derived model of cancer that I could potentially use clinically as a diagnostic tool,” says David. “I’ve worked with cell lines, regular organoids, patient-derived xenographs. Because of the limitations, they were never going to be able to be used from a clinical perspective, and there’s plenty of companies who have tried and it’s been very difficult. 

Go commercial, or continue academically? How to evaluate and make the decision

With the discovery, David and Xiling faced two options: continue researching academically, or try to create a company around their new technology. The two ultimately decided that they could develop the technology faster by commercializing. 

“When you work in an academic lab, sometimes there isn’t that urgency. When we’re running the lab, we have 20 other projects to do—so, sometimes we lose our focus because we go on other tangents, depending on what piques our interest,” says Xiling. “From a company standpoint, you have to meet deadlines, you have timelines.” 

Understanding which path is right to pursue requires understanding the differences in the two “worlds”. Academia is a publication-focused model of research, thus novelty is more important, and it’s okay if the research works, say, 70-90% of the time, as long as it produces groundbreaking knowledge. 

For research that is intended to be commercialized, the technology obviously needs to work 100% of the time and meet market needs. There is heavy emphasis on quality control and product development, which often cannot be done in academia. Moreover, these are not the typical kinds of projects that graduate students pursuing publication will want to work on anyway. 

Xiling often warns junior students and postdocs eager to pursue entrepreneurship not to go out to investors prematurely, when a technology is not ready for commercialization. As with starting any company, the fundamental proof of concept needs to be complete before raising any funding. You need to collect feedback to shape and focus your technical idea and effort.

“The typical mistake is you develop a product for an imaginary customer, or you develop something where there’s no path into the clinic because of the regulatory or reimbursement reasons,” says Xiling.

Students can also be tempted to start a company around a solution they’ve discovered that is only an incremental improvement.

“People think, ‘Hey I can do this 30% better.’ But, you’re not going to replace the existing product for doing 30% better,” Xiling says. 

It is also important to realize that technology development is only a small part of getting a company to succeed. 

“70% is about all the other things—operating, marketing, sales, BD…” says Xiling. 

Academics can also underestimate the importance of management in building a successful company. 

“You don’t become a professor because you are good at managing, but that’s very important. Managing talent and managing companies is certainly a lot different from managing an academic group,” says Xiling. 

David and Xiling have found success by hiring the right people.

“Getting the right people dedicated to tasks where they can play to their strengths—I think that’s the most important thing,” says Xiling. 

Pitching a technical product to investors

Mar and Nils asked Xiling and David if they might be interested in pitching their product at Pear Demo Day — a week and a half before the day. 

“I remember we ordered the t-shirts,” Xiling laughs. “And we came up with the name, Xilis, not because I’m ego-centric, but David was just like, ‘Oh that looks good.’ The other option was like ‘Davis’ — David’s name with my name.”

At first, David and Xiling were resistant to practicing their pitch, despite Mar and Nils offering to help.

“We had a little arrogance, because you know, we’re faculty. That’s our job, presenting thoughts to an audience, and we love it,” Xiling said.

“Nils wanted us to practice all the time, but we were like, ‘We don’t have time to do this thing,’” David laughs.

In the end, the two admit that the practice was quite helpful. 

“Even if you’ve been presenting for such a long time, you’re talking to your peers. It’s very different to talk to a lay audience and really get them to understand why this thing is important—which was so self-evident to us,” says Xiling. 

The practice also showed in the results. Prior to Demo Day, Mar had already introduced Xiling to a few VC’s, but the conversations had not gone anywhere. After the presentation, investor interest flooded in within 9 days. Xiling and David flew back out to the Bay Area on a Thursday night and returned to Duke on Monday with term sheets in hand. 

“Pear provided an opportunity to hammer out 80% of the questions we got from investors,” says Xiling. “No matter how much you prepare or think about something, nothing can replace getting real-time feedback.”

Through practicing with Mar and Nils, and then through the real live experience of meeting with different investors. David and Xiling were able to continuously refine their pitch and understand the common themes of what investors cared about and how to communicate effectively with them.

The first important learning: explain your product as clearly as possible with crisp messaging.

“Since we’re in the field, why the technology is important is very self-evident to us. We wouldn’t normally spend so much time explaining that in academic presentations,” says Xiling. “But to the lay audience, you have to be mindful of any jargon coming out of your mouth, and you have to make it clear.”

The second important learning: have an explicit explanation of your go-to-market strategy.

Academic founders have often thought very deeply about their technology, but haven’t spent as much time thinking about their exact customers and how they will go about gathering them.

“For us, we were thinking, ‘This is helping patients,’ and that’s what we had always thought about. But for investors, they’re asking, what is your plan? What’s the first product? What’s a second product? Who do you have as customers? What’s the timeline? It has to be very spelled out, the exact steps and how much investment you need,” says Xiling. “We were not even thinking about a lot of those questions. But thinking back, those answers could definitely have been better thought out or better spelled out, more deliberate.” 

Xiling also recommends really thinking through what kind of company you are building. 

“I think in general, there are two types. One is the transformative, paradigm shifting type—high risk, higher reward. The second is more incremental, but you have a faster go-to market and could potentially be profitable as a private company,” says Xiling.

“For VC, especially Silicon Valley VC’s, they want the first type of the company—they’re going out to make 100x returns. So, kinda understanding what the investor is looking for and going after the right type of investors is important.”

Finally, it’s absolutely critical to have the right team. 

“At the end of the day, it’s about the execution. Do you have a good balance of leading technical people, but also experienced business people? You want to have a team that has the right business experience in the intended market, so that investors feel the investment is more de-risked. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge for most academic teams. It’s often the piece that would increase their attractiveness significantly.” 

What’s ahead for Xilis

Xilis is currently focusing on conducting clinical trials and in talks with big pharmaceutical companies, as well as getting on the path to becoming CRIA certified. 

And like any startup, team building is an ongoing process.

“We are kind of a unique company in terms of being very interdisciplinary. Engineering, biology, clinical, and of course then adding business people, software, hardware… so we’re really focused on building a team that has complementary skills. Right now, the next hiring priority is continuing to hire the right business expertise.”