Accelerators McNair Center Startup Ecosystems

Social Capital Wins over Financial and Human Capital

Entrepreneurship can spur economic growth and job creation. As a result, state and local governments are seeking ways to establish entrepreneurial ecosystems. One way to strengthen an ecosystem is to increase its social capital. Social capital is the networks of relationships among people who work in a particular field.

Lack of social capital is among the top reasons that nine out of ten startups fail. Money and skills are not enough for success in entrepreneurship. Aspiring entrepreneurs also need social capital, which along with financial and human capital, is essential to grow a business.

Human, Financial and Social Capital

It is useful to differentiate between human, financial and social capital. Human capital comprises the knowledge and skill sets that enable people to successfully create new enterprises (Davidsson and Honig 2003; Snell and Dean 1992). Financial capital is the funding needed to get a business off the ground, sustain growth and develop operations.

Human capital is further classified into general and specific capital. General capital is associated with education, which provides the knowledge and the skills to solve problems. Specific human capital refers to the know-how for entrepreneurial activities, which has few applications outside of this context (Becker 1975; Gimeno et al. 1997). An example of specific human capital is the previous startup experience demonstrated by serial entrepreneurs.

Financial capital is key for early-stage startups to fund their ventures. Personal funding, debt, equity, crowdfunding and grants are among the funding sources available for entrepreneurs.

In entrepreneurship, social capital refers to all the interpersonal and interorganizational relationships through which entrepreneurs have access to the resources needed to discover and exploit business opportunities and succeed (Davidsson and Honig 2003; Wiklund and Shepherd 2008).

Social capital is, in simple terms, equivalent to individual and community networks. Networks can have strong or weak ties. Strong ties occur between people or firms with a family, working or professional history. Through these ties, people tend to develop high levels of trust, and therefore, are willing to share more detailed information and are more apt to collaborate. Weak ties occur between people or firms working within different contexts or economic clusters where contact is sporadic. These ties provide access to new information and new contacts outside of existing networks.

Figure 1 illustrates the relationship between the three kinds of capital.

Source: Patricia H. Thornton

Why Is Social Capital the Key to Entrepreneurship?

The obstacles entrepreneurs encountered due to a lack of knowledge or skill and a lack of funding can be solved through social capital. Networks connect entrepreneurs to the right people who will provide information, collaboration and partnerships as well as access to financial resources.

Entrepreneurs with higher social capital have greater chances of getting funding for their ventures.

Fried and Hisrich (1994) noted that since investors receive multiple funding requests, social connections play a significant role in determining the allocation of capital. The findings show investors tend to finance the entrepreneurs and ventures they have heard about as part of their network.

Based on a study of 202 venture capitalists in the priming phase, Shane and Cable (2002) observed that direct and indirect links between entrepreneurs and investors have a positive impact on the selection of projects financed. Shane and Stuart (2002) also noted that social capital of company founders represents an important endowment for early-stage organizations.

Social capital can also increase the human capital of a venture since the network can further advance innovation by merging ideas from different individuals. Investment in social relationships leads to the creation of socially embedded resources that can be mobilized by individuals (Lin 1999). Assuming that the social resources of entrepreneurs are more important than the possession of personal resources, social capital assists in achieving financial and human capital objectives that would be otherwise difficult to obtain (Lin 1999).

Social Capital in Nascent versus Mature Ecosystems

The genesis of startup communities is fueled by entrepreneurs’ individual attributes, their human capital. A high-impact startup can find traditional financing, such as personal funds, loans or investment by friends and family, yet social capital may remain as a challenge. Startups founded in regions with poor infrastructure lack the agglomeration needed to transition their ideas into successful companies.

In the absence of a cohesive startup network, incubators and accelerators can serve as a substitute for entrepreneurs from regions with less social capital. Local stakeholders who sponsor and support these programs have an interest in strengthening entrepreneurship in their communities.

The presence of accelerators or incubators can bring the community together as a destination for entrepreneurship and bolster local social capital. A study by the University of South Wales notes accelerators’ direct impact on entrepreneurial skills for the start-ups supported by accelerators and their positive indirect impact on the broader ecosystem. Acs (2001) recognized that entrepreneurship can be more challenging in underdeveloped areas, given their remoteness, which limits their access to skilled labor, technology, capital and networks. The alliances built by accelerators and incubators are the strongest assets in ensuring sustainability and building an ecosystem.

Cities with mature ecosystems reflect strong social capital, which plays a major role in fostering entrepreneurship. Kwon et al. (2013) sees a community’s social context as a public good. In high-social capital communities, entrepreneurs are able to take advantage of high levels of community trust and well-being, as well as more robust social networks. Individuals who feel support from cohesive communities will experiment with innovative ideas.


Social capital theory explains the value of networks as an integral part of a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem. Entrepreneurs need to increase social capital to increase funding and improve the human capital in their ventures.

As ecosystem actors come together to strengthen startup culture, communities should foster social capital through strong and weak ties. The Harvard Kennedy School’s Social Capital Building Toolkit is a valuable tool for understanding and creating social networks.

Accelerators McNair Center

MassChallenge: Connecting Startups and Big Business

Corporations and startups are moving toward early stage interactions. MassChallenge, a highly successful nonprofit accelerator, has been connecting corporations and startups since its 2010  launch in Boston. MC has several US and international locations, which accelerated 372 startups in 2016.

MC delivers positive results and has been listed among the Best Startup Accelerators by the Seed Accelerator Rankings Project, led by Baker Institute Rice faculty scholar Yael Hochberg.  There are over 1,000 MC alumni, who have collectively raised more than $1.8B in outside funding, generated $700M in revenue and created over 60,000 jobs. According to a 2016 MIT study, MC startups are 2.5 times more likely than non-MC startups to hire at least 15 employees and three times more likely to raise $500,000 in funding.

With seven years of history, notable MC alumni includes Ginkgo Bioworks, which designs custom microbes to produce chemicals, ingredients and industrial enzymes. As a startup, Gingko Bioworks raised $154M in funding and signed a deal for 700 million base pairs of designed DNA — the largest such agreement ever made — with Twist Bioscience. Other remarkable graduates of the program include Ksplice, Turo, Sproxil and LiquiGlide.

An Attractive Alternative for Startups

MC is similar to other startup institutions such as Techstars and Y-Combinator. However, the nonprofit differentiates itself by not taking equity. Entrants to the accelerator must be early stage startups, defined as companies with no more than $500K of investment and $1M in annual revenue. As part of the four-month program, selected startups receive mentoring, co-working space, access to a network of corporate partners, tailored workshops and the chance to win a portion of $2M in zero-equity funding. Additional prizes are provided by partners such as The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and Microsoft’s New England Research and Development Center.

For entrepreneurs in regions with mature ecosystems like Silicon Valley and Boston, MC is one option among an array of accelerators and informal networks. This  density of resources is called  agglomeration, a geographic concentration of interconnected entities increases interactions and the productivity. The MIT study suggests MC acts as a complement to the prior advantages of startups in established ecosystems by providing key resources and access to social capital  and also found evidence that startups founded in regions with higher access to early stage investors had on average higher quality ideas, but that their chances of success were not higher conditional on the quality of their idea.

For startups in nascent ecosystems the resources provided by MC can become the only option to pitch their ideas to investors and advance their company at no cost other than the time invested on the program. Of equal value is the endorsement received as a MC graduate inferring the quality of the startup venture.

A Model Built on Strategic Partnerships

As a nonprofit, MC depends on the support of a network of public, private and philanthropic partners, with the vast majority of their funding coming from corporations. Governments and philanthropic foundations fund MC with the goal to foster regional economic growth. Founders John Harthorne and Akhil Nigam, former consultants at Bain & Company, garnered early support from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, successful entrepreneurs and large corporations such as Blackstone, Microsoft and the nonprofit Kauffman Foundation.

MC could have faced financial challenges by providing accelerator programs at no cost and with no equity commitment. However, MC was able to become a bridge between large companies’ need for innovation and startups’ need for capital. Large companies have the scale of resources, customer information and market experience, but may lag in innovation. Startups, on the other hand, lack the resources but innovate with sometimes disruptive and successful ventures, frequently taking incumbents by surprise (Airbnb, Uber).

MC serves as a channel between startups and established companies to meet the need for fast-paced innovation. Companies like Bühler and PTC partner with MC to source high-potential startups for the development of advanced technology. Companies can also source tailored programs or tracks for specific needs.

A study done jointly by MC and innovation firm Imaginatik looked at how startups and corporations interact in new collaborative ways. The research team surveyed 112 corporations and 233 startups from various industries. 82 percent of the corporations considered startup interactions important, and 23% stated that these interactions are “mission critical.” Startups have a high interest in working with corporations with 99% stating it is important for them to interact with potential corporate customers, marketing channels and strategic partners.


MassChallenge was located at One Marina Park Drive until 2014.

MC communicates its impact and vision to donors by demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of alliances between startups and corporations. A solid accelerator program, global vision, robust network and a sustainable funding strategy have set up MC for success. As stated in the MC Impact Report 2016, the accelerator is committed to running 12 locations annually by 2020, including at least one on each populated continent.

Before establishing an MC accelerator, the metropolitan area is evaluated for the quality of its research universities, urban setting, level of entrepreneurship opportunity and investment capability. As government and private stakeholders partner, a sense of shared ownership becomes crucial to consolidating efforts. This engagement guarantees that the resulting ecosystems are seen as a shared legacy.

The next MC sites are yet to be announced. Currently in five locations with global impact, MC’s 2020 vision is on a path to become a tangible reality.

The author and editor would like to thank Tay Jacobe for assistance with researching and drafting this post.