For most startups, it’s considered an accomplishment just to be accepted into some type of business accelerator or mentorship program.
Imagine earning a chance to learn the ropes with a backdrop of one of the most beautiful cities in the world — and then, to win a contest that could open many more doors.
“It’s kind of crazy. It feels good. Like some of the hard work is actually paying off — like, what we’re doing isn’t totally crazy,” said Torq Labs co-founder Julian Holtzman.
Torq Labs makes clothing aimed at preventing knee and hip injuries.
The company’s athletic leggings come with sensors that can be tucked into pockets along the leg. The sensors can tell when an athlete’s movements, in training over a period of time, may be creating a risk of injury, Holtzman said.
Runners are Torq Labs’ first target. “If you’re doing something wrong, over and over again, and only after 20 miles you start to feel it — we can show you” where the problem lies in advance, Holtzman said.
“Our goal is pre-hab, not rehab,” Torq Labs’ website says.
Torq Labs already had been through the Madworks Seed Accelerator program in Madison.
“We helped them work through a potential investment, helped them fine tune their pitch and served as a sounding board for them,”said Madworks co-founder Anne Smith, who went running with Holtzman to test early prototypes of the leggings.
Julian “was great fun to work with. He was eager to learn, not afraid to ask questions,” Smith said.
Station F calls itself “the world’s biggest startup campus” and houses 3,000 entrepreneurs from around the world in a former freight station in the 13th arrondissement, Halle Freyssinet — thus the name, Station F. Investor Xavier Niel bought the historic building in 2013 and has had it remodeled into offices with event spaces, cafés and access to some of the biggest global tech companies.
A startup itself, Station F opened in late June 2017, with Roxanne Varza, former head of Microsoft Ventures and TechCrunch France, at the helm.
The building is “literally, the size of the Eiffel Tower, lying down,” Varza said in an interview with Wired magazine.
Torq Labs got involved through sheer timing and luck, Holtzman said.
He was traveling around Europe last fall and wound up at a hostel in Paris. His roommate, one November night, just happened to be another entrepreneur, Holtzman learned as the two chatted over some wine and late-night snacks. The roommate, “well connected to the French tech scene,” introduced him to Varza, Holtzman said, and after two rounds of interviews, Torq Labs was accepted into the program.
Station F is not like a typical U.S. accelerator, he said, with structured education and mentorship ending in a public pitch event, and often a seed investment in its companies.
But it has “all the tools and resources startups need under one roof, including industry-specific accelerator programs, venture capital funds, a tech shop fab lab and pathways to getting public funds from BPI France,” Holtzman said. Station F does not fund the startups under its tent — in fact, Holtzman and his team have been paying for their own travel, lodging and living expenses — but it “is helping us navigate this (investment) process.”
And then, there is the incalculable perk of just being in Paris.
“Paris is great,” Holtzman gushed, drooling over the food and appreciating the robust transportation system. “Paris, as a city, is making some very cool strides with clean energy and sustainable urban living. This place brings new meaning to the phrase ‘The future is now,’ ” he said.
Holtzman said Station F is “very warm and welcoming.” As part of the learning process, Torq Labs entered the Avantex fashion-tech pitch contest earlier this month in Paris. Of 24 applicants, the Madison startup was one of nine finalists, each of which made a two-minute presentation.
Torq Labs was the grand prize winner — a complete surprise, Holtzman said. “It was crazy! This was not even on my radar as being possible when we decided to come to Paris,” he said.
The honors carry valuable exposure for Torq Labs, Holtzman said, including a promotional video, meetings with executives of Nike France, and invitations to apply to programs elsewhere in Europe. The company has been chosen to be the subject of a documentary that will follow Torq Labs for three months and will air on French TV, he said.
Five of the six team members plan to stay in Paris at least until the end of the year, he said, and the company has started working with a French designer.
For an idea cooked up in the basement of a UW-Madison fraternity house in November 2015, “getting some recognition is pretty cool,” Holtzman said.