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Bring Me Your Startups!

Karen Alexander | April 1, 2013 | Story Tech World

Say you bought the historic but long-empty Benjamin Franklin Hotel in downtown San Mateo because it was cheap and, really, just because you could. But it didn't have its own parking lot, so you realized that it wasn't exactly prime hotel material. Bummer.

If you were Tim Draper, who counts Skype, Baidu, and Hotmail among his many successful early-stage investments, you'd turn the boutique building into a boarding school/boot camp for young entrepreneurs, furnished with beanbags and a superhero theme. You'd sink tens of millions of dollars into more than 100,000 square feet of real estate, including the giant antiques showroom across the street. You'd throw around terms like "disruptor" and "risk master," and the next thing you knew, you'd be up to your eyeballs in bright young entrepreneurs jostling for a spot in your fledgling program. Oh, and you'd call it the Draper University of Heroes—because these days in super-saturated Silicon Valley, any marketable idea counts as heroic.

In fact, when questioned about the superhero conceit ("Isn't it kind of corny for would-be entrepreneurs?"), Draper defends it with nary a hint of irony: "A superhero conjures even more unimaginable optimism than a hero does."

Beginning this month, the school will offer four eight-week sessions a year for up to 180 students at a time. Each week centers on a different superhero-inspired theme, such as speed, vision, or justice—there's even a course called "Special Powers." At the end of the program, students get the chance to pitch their businesses to Draper and his investor friends.

Tuition is steep: $7,500 for the first session this spring, but the price will rise to as much as $15,000. If you can't come up with the cash, though, Draper has a suggestion: Make him an offer. He'll consider lowering or waiving the fee in exchange for some equity in your next great thing—or, say, for 2 percent of your income for the next 10 years. (Decide for yourself whether this is altruistic or opportunistic.)

Still, isn't this basically just a fancy form of networking for rich kids? Could be, but many who attended the pilot program last summer insist that the hands-on training is invaluable. Surbhi Sarna, the 27-year-old founder of nVision Medical Corporation, says that the school helped her learn the critical art of persuasive pitching. Sarna's company is building diagnostic tools for ovarian cancer and infertility—a result of her own experience with a painful ovarian condition that was difficult to diagnose. But she had been reluctant to explain that to investors. "I wasn't comfortable talking about my ovaries in front of a group of venture capital men," she says. "I learned, though, that investors are looking for a motivated entrepreneur who has real reasons for doing what she's doing."

Sarna captured the main prize—a personal investment from Draper in the $300,000 range—at the university's business-plan competition. It won't help her leap tall buildings in a single bound, but in Silicon Valley, it's the next best thing.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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