Tobin Geatz will join your advisory board, sit as your CEO, sell your product at trade shows or serve as your CMO.
But first, you’ve got to get the attention of his new Seahawk Innovation Funds. Geatz and co-founder Tom Looney have hinted at the creation of a new $20 million fund in Wilmington for nearly a year. Their plan was to partner with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to launch the fund, and to provide some proceeds of successful investments back to the university’s research foundation to fund more entrepreneurial efforts at the college (including the operations of the new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.).
It took nine months or so, but UNCW’s board of directors have approved the arrangement, one Chancellor Gary Miller says has few prior examples nationally. And the men have since set up shop at the new off-campus offices of the Center. There, they’ve created a “Seahawk Alley,” where startups from Wilmington and across the Southeast will come for funding or other help from the partners. Some may end up building their businesses in the space.
Why Geatz? Because he built 20 businesses over the last 32 years—from software to water purification to clinical research to semiconductor companies—and sold 15 of them. He was a general partner at Aurora Funds II in Cary, and a limited partner in two other funds. And most recently, he merged his Wilmington-based contract research organization Inclinix with PMG Research, using private equity funds.
Looney had an impressive career as a sales executive at Silicon Valley giants like Oracle Corp, Steve Jobs’s NeXT, Active Software (now Software AG) and NextChannel Partners (now Microsoft).
They’re joined by a third general partner, Cape Fear Micro-Angel Fund co-founder and Cornerstone Advisory Partners CEO Dallas Romanowski.
Besides business successes, the men believe they have a new formula for success in investing. In a recent meeting at the CIE, Geatz told me he’s perplexed that average returns on venture capital investments over the past decade sit around zero. Prior to that, investors earned nearly 40 percent annually on the funds they committed. What’s widened, he said, is the valley of death.
And that’s what Geatz and friends hope to keep their portfolio companies out of.
“The valley of death is too big and too complex for friends, families, fools and angels, and too small for banks, private equity and former venture capital companies that are now risk-averse,” Geatz said. “The gap is really an intellectual and a money gap. But what we’ve come to learn here is that it’s really more of an intellectual gap than monetary.”
The men haven’t yet made an investment, but they’re already working with some companies. An example is Mimi Jumi, a Nashville-based startup that’s reinvented the baby bottle nipple, along with a handful of the 16 companies now incubating at the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, along with entrepreneurs working at the college’s Center for Marine Science. In some cases, the men join the companies as executive officers to help meet critical milestones. Geatz is playing an executive role in at least two startups now.
The men are also focused on raising the fund. Geatz says his ideal investors are fed up with no returns from their investments and with the large fees typically paid to general partners in a more traditional fund. They want to take a hands on approach with their portfolio companies. And some may have a broader interest in supporting Wilmington’s burgeoning entrepreneurial community.
“We’d like to do something good for the community in Wilmington, Geatz says. “We’re a secondary market where cultural life is dominated by the university.”
For UNCW, the new fund supports its mission to build up startups a means of spurring economic development in its hometown, Chancellor Miller says.
As for the men behind the fund, Miller calls them “intense.”
“This is a top notch group and they just wanted to get it done. And they got it done,” he says.