Just over a year ago, 44 successful Triad area entrepreneurs pooled $355,000 to make a big bet on North Carolina startups. By funding the New Ventures Challenge and accelerator in Winston-Salem, they hoped to ensure innovation would continue to come from a region historically known for it.
After four companies completed the program in 2016, raising money from the group along with more than $600,000 from others, the investors are back at it again, raising a second fund of $500,000 for a fresh group of idea-stage startups. Their new goal is to fund 30 startups over the next five years, as many as possible located in the Triad region.
The New Ventures Challenge and Accelerator are how they’re vetting potential investments. An application period is open through Friday for the 2017 version of the business idea competition. New Ventures will award as many as eight startup teams up to $50,000 in seed funding each, along with 12 weeks of acceleration and business development support and an additional two months of coworking at Flywheel Coworking in Winston-Salem’s Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. The teams also get mentorship from the entrepreneurs and investors who’ve funded the program.
Since The Startup Factory stopped making new investments, the New Ventures Accelerator is one of state’s few funded accelerator programs. Its interests are broad—companies can be working on software or hardware ideas in nearly any field. But special interest is in Triad industry clusters like healthcare, biotech, aerospace, logistics and the arts.
The mastermind for New Ventures is Peter Marsh, a Flywheel founder who in late 2015, hoped to build on the year-old co-working space’s early momentum. He sought help from Joel Bennett, a serial entrepreneur who ran Greensboro’s Triad Startup Lab in 2014 and 2015.
Then men viewed the accelerator as a way to begin supporting the Triad startup ecosystem at the same level as Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte. But they had a novel approach. They spent about two months in early 2016 meeting with 200 potential investors to raise enough money to host one accelerator program and fund five companies.
To attract a wider pool of investors, including “younger wealth creators”, they set up an investment club under a Rule 506 exemption, which allows for up to 35 non-accredited but sophisticated investors, alongside up to 100 accredited ones. They asked for chunks of $5,000 to $25,000 rather than larger amounts typically required by traditional angel groups or venture capital funds. Investors include the founders of Inmar, Cover Story Media, Winston-Salem Dash, KeraNetics, Small Footprint, Threatsketch, SilkRoad Technology and The Variable, alongside executives from R.J. Reynolds and HanesBrands, family offices, lawyers, real estate brokers and other service providers.
The Wake Forest School of Law Community Law & Business Clinic helped complete all the legal work, and also provides services to the accelerator cohort.
The hope was that they’d field a large pool of applications and ultimately choose startups that could raise funding after the program and launch products or services into the world, benefitting North Carolina, and specifically the Triad. Then, the pool of money and accelerator could grow in subsequent years. And that indeed is what’s happening.
Year one recap
The first New Venture Accelerator happened over 12 weeks last summer. It drew 230 applications, 60% from within North Carolina, and the group eventually invited 10 to pitch the investors. According to Bennett, “we had 10 great teams. They were totally committed, talented, smart and knew how to execute.”
But the investors eventually settled on five for the first cohort. Four actually completed the program. What united the teams was deep experience in each of their fields.
Ampogee (formerly Catalant) of Greensboro is the brainchild of former McKinsey consultant Jonathan Woahn and engineer/production manager Brian Lopatka, who hope to bring transparency and efficiency to workplaces. Their software platform engages employees around their own productivity and performance and gives employers tools for tracking and motivating them. Ampogee went on to win an NC IDEA grant in December and is raising a seed round led by Piedmont Angel Network, in which New Ventures will participate.
Scout IoT, also of Greensboro, develops wireless sensors that help commercial building and manufacturing plant managers control a variety of conditions in their facilities. One founder, Brendan Younger, has 18 years of programming and statistics experience and worked on two teams that went through The Startup Factory in Durham—Hostel Rocket and Mira. He recently took a CTO role at Fluree, a Winston-Salem startup founded by one of New Ventures’ investors, in which the club plans to invest.
Ed Hall, founder of Petrics, was a former director of operations at Elite Innovations’ product development firm and hackerspace in Wilmington. He’s building an IoT company that helps pet owners monitor the health and nutrition of their pets, and has already closed about $550,000 in funding.
And finally, Leading Role of Winston-Salem is a virtual realty content company providing “room scale VR” which means players aren’t just wearing headsets but they’re actively engaging in a game like a stage actor. Its founders have years of experience in gaming, also operating a company called Eggroll with 75 educational apps and games for kids totaling 13.5 million downloads. The first Leading Role game is called Cyberthreat. According to Marsh, this company will get follow-on funds from New Ventures when its ready.
Bennett took the teams through a “Lean Startup immersion” to validate their business models, talk to customers, build an MVP and identify revenue opportunities. They pitched their businesses to dozens of investors and community members at a September Demo Day—the 2017 version will happen September 8 at Flywheel’s new space within the Center for Design Innovation in the innovation quarter.
2017 program and beyond
According to Marsh, more than 200 applications are in with three days left to apply. The quality overall is higher and more than half come from around North Carolina. As a final push, Bennett is doing last minute info sessions this week at Ventureprise in Charlotte and the Blacks in Tech meetup at Wake Tech in Raleigh.
Though quality is the most important value for investors, local and regional companies will be prioritized. After all, a core purpose of New Ventures is to stimulate the local startup community, both by growing the investor base and developing stronger startup companies.
So far, New Ventures is achieving both missions. The investor group has grown this year to include more investors in Greensboro and High Point. It could reach 50 people by close in April.
“We are most excited about the demand on both the investor and the startup side of the equation,” Marsh says. “Our main metrics of success for the startups are scaling repeatable revenue and ability to attract follow-on capital. Early signals are very good.”