Vermont New Business Prescription: Second in a Series
Pulling it all Together
Tomorrow I’m meeting with Vermont House legislators as well as an official from the State Commerce department to talk about startup competitions. As I said below in “Vermont New Business Prescription: First in a Series”, Vermont would do well to create a statewide startup business competition. The State Legislature evidently agrees: they commissioned a committee to put together a plan for a “StartUp Vermont” competition. Why is such an event important? While the annual Invention2Venture conference and Vermont Investor Forum are terrific events aimed at the entire state, both are only 1 day affairs, and neither aims to bring together all of the elements of the Vermont startup ecosystem. There have been a few long-running competitions (Brattleboro, St. Mike’s), but neither aim for a state-wide event. And I have no desire to re-invent the wheel, but we are sorely lacking an event that will bring the entire ecosystem together: entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, educators, lawyers, accountants, consultants, etc. All of the aims of the committee (creating jobs, promoting the state, jump-starting the economy) are spot on. However, if it was easy to have a well-oiled, cohesive economic infrastructure in place, everyone would have one.
A startup competition is merely a means to help create that ecosystem, and we need to recognize the need to walk before we run. So, how to do this? Let’s start with the basics: identify those who have successfully created their own profitable companies. They have the most credibility to act as mentors to the entrepreneurs. (See my post on the Mass Challenge to see some of the great mentors they attracted.) Which Vermonters should we consider? Here’s a dozen just off the top of my head: John Abele, Rich Tarrant, John Dwight, Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield, Tom Evslin, Hinda Miller, Alan Newman, Nord Brue, Steve Arms, Mark Bonfigli, and Robert Stiller. And each of these people recruit two other experts each. Now we’ve got a critical mass of talent, before even going to government institutions. Add in members from Vermont Venture Network, North Country Angels, the Vermont Business Roundtable, etc. (Here’s more links to organizations involved.) And now bring in the service providers: consultants, lawyers, accountants, etc. Now, it’s a matter of finding one or more sponsoring organizations. If I had to pick one, it would start with Champlain College. In my opinion, it already has the mindset of the aggressive startup. It has grown and prospered by seeking out underserviced niches, it has connected superbly with the local business community (their Board of Trustees alone would be a killer list of mentors, as almost all are CEOs and/or founders of companies), they are thoroughly up to date with I.T., social media, and other growth sectors, and they continuously offer a great entrepreneur speaking series. (Coming up in April, noted entrepreneur and angel Will Herman.) But wouldn’t it be great if they could share the event with UVM? Think of the synergies of improving the working relationship between the strengths of Champlain with the terrific backlog of technology coming out of the UVM graduate schools? Perhaps Norwich could go across the river and do an “Upper Valley” event that links in with Dartmouth, while St. Mike’s and Middlebury explore teaming up. But before I would try to get 6 schools together, perhaps just get each school to do their own. Let’s start with baby steps in 2011, with the goal of something meaningful by 2013. Clearly there are many other players to get involved, including state-funded colleges, VEDA, etc. Perhaps best would be to find one larger corporation (National Life, GE Healthcare, IBM?) to host finals, as that would be considered a “neutral” party rather than singling out any one school. And then we could get a national level speaker–Fred Wilson, are you reading this–to bring out the community and get some national buzz.
Formats, prize money, all of these are unimportant. What counts are people willing to stand up and say they can help. I’m willing to judge, mentor and recruit, but I’m not an organizer by nature. Any takers?
How to measure success? First, getting started. Second, the number of volunteers you can assemble. Third, the number of interactions that are created. And then, after a few years, we can start counting jobs. Let me end with one concrete example. Dr. Peter Zvara of Sonouroflow is a surgeon and urologist who, via licenses from UVM’s Tech Transfer Office, has exclusive rights to commercialize his invention of “Sonourography”, a better, cheaper and more convenient way to help monitor and measure the progress of urology patients with BPH. It is an investor’s dream: effectively, he can create a phone app that allows patients to pee in the privacy of their home but have a slew of results automatically sent to their doctor, along with analysis. There are no manufacturing costs, as patients use their cell phone to capture and transmit data via sound recordings. So, 90% plus margins, strong I.P. protection (with a patent issued last August), and supporting scientific articles published. He has received an STTR grant, and he has a working prototype that works with any cellphone headset or carrier. Equally importantly, this technology has a strong social benefit of being able to lower health care costs. For Vermont, this is the type of company that could clearly go not just national, but global. So what’s the problem? Dr. Zvara is a full-time surgeon, and not a business operator. He needs to build a Board, hire management, access venture capital funding, and most importantly, help convince urologists that they should be open to changing their own practice, especially when that might result in more revenues to general practitioners at their own expense. He has received collaboration offers from Canadian urologists and investors, but is unsure what terms he should be offering. While prize money would be nice, what Dr. Zvara really needs is to be able to spend a few hours with someone like John Abele, the legendary founder of Boston Scientific. Along with good lawyers, regulatory consultants, and software architects. Add in easy access to the SBA, VCET, and all of the other institutions already in place, not all of which may be known to Dr. Zvara. Our goal should be to find a way to make these matches. Startup Vermont is a way to make it happen. More later after my meetings in Montpelier. If you’re reading this and want to get involved, please contact me.
This post begs a thousand questions: should we first “let a thousand flowers bloom”, and encourage lots of little local contests? Or do we combine resources into one bigger and splashier event? Or wait for there to be winners from smaller events (typically in the spring) and put on a venture fair, where attendees rotate among the booths and then vote for their favorites? Please add your comments. (PS–would like to thank Cairn Cross of FreshTracks Capital and Mary Evslin of Evslin Consulting for some of their thoughts as I put this together.)