Economic Transformation News

University Support Key for New $3.6M Entrepreneurship Initiative

From WRAL Tech Wire:

RTP Entrepreneurs, Execs Embrace Blackstone's $3.6M Startup Effort

By RICK SMITH, WRAL Tech Wire Editor

April 26, 2011

Durham, N.C. — First impressions were by far very positive for the latest – and perhaps the potentially largest effort – to boost the launch of new companies in the Triangle on Monday.

Titled the “Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network,” the program will target 30 startups a year who will receive mentoring support from what UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp identified as “master entrepreneurs.”

More than 300 people – including many entrepreneurs, venture capitals and corporate executives – packed the American Tobacco Historic District’s Bay 7 to find out the details behind the Blackstone Group’s efforts to boost entrepreneurship, new companies and job growth across the Triangle. The Blackstone Charitable Foundation is providing the funding, and Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman came to Durham to announce the news.

While the amount of money is modest - $3.6 million over five years, not even the equivalent of a good first-round venture capital close by a startup – the fact that the world’s largest private equity fund was able to convince the partners gathered together to back the effort was worth more than the cash, several executives said in a series of interviews at the event. The Council for Entrepreneurial Development also will be involved in helping identify band select the companies. The CED also will host the Blackstone program’s team in its office space at the American Underground in the American Tobacco complex, said CED President Joan Siefert Rose.  (The Network won't launch right away--read more here.)

"It is a big deal because of Blackstone and the partners who were willing to engage,” said Monica Doss, the former president of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development. In her two decades of leading the CED, she fought more than her share of battles to convince the region’s universities and business leaders to back initiatives that would help ratchet up new company growth.“You learn a lot about an effort’s possibilities by the community behind it, and look at this one. You have the four major universities – UNC-CH, Duke, N.C. State and N.C. Central – involved plus the CED and others. It will be good.”

Andy Schwab, who recently took over as president of the First Flight Venture Center which is incubating 40 new businesses at full capacity, said the Blackstone effort could only help boost the triangle.

“We need more startups,” said Schwab, a veteran entrepreneur himself. “Anything that will bring more capabilities to support startups is a big deal.”

Karen Levert, whose business Southeast TechInventures revolves around commercialization of technology developed at universities, embraced the Blackstone effort.

“I’m thrilled,” she said. “The universities really had to come together to make this work. We’ve never had anything like this.

“For a firm like Blackstone to be behind it, we now are at the tip-off point for opportunity.”

Thorp, an inventor and entrepreneur himself, and chancellors of the other three universities pledged their support. Each talked about the technology and research being done on their campuses and an increasing desire by professors as well as students to create their own businesses.

“They hit the nail right on the head,” said veteran venture capital attorney Fred Hutchison.

“Mentoring is one of the key building blocks for a successful business,” he added. “Mentors can help you develop the right business plan, get the right team in place and help you get financing.”

Asked if 30 startups a year was a reasonable target, Hutchison replied. “Yes, I do. We continue to see a lot of great ideas, and I have no doubt that they can find that many.”

Jim Goodmon, chief executive officer of Capitol Broadcasting which invests in startups and is the parent of WRAL Tech Wire, also endorsed the concept.

“I like this plan,” he said. Asked if he thought 30 was a workable target, Goodmon replied, “Yes. I believe that is very doable.”

Ping Fu, co-founder and CEO at Geomagic Software, is a big support of “Startup America,” an Obama Administration effort. So is Thorp. She attended Monday’s event to learn more about Blackstone’s effort, which is separate from its commitment to Startup America.

“This was well done,” Fu said. But she acknowledged being skeptical initially about the 30 startups a year target.

“If they had said this was a three-year plan, I would have doubted it,” Fu said. “They told me it was a 10-year plan, so, yes, I believe it can be successful. If a company is to be successful, it needs two or three years.

“My hope is that they will break that goal,” she added. “This could really stimulate new company creation and job development.”

Fu also is ready to get involved. Asked if she would serve as one of the master entrepreneurs, she replied: “If they ask me, yes.”