Colorado Needs More Exits

At the Esprit Entrepreneur Conference in Boulder this week a question was asked about how we can make Colorado more than a flyover state and attract more out of state investment.

Given that Boulder and Denver are in the top three cities for startups on a per-capital basis, it’s clear that we don’t have a problem with developing an entrepreneurial community  and the great high quality deal flow that comes from that.  I’m continually impressed with the ability of the Front Range ecosystem to turn out high quality companies.

But, if we want to attract more out of state investors, we need to have more Colorado exits that we can celebrate and make public.  This year has been a great year for Colorado exits with the IPOs from Noodles & Company and Rally Software.  Both companies have more than doubled since their IPOs and are doing great.  We’ve also had a number of great $100 million plus acquisitions including LineRate and NexGen Storage.

Colorado needs to get the word out more about these great exits.  We’re well known for startups, but investors know that without exits, there is no way to get their money back.  In short, exits are what investors care about.  When investors see that our community is sophisticated and is thinking about how to best position ourselves for exit, even if it is an acquisition by an out-of-state firm,  that there is a greater chance of attracting those coastal dollars to Colorado.

Rockies Venture Club is celebrating Colorado Exits with its 25th Colorado Capital Conference November 6th and 7th, 2013.  www.coloradocapitalconference.org  We will be hosting twelve great startups whose pitches will ALL include a description of their exit strategy so that investors know how they will get their investment back.  The theme of the conference is Steven Covey’s Second Habit of Highly Successful People – “Begin with the End in Mind.”

We will also have speakers from the top companies who have had exits this year who will tell us how they positioned themselves, how they decided on IPO vs. acquisition, and when they actively started the exit process.  The fact that the founders are still with the companies shows that an “exit” is really a liquidity event where money is returned to investors, not an actual exit where the founders leave a company.  This year’s CCC is a must-attend event for investors and entrepreneurs alike.

Connecting Parallel Startup Universes

Denver Startup Week was huge for the Denver entrepreneurial scene! It was vibrant with a ton of activities and wide participation from the Denver area. Also in Denver during the same week was the Rocky Mountain Life Science Investor and Partnering Conference, put on by the Colorado BioScience Association. For a bio nerd and startup junkie like myself, it was a very rewarding week. I enjoyed both events, I’m thankful to have been able to IMG_2471participate, and I’d go back next time they come around. CNBC even covered both here and here. My perspective is on the intersection of the events – or more accurately, the lack thereof.

I’m beginning to obsess over this idea. How do we connect the parallel universes of Colorado startup industries? Life Science/Biotech isn’t the only silo, but outside of tech it’s the only one I’m immersed in. Brad Feld talks about the issue in his book Startup Communities, and specifically highlights an unsuccessful interaction with a Boulder biotech group. I won’t say that any person or any group is to blame for the current split – only that we’re here now, and it needs to get better.

Denver Startup Week has been successful twice in two years, and grew significantly from 2012 to 2013. It was not quite, as their signs suggested, a “celebration of everything entrepreneurial in Denver” but it’s getting there, and I only expect the event to grow and become better. It is led by inclusive entrepreneurs, so there is significant community support.

IMG_2473The Colorado BioScience Association’s conference also stands on multiple years of success. Launched in 2009 as a biennial (every 2 years) conference, it brings startups from 5 states: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Montana. The 1-day event featured 30 big investors from Colorado, both coasts, and in between: VC’s, public company venture arms, and Angel investors. 30 startups also presented, pitching for everything from angel rounds to getting ready for an IPO. InnovatioNews has a great review of the day here.

Within their own communities, both events were huge. However, almost everyone I talked to at DSW about the biotech conference had no idea it was going on, and many at CBSA’s only found out DSW was going on from the signs on 16th St, since Basecamp was only 4 blocks away. It was close enough that I walked over from the Ritz during a networking break.

There are bright spots in the gap, however. Rockies Venture Club leadership, volunteers, and a few of their top Angels were all over both events. The fact that RVC was founded in 1985 and serves a variety of industries probably helps in that area. There are other people building connections and bridges between the parallel universes, and we need to encourage and cultivate that. This year DSW added a manufacturing track, and I have every reason to believe they’ll keep growing the events. Denver did have a broader focus than Boulder Startup Week, in comparison. BSW was also a great event this year, albeit primarily focused on software and internet. I attended and loved it, and I’ll proudly wear the BSW t-shirt with the 1’s and 0’s logo, even though I can’t write a single line of code.

The noble idea that brings entrepreneurs, creators, artists, and (good) investors together is the belief that we can always make things better by creating value. Startup communities grow organically and tend to be messy, and that breeds collaboration and innovation. I have no doubt this chasm will be bridged; entrepreneurs will lead the way, and the process will add value to anyone involved. The Boulder and Denver startup communities were once pretty segregated, and we’ve seen incredible progress there. Connecting the parallel universes within the Denver/Boulder area is a positive sum game and must be seen that way. It will not be an easy or quick process, but it is worth the effort.

Tim is a regular contributor to the Rockies Venture Club blog and a Master’s of Engineering Management student at CU-Boulder. He holds a bachelor’s in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Denver, and has worked for startups since he left his corporate life as a licensed investment advisor.

Twitter: @taharveyconsult

 

 

P2Bi Raises Series A, Helps Small Businesses Via Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding has been a growing force in the financial industry, disrupting sectors each time it reaches a new one. p2biMicroloan platforms like Kiva and peer-to-peer lending such as Prosper have proven to be a quickly growing alternative in debt, and have increased access and choice for those looking for financing. Companies such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter have given rise to donation and pre-sale based funding for a wide range of people and businesses, and with the implementation of the JOBS act, equity can be sold over similar platforms as well. New technologies that connect people in meaningful ways have a way of changing the world, and P2Bi plans to be a part of that.

 

One area of financing that has not been disrupted by crowdfunding (yet) is the business receivables market. The idea of a business selling its invoices (accounts receivable) to a 3rd party to raise cash isn’t a new idea, and was even established in the Code of Hammurabi nearly 4,000 years ago. However, this $136 billion industry (in the US alone) has been quiet with relatively little innovation. Transparency has been an issue in the factoring industry in the past, and since it usually involves business-to-business transactions, it isn’t found in a public light very often.

P2Bi (Peer-to-Business Investor) is working to change this. As the first crowdfunded business receivables market, they have opened up a new and transparent path to finance growing companies, and have been connecting investors with small businesses since early 2012. This is an increasingly important gap to fill – according to a Pepperdine report, nearly 2/3 of small businesses in the US were recently unable to secure bank loans, where many had the ability and desire to repay loans but not the credit for a traditional bank to provide funding to them. With P2Bi, business owners are able to find competitively priced loans, and accredited investors can buy into portfolios of asset-backed business receivables, which are likely to generate a higher interest rate than cash instruments that are currently returning closer to 0 than even 1%. P2Bi works with a wide variety of small businesses, with the exception of transportation and construction.

P2Bi recently raised a Series A investment round, including investors from the Rockies Venture Club and John Spiers (who recently exited NexGen), among others. This follows their August 2012 seed round, and will be used to help the business scale. Among other activities, they will be hiring for multiple positions (LINK) and relocating from Louisville, CO to Denver. “We’re really excited about moving to Denver. It makes the most sense with the density of businesses and the finance industry in Denver,” said Krista Morgan, co-founder and CMO. P2Bi will also benefit from local investors and connections in the community. “Peter Adams (of RVC) was really instrumental in getting investors there and convincing them to come on board, Krista said.

Congratulations to P2Bi on closing their Series A, and best wishes helping small businesses grow while creating value in Colorado!

Tim Harvey is a Master’s of Engineering Management student at CU-Boulder and a regular contributor to the Rockies Venture Club. He has started a few businesses (nothing big yet) and most recently worked as a Fortune 500 marketing consultant with a neuroscience-based startup. Prior to that he was an investment advisor for individuals and corporations, holding FINRA Series 7 and 66 licenses.

Venture Capital for Health Care companies doubles in 2013.

Health care companies are receiving a lot of attention from VCs this year and the trend appears to be increasing.  In the first two quarters of 2013 there were 272 deals completed in health care compared with 163 for the totality of 2012.

These trends in VC investment are a good harbinger for angel investors in health care who often rely on VCs to take on the next Series A round of funding.  When VCs are funding lots of health care deals it reduces risk for angels and provides additional opportunities for growth.

A lot of the growth is in areas that will be presented in RVC’s upcoming “Investing in Health Care” event  (Monday, September 9th 5:00-7:30pm) will be in the hot industry sectors including wearable devices, patient engagement, patient-to-physician, provider to provider and other technologies.  RVC is also presenting non-IT based companies including a new approach to curing breast cancer and is currently in due diligence on a break-through cardiac product that reduces some heart surgeries by as much as 80%.

health care IT vc fundingAn interesting trend in this growth is that consumer focused investments are growing at an even faster rate with consumer-focused technologies representing 112 deals for a total of $416 million – about double from last year while practice-focused technologies represented  56 deals totaling $202 million for the quarter.

Health Information Management companies received the most VC funding at $212 million while mobile health came in at $158 million.

According to a report on Q2 Venture Capital activity in health care funding by Mercom Capital Group llc, Consumer-focused companies specializing in apps, wearable devices & sensors, remote monitoring, patient engagement, rating/shopping, and social health networks for physician-to-physician, physician-to-patient and patient-to-patient were all involved in multiple funding deals this quarter, whereas medical imaging, data analytics and EHR/EMR companies were among the practice-focused technologies that received most of the attention this quarter.”

To see some of Colorado’s most promising angel-stage companies present for investment and to hear about some of the leading trends in health care, be sure to put Rockies Venture Club’s “Investing in Health Care” event on your calendar.  Click here for more information and to register.Register for Investing In Tech Companies event

 

Angels Love Health Care

0326_health-care-investing_400x400Angel investors put their money into all kinds of early stage companies with the goal of helping entrepreneurs and getting great financial returns.  There are misconceptions out there that angels shy away from health care investments, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Health care investments can carry the traditional market and execution risks that any company has, but they can also have extraordinary regulatory risk if FDA approval for a product is required.  The FDA process can take years and millions of dollars to complete.

Most health care investments that Rockies Venture Club Angels look at don’t have FDA risk, or if they do, the process is minimal and takes only two years or less from the date of the investment. All FDA approvals are not the same and as a group we’re learning about the kind of FDA processes that we can accept as a part of an angel risk profile and those that are better left to large Venture Capital funds who have both the money to get through the process and the time to wait it out.

Angels typically like investments that can exit within five years or less.  There are a lot of Health Care companies that fit this profile.  One trend we’ve seen is that companies can exit earlier now since they are no longer required to build a sales channel as part of their proof of concept.  Once they can show that their innovation works and that people will buy it or that FDA Phase 1 trials are successful, they are ready for exit.

Smart founders will have a target list of acquisition targets identified before they even raise their first angel round.  By the time their concept is validated, they should already have relationships established with the major acquirers in their industry and be ready to negotiate a deal.

To see four examples of companies that can have profitable exits with 10x investor return in five or fewer years, check out the pitch presenters at this year’s “Investing in Health Care” event put on by Rockies Venture Club.

  • RXAssurance, Bob Goodman, provides a platform for patients and providers to keep each other informed about whether medications are being taken and that they are effectively treating the patient.
  • Six One Solutions, Ginny Orndorf, an innovative targeted method for blocking breast cancer.
  • LeoTech, Steve Adams, a wearable system to detect and report hydration in patients, athletes or others for whom hydration is important (ie. Everyone)
  • ExchangeMeds, Anand Shukla, rovides better ways for pharmacies to manage their inventories by sharing with others across a network.

To learn more about these companies and trends in investing in health care, you may want to consider attending the RVC “Investing in Health Care” event, Monday September 9 5:00-7:30 in Golden.  For more information, or to register for the event, please Click Here.

Sun Number – Colorado Solar Analysis Company

Guest Post by James Lester, Managing Consultant with Cleantech Finance

Despite some well publicized difficulties for cleantech investors, one area in particular has been a very rewarding place for investors to put their money. An innovative business model known as third-party ownership, combined with the falling price of solar modules, has led to a boom in the US solar market. Residential solar installations in 2012 reached 488 megawatts, a 62 percent increase over 2011 installations. According to GTM Research, a solar photovoltaic system is installed every four minutes in the U.S.  A Colorado company is poised to take full advantage of this booming market, by providing unique data that give homeowners and solar installers a clear and simple assessment of a building’s solar potential.

sun number

Sun Number, co-founded by David Herrmann and Ryan Miller is building off a $400,000 grant from the Department of Energy’s Sunshot Incubator, awarded last year to develop a tool to make it easier, faster and less expensive for both homeowners and solar companies to analyze the solar potential individual properties. The tool, known as a Sun Number Score, engages consumers by providing a solar analysis of their home or office building with an easy to understand score between 1 and 100, and then putting them in touch with a local solar professional. Solar professionals use the tool to reduce the costs of customer acquisition.

The DOE’s SunShot program established a new $10 million competition last year for innovative, sustainable, and verifiable business practices that reduce what’s are known as “soft costs”. The cost of acquiring customers and designing systems to fit their homes represents about 45% of all balance of systems costs in the U.S. rooftop residential solar market, according to the DOE. These high marketing costs, by some estimates as high as almost $5,000 per residential customer, create barriers for both the potential solar energy consumer and the solar installer. While soft costs have fallen as the solar industry grows, experts believe that further declines must occur in order to for solar to reach grid parity with other energy sources.

A large part of these soft costs results from several different issues with the acquisition process. In some cases, an on-site visit occurs by a professional to estimate the solar potential and energy requirements/capability of a residential or commercial rooftop. This process is not only costly, but often slows down the consultation process with the customer by several days. In many other cases, professionals use Google Earth or another imagery based program to try to estimate the size and location of the system. This often results in inaccurate readings due to guesses on nearby shading and rooftop pitch angles. These imprecise estimates lead to poorly designed systems and reductions in energy savings benefits.

This is where the market opportunity for Sun Number lies. The company streamlines the solar installer’s customer acquisition process. Utilizing high-resolution aerial data, advanced GIS technology and proprietary algorithms, Sun Number reduces these soft costs by providing an accurate, inexpensive, and quick analysis of the property allowing salespeople to screen out unsuitable properties on first contact. Using only a street address and Sun Number’s easy to use interface, solar companies can immediately obtain information about a property’s solar suitability that was previously only available if they sent an employee on-site for a lengthy inspection.

“The trend in solar installations is that soft costs are increasing as a percentage of overall costs, in part due to the labor-intensive analysis necessary to evaluate the solar potential of a rooftop. Not only is it costly, but it slows the sales process to a crawl as both the provider and the customer are forced to wait for their schedules to align and the weather to cooperate. Our goal was to develop a tool that eliminates those high costs and allows providers to get that information instantly,” said Herrmann.

houses

The Sun Number Score represents the solar suitability of a building’s rooftop on a scale from 1 to 100, with 100 being the ideal rooftop for solar. Using a proprietary data set, Sun Number determines the solar-suitable square footage of a building by taking into account factors of importance to solar installers, including:

  • The pitch of every roof section
  • The orientation of every roof plane
  • Shade created by surrounding buildings that might impact solar potential
  • Shade created by surrounding vegetation that might impact solar potential

Additionally, Sun Number Scores will take into account regional factors such as:

  • Average sunshine for the market
  • Atmospheric conditions that may impact solar potential
  • Availability of local solar incentives
  • Regional cost of electricity for calculation of solar savings

While Sun Number considers themselves a ‘data-focused company, the company has much in common with the new wave of energy-related technology, dubbed ‘cleanweb’, which is increasingly getting the attention of venture capitalists for its promise of applying Internet business models and “big data” to clean energy. While many investors have been frightened from investing in ‘cleantech’ companies, this area in particular is attracting a lot of attention.

The Cleanweb, coined by venture capitalist Sunil Paul, describes technology companies that leverage the surge of available data in combination with the internet, social media and mobile to address society’s current resource constraints. When asked about the market potential of cleanweb, Paul said, “The cleanweb is the ability to distribute software and services on top of that infrastructure that makes it more efficient, and that is the next big evolution in cleantech.”

Rob Day, a partner with Black Coral Capital sees that there is significant interest from the venture capital community around the cleanweb business models and system integration. He describes these models as (sometimes financial-oriented, sometimes web-oriented, sometimes software and controls oriented, sometimes deployment-oriented, sometimes just plain services.

Sun Number has found a unique way to deploy rich data sets to reduce costs and increase the growth of the enormous market of solar rooftop installations. Thus far, Sun Number has processed data on over 7 million buildings in 12 metro areas.  The company plans to expand to more cities in 15 to 18 states that are best suited to the growing solar market. The company is also developing a customer focused interface, or ‘dashboard’ that will incorporate the next generation of Sun Number scores, which will include local economic incentives and changing installation and permitting costs. The company plans to implement a dynamic scoring system, which will notify consumers if their Sun Number Score has changed due to recent changes in policies or market conditions.

Herrmann comments, “It is estimated that the solar industry spent over $200M on residential customer qualification and acquisition in 2012, much of it on inaccurate and expensive solutions.  Sun Number is helping fuel the solar market growth by making available accurate low cost data that identifies properties and people that are most likely to purchase solar.”

If you would like to learn more about Sun Number, visit their website or contact David Herrmann at david.herrmann@sunnumber.com

 

BioCare Thinks Infrared Light Heals People

Jon Weston is convinced that his company’s product can help take away pain, help the body heal twice as fast in some cases, and even save lives. It is particularly interesting to see a former pharmaceutical executive get so excited about a non-drug, non-invasive therapy that helps people use less medication. After I saw him pitch, I had to find out more.

I was first introduced to BioCare’s product when Jon presented at the Angel Capital Summit in Denver earlier this year. He showed the LumiWave, a powerful and safe near-infrared light therapy used to relieve pain and promote healing in many tissues in our bodies. The device uses rectangular pods of LEDs a couple of inches wide to emit a frequency of light, which provides pain relief, increased blood flow, and even the growth of new blood vessels when applied to an injured area. This means that in addition to relieving chronic pain like arthritis, it can cut healing time by more than 50% in some injuries – and in other cases can re-start healing where the body has been stagnant in an injured state for years. The science is fascinating, but too involved to go into on this site – check out my explanation here. (coming soon)

I had heard of (and played with) infrared light therapy before, since my father, a MD in Michigan, had been using another device in his practice for the better part of the last year. He’s been finding profound and sometimes unexpected success, especially in curbing or curing a variety of chronic ailments for patients who weren’t responding effectively to traditional medicine. My mom tried it on her arthritic hands, and the pain all but disappeared after a few weeks of sessions. My dad calls pretty frequently to talk about the latest treatment or a cool new medical device, but it meant more to hear my mom talk about how a light therapy took away pain that has invaded her life for years.

While that device certainly helped people heal well, they have some limitations. They’re not as easy to use, and not cheap, either – the units he’s purchased have cost over $2,000 per light. BioCare’s product was entirely different from the other infrared treatment devices I’ve seen (and dramatically less expensive) so I had to take a closer look.

I gave Jon a call to hear about it in more detail, and we were able to grab coffee by DU, where he got his MBA, and I got my bachelor’s degree. He is a molecular biologist by training; a former pharmaceutical executive who spent years bringing products from R&D to market for companies like Searle (now Pfizer) and Gambro. While some of these medications went on to do very well, he’s convinced that infrared can be safer and more effective than traditional drugs for some problems. A number of years ago he met BioCare co-founder and Chairman Sherry Fox, who worked with her late husband (a biomedical engineer with 15 patents) to develop the initial technology for the LumiWave. Jon came on board as COO in 2005, and stepped into the CEO role in 2009.

It’s no secret that medical device companies need a longer runway than other startups due to the intensive R&D process. Techstars CEO David Cohen joked at a Silicon Flatirons event this week about a “17 year accelerator” if they were to have one in the biotech industry. Many investors aren’t comfortable with or don’t understand the R&D process, so thankfully BioCare has been able to bootstrap the company so far. Before opening it up to investors, they wanted to make sure the biggest risks were taken care of – the technology was sound, real units were selling and being used extensively, and strategic partnerships were in place. They’ve also had the chance to acquire patents, an over-the-counter FDA clearance, and they’re sailing toward the next approval level. Their patents and years of progress in these areas provide particularly high barriers to entry for even large medical device companies.

While IP is great, it doesn’t make money… well, until it actually makes money. That’s why it’s so valuable to have product sales and revenue while rounding out the R&D process. Aligning with lean startup practices, they signed high value, paying customers (who generated real market feedback) as early as they could. They’ve made some pivots, and their open-mindedness has allowed them to find some of the fastest growing sectors of their potential market.

It can be both a blessing and a curse to have a product that can be used so widely. Pinpointing not just the largest markets, but the ones most motivated to act on their literal pain points was of key importance. Perhaps the most common use of infrared light therapy is for the treatment of osteoarthritis or other types of chronic pain, like my mom had, so that was BioCare’s first major application. While the chronic pain segment may have the largest number of people and dollars in it, Jon saw early on that the only way to really make a difference there is with widespread adoption by the health insurance companies, not known for moving quickly and fairly preoccupied with legislative items at the moment.

While the insurance companies are still moving toward adopting infrared, he wasn’t going to wait for permission. The sports medicine and physical therapy industry was another reasonable market choice, and once they tried, he saw considerable traction here. This segment is especially motivated to pay for faster healing times, especially at the highest levels of competition, where there is also often significant pain with injuries. Thankfully for BioCare, the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs was only a short drive from Denver, and the Olympians took to it very quickly. The effects were so dramatic and positive that the Manager of Sports Medicine and Training for the US Olympic Centers offered to be on BioCare’s advisory board. She’s joined on the board with others who have volunteered after seeing the device in action – a few top orthopedic surgeons, three professors of medicine, and a trainer for the US Naval Academy, among others.

While sports medicine seems to have done very well for BioCare, they’ve kept an eye out for other substantial markets on the horizon. The most exciting and revolutionary development recently is the treatment of injuries that are less obvious and often more damaging – traumatic brain injury. As a neuroscience nerd, this was particularly riveting for me. More of the science here (coming soon)

For the treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI) BioCare is partnering with Cerescan, an industry leading, Denver-based brain imaging company. I was able to tour Cerescan with CEO John Kelley, who told me they have tested literally a team’s worth of NFL players for the diagnosis of TBI, some after suicide attempts. There is another group terribly affected by TBI – our nation’s military. BioCare and Cerescan joined with the Tug McGraw Foundation for the Invisible Brain Injury Project to study just that. This project will continue remarkable pilot testing they’ve done with veterans so far.

The military experience often adds a dangerous element to a volatile situation in the brain – the high prevalence of PTSD upon returning from service. The number of deaths from combat is horrifying and significant – and the increasing number of veterans who take their own life is a sad, and unfortunately frequent tragedy. It is made worse by being poorly understood, with few effective treatments and no real cures available – so far. In the initial round of testing, they’ve seen remarkable success with every patient they’ve tried it on. One particularly moving story involved a vet with TBI, PTSD, and a few recent suicide attempts. After a brain scan confirmed his neurological issues, and then a number of weeks in treatment, he was off all of his psychiatric medications. He had a follow-up scan, and then went back to work for the first time in a year and a half. Other participants have had similar stories, and while this treatment still needs to be validated in a study with a larger sample size, all signs are pointing in the right direction.

If these treatments continue to work so effectively, how much value will someone place on getting their life back? What will the family think as they watch a loved one go from nearly dead to “feeling like their old self again”?

I see a fair number of startup pitches. Most have at least pretty good ideas, and nearly every entrepreneur projects a hockey stick-shaped growth. A few have the chance for real traction, and it’s rare to find a company that claims such a big impact on the real quality of life for its customers. Biotech is hard to launch, but when it works, it can return big. It will certainly be interesting to follow BioCare as they attempt to change the world by healing the people in it.

 

 

Colorado Angels Have Unfair Advantage Investing in Cleantech

Colorado has a lot to offer cleantech entrepreneurs, from targeted grants, to easy access to NREL’s technology commercialization resources, to cleantech focused entrepreneurial programs at top research universities, to name just a few. There is no more supportive place in the country to launch a cleantech company, which gives local angels a distinct advantage when investing in this growing, and complex, industry. Colorado knows about investing in cleantech.

The only way the community could do more to support cleantech would be to scour the country for experienced, successful entrepreneurs, bring them to Colorado and immerse them in the local cleantech ecosystem, then provide guidance from industry experts as they develop business ideas around one of the numerous innovations emerging from local government labs and universities. Enter the Cleantech Fellows Institute, a Colorado Cleantech Industry Association (CCIA) program established to do exactly that.

The Institute kicked off in 2012, with a class of 5 Fellows who had considerable entrepreneurial experience outside the cleantech industry. The Fellows knew how to start a business, but they didn’t know cleantech, so they spent 175 curriculum hours listening to 160 speakers, and took almost 30 cleantech related tours, to come up to speed. Each Fellow undertook a capstone project centered on a new cleantech business idea, and in the Institute’s inaugural year this exercise led to the creation of two seed-stage companies and one non-profit.

Under the direction of Executive Director Steve Berens, the Institute is now accepting applications for its second class of Fellows. This year the program is undergoing some changes based on lessons learned from the first class, including an expanded international component. The program will include a week during which delegates from around the world descend on Colorado to participate in the Institute’s activities and make connections between the cleantech communities in Colorado and their home countries.

Clearly, Colorado is putting a lot of effort into stacking the odds in favor of the Fellows and the cleantech companies they hope will emerge from the Institute. The VC community has taken notice, as evidenced by the 19 venture capital partners the program has brought on board to date. However, there is room for additional engagement from Colorado based angels, who have an advantage in their ability to participate throughout the process since the Institute is based in their own backyard. Interested angels can send an email to mailto:info@cleantechfellows.comto learn more and sign up for regular email updates.

Even with all of the support Fellows will receive through the Institute, cleantech remains one of the most challenging industries in which to start a new venture. The Cleantech Fellows Institute provides access to critical knowledge and a great support network, which will reduce risks in my opinion but it certainly doesn’t come close to eliminating them. The real determinant of the program’s ability to spawn successful cleantech startups is underway right now: the Fellows application process. The quality of the Fellows accepted into the program will have the greatest influence on how successful it is, and the ability of local angels to get to know the Fellows over the course of the program is an opportunity that should not be missed.

Jay Holman is Principal of Venture to Market LLC, a Boulder based consultancy providing go to market services for new ventures in the cleantech industry.

 

 

The End of the Rainbow: Bootstrapping a Business to Gold


Fundraising for start-ups is a popular topic these days. There is a lot of glory in receiving big money from investors. After all, there must be promise in your company if Angels or VCs are willing to invest.

Have you ever tried to reach the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow? Literally. Like, have you ever seen a rainbow and tried to walk or drive to the end of it? It’s impossible. The end of the rainbow is elusive. And its location fluctuates and often disappears altogether. This is a fantastic metaphor for fundraising.

An entrepreneur is sometimes more likely to  grow a company by financing it themselves and working hard to build their business from the ground up. What’s more, the bootstrapping entrepreneur will gain better control over the future decisions–something that may disappear with big investors on board.

Sure, some start-ups do gain a bit of notoriety when they become venture-backed, but at what price? If someone is going to give you loads of money, they don’t do so without expecting a lot in return. Fundraising is “really like celebrating someone going into debt. Even equity investors expect a payback.” Does a business founder really want to owe everything to backers?  If you have a strong notion of how you want to build your company, it can pay to make your way independently.

So what exactly does bootstrapping a business involve? Bootstrapping in business means building a start-up by using internal cash flow (as opposed to money from family, friends, or investors) and little to no external help.  This method of growth is undeniably slower than big investments up front, but the time and effort can pay off. As “angel investor and wine entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk has said, ‘My dad taught me that when you borrow money it’s the worst day of your life.’” The bootstrapper can obtain financial independence and pursue the mission of her start-up unabated if she is willing to go the distance. Nobody will be knocking on her door looking for a return on investment except herself.

What are some ways bootstrappers can keep the company afloat in this entrepreneurial journey? After all, it’s not easy by any means, and there will be perils around many a corner. Startups can grow by reinvesting profits in their own growth if bootstrapping costs are low and return on investment is high. The entrepreneur can also continue working otherwise to fund the new venture. Or the business model might require customer financing – asking for payment up front before the service or product is delivered. And of course, there are an unlimited amount of other creative solutions for bootstrapping, ones to be determined most useful on a per-company basis.

What are some examples of successful bootstrapping? You might see somebody with experience in start-ups creating a new business. Nick Denton is a good example –after leaving his first company, First Tuesday, this guy worked out of an inexpensive storefront to build Gawker, a company now valued at $150 million.  On the other end, you have Sophia Amoruso who worked inconsequential odd jobs until she earned profitability and $30 million in annual sales with her clothing start-up, Nasty Gal. She bootstrapped her way to success in five years of sales on Ebay.

All of this bootstrapping talk isn’t meant so much as a deterrent to fundraising as it is used to suggest an alternative method for more securely and independently building your business instead. Nobody can deny the allure of that pot of gold at the end of the entrepreneurial rainbow. I mean, who would say she doesn’t want her idea or product to hit it big in all senses of that phrase? It’s just that very few ventures will actually end that way so easily and without consequence. If you want control, financially and structurally, of your company, it just might be better to spend the time buying a pot, finding gold bit by bit to fill it, and then painting the rainbow yourself.

 

Stacy Gregg is an educator, runner, reader, and mom to two energetic pre-schoolers. She joined the Rockies Venture Club at the end of 2012 to support the communications side of the organization.

NexGen Storage Acquired For $119 Million – From the VC's Perspective

Article by Tim Harvey, regular contributor to Rockies Venture Club Blog

This week, Fusion-io acquired Louisville, CO based NexGen Storage for $119 million. The next day, I had a chance to sit down with venture capitalist Kirk Holland of Access Venture Partners, who was also on NexGen’s board. Access Venture Partners co-led the $2 million series A round with Grotech Ventures, and Next World Capital later led the $10 million series B.

NexGen founders John Spiers and Kelly Long have been around the venture capital circuit before – they were co-founders of Boulder-based data storage company LeftHand Networks, which sold to Hewlett-Packard in 2008 for $360 million. A few years later, they again had a vision for a better data storage technology and started from scratch. This time around, solid-state disk drives and cloud infrastructure were ever more important, and they developed their product from the beginning with these ideas in mind, building it to intrinsically protect their competitive advantage. John and Kelly bootstrapped NexGen to get started in 2010, and reached out to Kirk regarding venture funding after about 6 months. Due diligence meetings, which went on for a few months, were held in Kelly’s basement where they first hatched the idea of NexGen – and a few short years later the $12 million in capital turned into an acquisition nearly 10X that amount. The exit was faster than expected, but they thought the terms were great and they were excited to work with Fusion-io.

Kirk’s previous firm, Vista Ventures in Boulder, began investing in LeftHand in 2001 so he had the chance to get to know John and Kelly over many years. He was impressed with the team more than 10 years ago, so in this deal he said “working with John and Kelly took the team risk off the table.” Given this strong relationship and the fact that LeftHand had one of the biggest VC exits Colorado has seen, they were ready to do it again. “The industry was pretty crowded when we made the investment,” Kirk said, with both venture-backed and big name tech companies all trying to do the next big thing in data storage. He thought NexGen’s technology could leapfrog the other products, and the experts Access Venture Partners brought in for due diligence confirmed that. “They were really passionate about building a great, sustainable business. NexGen reinforced the idea of working with trusted relationships,” Kirk said.

Access Venture Partners is a big name in the Colorado venture capital landscape. This is the second fund they’ve closed, and the MD’s there have invested over $100 million in more than 50 technology startups so far. These companies as a group have gone on to raise over $1.1 billion in additional capital, growing revenue 15X since initial investment, and creating over 3500 high paying jobs in Colorado. AVP currently has 20 companies in their active portfolio, with 19 successful exits. Their focus is on high-margin technology businesses in large or rapidly growing markets, especially in data security/storage, cloud computing, and digital media/consumer internet businesses. They lead the vast majority of fundraising rounds they participate in, and while sometimes that means writing the largest check, they also lead by investing first and getting other VC firms on board. They also like to work closely with entrepreneurs after the investment is made, often taking a board seat and using their connections to help place key executive talent, as they did with NexGen.

Kirk is a heavy hitter in the area as well, after moving to Colorado from the Bay Area. In addition to the nearly $500 million in exits he’s been involved with through LeftHand and NexGen, he led the Series B round for Rally Software, which raised $84 million in an IPO in April 2013. He was also an investor/board member for MX Logic, an Englewood, CO SaaS company that sold to McAfee in 2009 for $140 million. He’s been a TechStars mentor from the start, with Access VP also supporting and investing there early on. His focus within AVP is on cloud technologies and SaaS/consumer internet companies, and although he likes to leverage existing relationships, he also explores as many other startups as he can. “You have to keep looking under rocks and be open to the next generation,” he says. He believes in entrepreneurs who are passionate about building a great company, not looking for a quick buck. “It’s a red flag when I think someone is only in it for the money,” he says. Nonetheless, many of these companies have gone on to create substantial value here. “We’re really most happy for the founders and the (NexGen) team’s success. We’re here to support the entrepreneurs, but they’re really the ones that drive it.”

Big exits, especially in the 9-figure range like NexGen, are going to really help put Colorado on the VC map. While Boulder may be famous from investors like Brad Feld and TechStars, Kirk believes there is a shortage of early-stage capital in the area. “Early-stage investment has dropped in Colorado over the last 5-10 years as VC’s didn’t raise follow-on funds, while the number of young companies has grown”, he says. Venture capital isn’t limited to state lines, but it’s certainly helpful to have investors nearby. Fusion-io actually has offices just miles from NexGen, so this acquisition was sort of in their backyard as well. The universities in the area (CU, DU, CSU, Mines) attract technology and engineering talent, and many of the students that come to Colorado don’t want to leave after graduation. That’s what happened to me, and even though skiing might’ve been my excuse to move here when I was 18, it’s the people and the startup community (and the weather) that have keep me here. These schools also have close connections to the startup community, through groups like CU’s Deming Center for Entrepreneurship, and Colorado School of Mines’ Technology Transfer program to help students commercialize their inventions. Big players like Google, Microsoft, and Oracle are also importing talent by adding to their already-large ranks in Colorado. “The people here are very motivated and passionate about what they do,” Kirk says, “without the focus on a quick buck that leads to higher employee turnover rates” that concerned him with some companies he saw in the Bay Area. Colorado is also a less expensive place to build a business than anywhere in the big coastal cities, and still has solid venture capital groups like VCIRRockies Venture Club, as well as the sweetheart of Boulder, TechStars.

Although April was a great month for Colorado VC-backed firms, we have to keep innovating and building great companies to strengthen the region. More investment capital will certainly help – but it’s the people here that drive entrepreneurial success.

Article by Tim Harvey, regular contributor to Rockies Venture Club Blog