Tuesday, May 29, 2012

New initiatives to expand and promote entrepreneurship in Western Massachusetts

New initiatives to expand and promote entrepreneurship  in Western Massachusetts have been launched and angels including Paul Silva are leading the charge two hours west of the nearest Red Line station.

“Startup hubs like Silicon Valley, Boston, and a few others offer vibrant ecosystems that nurture companies from seed to harvest.  But most of us don't live in one of these hubs!”  says Paul Silva, manager of the River Valley Investors . “Entrepreneurs can migrate to these areas, but they first need to get enough momentum to make it worthwhile.  Most entrepreneurs don't start out that way - they have lives and families and responsibilities tied to another  geography.  So the startups never start.

“In an ideal world, there would be a vibrant ecosystem to support the formation of startups everywhere.  Then, when the ventures were mature enough, they’d  migrate to another area if that made sense.  We can't all be Silicon Valley - nor should we try.  But we can all work to make our own communities as supportive of the entrepreneurial spirit as possible.

“Over the past 10 years my community, the Pioneer Valley (AKA Western Massachusetts), has succeeded in building a great "intro to entrepreneurship" academic structure at all of the colleges and universities (thanks in large part to the work of the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation).  But when our top students finished the class... then what?  They could certainly use more academic training, but what they really needed was real-world experience.  They needed mentoring.  

“The UMass Amherst Entrepreneurship Initiative saw this problem and reached out to its friends (especially Steve Willis of Common Angels) to create Valley Venture Mentors, a venture mentoring program inspired by the MIT Venture Mentor Service.  We launched it in February of 2011 and it has been a runaway success.  We have dozens of mentors helping almost a dozen exciting startups ranging from nonprofits to high tech and everything in-between.”

 How it works:  put the right people in the same room, give them just enough structure, and facilitate beneficial collisions.  The program meets monthly so that mentors have a chance to build real relationships and see how the ventures evolve over time.  Between the monthly sessions mentors give as much, or as little, time to each venture as they feel appropriate, with no long-term commitments or expectations.  The program's leadership monitors mentors and entrepreneurs that choose to deepen their relationship.

These monthly events are designed to generate excitement. In crisp seven minute presentations the entrepreneurs tell their stories and ask for help in addressing specific hurdles.  During the second part of the session, the mentors divide up in separate rooms with the entrepreneur of their choice, and begin to plan, create, and problem-solve.  Each meeting includes a mix of former presenters and debut appearances.

The mentoring program is open to angels, but also to non-accredited investors that meet the group's criteria.  This openness has brought in an amazing group of folks who have made a real impact on the entrepreneurs we are helping.  The mentoring program is not meant to be a funnel for investments - the companies are too raw and early... but we don't complain is one is a good fit for investment.  “One team recruited its CTO from our mentors and will be presenting to my angel group next month,” says Silva.  “This is a team that didn't have a chance at raising money six months ago - it was just a URL and a concept on paper.

“The model has proven extremely scalable and cost-effective. It is far too early to tell, but it is our hope that we have a model that can easily be replicated in other geographies.”  

Entrepreneurs praise this program. “They’ve helped me make critical decisions and move forward to make this business become a reality. says  Marcie Muehlke, founder of Joya Bride.  “It would have been a lot more difficult and slower without them.”  Muehlke was one of several VVM startups, mentors, and founders to be featured in BusinessWest on the impact VVM has had in growing the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.  To read the full article, visit here

A key component of the ecosystem is the River Valley Investors angel group,  co-founded by Joseph Steig in 2003. Paul Silva joined  in January of 2004 as an associate, becoming manager  of the group in 2005.  He became  prominently visible in the region about three years ago, when he took on responsibility for screening deals for our  NE ACA regional syndication meetings.  Since January of this year, he has served as principal organizer of these meetings.

Most recently,  Silva has  been named  associate director of the UMass Amherst Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management, a new center dedicated to helping students create new products, services, and ventures.

With the creation of this new Center, funded by the Isenberg School of Management, “there are finally resources to achieve some of the dreams many of us have had for UMass for many years, “ says Silva, himself a graduate with a BS in computational physics (2000).   “The new position is half time, so I continue to serve as executive director of Valley Venture Mentors and as Manager of my angel group the River Valley Investors in the other half. I sadly had to step down from a number of exciting positions to make room, but I believe it will prove well worth it.”

Of his work in total,  Silva says “It is early days, but they are exciting ones.  And I think if we can do it here in Western MA with the models we are using; it is possible for lots of other regions of the country to help their entrepreneurs get started.´

What should he tackle next?  Maybe a Red Line stop on the Smith College Campus adjacent to the new engineering school, thus joining the Pioneer Valley to America's Technology Subway.   Watch this space.


Unknown said...

You are most kind George. Thank you!

Nguyen thanh quang said...

thanks for share