The smallest part of the Buffalo Billion just might be its most intriguing.
On the surface, a $5 million business plan competition sounds like a big yawn, something that only people with MBAs or accounting degrees could get excited about.
But it’s the potential that makes the contest – which organizers believe will be the biggest business plan competition in the entire United States – so interesting.
For a tiny slice of the $1 billion that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has promised for his high-profile bid to turn the region’s sputtering economy around (it’s akin to spending 5 cents when you’ve got $10), the region is rolling the dice that it can attract some of the nation’s best and brightest new business ideas.
If all goes well, the contest’s organizers hope upwards of 1,000 entrepreneurs will take the challenge, in anticipation of snagging the $1 million grand prize or 10 other runner-up awards of $250,000 to $500,000.
Maybe one will turn out to be another George Chamoun, another UB graduate who 15 years ago founded the Internet content provider now known as Synacor, which has grown to 400 employees.
Maybe one will be the next Ashok Subramanian, the co-founder of health insurance exchange operator Liazon, which has grown to 120 employees in just six years and was sold in November for $215 million.
Or maybe one will turn out to be another Eric Reich, who was one of three University at Buffalo graduates who won a $25,000 business plan competition a decade ago and used that money to build what became Campus Labs, a thriving business that employs 100 people in Buffalo and was sold in 2011 for $40 million.
That’s why, when officials officially kicked off the 43North business plan competition last week, Reich said it was “a day full of promise and opportunities. And I’m certainly living proof of that.”
The contest is a big deal because it’s aimed at reversing one of the Buffalo Niagara region’s biggest deficiencies: Our lack of successful business start-ups. Overall, the perception is that the Buffalo Niagara region is not where you want to be if you’ve got an idea for the next-big-thing.
Early stage investors are in short supply and only about $5 million in venture capital flows into the region each year. That makes it tough for startups to find new sources of funding once they’ve squeezed all of the money they can from the friends and family who typically fund new businesses during their earliest days.
We also don’t have a critical mass of budding businesses that otherwise would spawn a strong support system for those firms, partly because so many of our entrepreneurs get an idea for a business here, but go someplace else to get it started.
“We talk about how hard it is, but it is possible,” said Chamoun, who raves about how giving of their time prominent local executives were when he was seeking advice and support during Synacor’s early days.
“This community was unbelievable to me,” Chamoun said. “We can do it out of Buffalo.”
The challenge will be getting the word out. The $5 million in prizes certainly will help attract attention, but organizers also are planning a roadshow, with stops in a dozen U.S. cities and Toronto, as well as China, India and Israel.
John R. Koelmel, the local executive who is chairman of the New York Power Authority, said the business plan’s $1 million prize will be a beacon that attracts “courageous risk takers” and entrepreneurs. “It’s something we haven’t seen before,” he said.
“This little $5 million project will definitely help put Buffalo on the map and help keep us there,” said Koelmel, who has never been prone to understatement. “This one is – and will be – a really big deal.”
Some of the elements already are in place. The Buffalo Niagara region’s colleges and universities collect more than their fair share of research funding, and that’s a prime source of fodder for new businesses. Buffalo ranks 47th among metro areas nationally for total research funding, and funding levels here are almost double the national average, according to a 2011 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
But that research isn’t spawning nearly as many new businesses as it should. The region ranks just 97th in new business formation and we rank 87th in patents, far below what you’d expect from an area of our size and research clout.
The nice thing about the business plan competition, though, is that it’s not insular. The ideas don’t have to come from someone local. It could be someone from Arizona who needs money to get his business started. It could be someone from China or Israel. And that type of new blood is just what we need in an area where the flow of talent and ideas has been going the wrong way for decades.
“In some ways, this is a venture capital fund,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
Beyond the money, the winners get rent-free space in an incubator here, plus support and mentoring services. They have to agree to start their business in Buffalo and stay here for at least a year.
So doesn’t that mean the winners all will take the money, endure a year in Buffalo, and then bolt for greener pastures, laughing all the way at our naivete?
Howard Zemsky, the co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Corp., doesn’t think so. He thinks they’ll like what they find in the Buffalo Niagara region once they settle here. And the more settled they become, the harder it will be for them to move.
“A year is a pretty long time in the life cycle of these businesses,” he said.
Another factor is our favor is the state’s new Start-Up New York program, which lets new businesses in targeted areas operate virtually tax free. That’s another powerful carrot to stick around for when the profits start rolling in.
The idea is to plant seeds that stand a decent chance of sprouting into solid businesses. And the more seeds you plant, the better chance you have that more of them will take root. That’s why Zemsky said the idea is to hold this competition not just this year, but every year for the next five years.
Even relative newcomers are intrigued by the competition.
“This will be a great thing for the region,” said Stephen Weathers, who moved to Buffalo two months ago to take the top job at the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.
But the competition also is sure to come with its fair share of failure.
The rule of thumb in the venture capital industry is that, for every 10 start-ups that get funding, roughly four will completely fail. Another four will pay back their venture capital investment or turn a moderate profit. Maybe only two will yield a significant return for its financial backers.
But it’s those businesses that turn out to be home runs that more than make up for all the failures, according to the National Venture Capital Association.
So it’s important to head into the business plan competition with the understanding that failure is a big part of the game. It’s not unusual for entrepreneurs to fail with their first or second idea, but succeed with their third try, partly because of what they learned from their earlier failures.
“It comes with the territory,” Zemsky said. “May this community never again be paralyzed by the fear of failure.”