The secret is starting to get out: It’s possible to make a vault-full of money by starting a business in the Buffalo Niagara region.
And not just a little vault, either.
Liazon’s deal a little more than a week ago to be acquired by a global consulting firm for $215 million is the latest in a series of recent deals that is helping to debunk the perception that the Buffalo Niagara region is a wasteland for entrepreneurs – a place where good ideas wither on the vine.
“It’s fantastic,” said Jordan Levy, the Buffalo venture capitalist who last year co-founded the Z80 Labs incubator for budding technology companies.
“It proves that you can do it here. You don’t have to leave to do it,” Levy said. “This is further validation that, if you have a good idea and a good management team – and a good team is probably first – you can get funding.”
It’s not just Liazon that hit it big just six years after the operator of health insurance exchanges turned on the lights for the first time.
Campus Labs, started by a pair of University at Buffalo graduates back in 2001 to help colleges and universities analyze data about their programs and students, was acquired last year for more than $40 million.
Synacor, a locally based Internet content provider, raised $34 million in an initial public stock offering last year, though its shares have sagged following a hot start.
“Everyone thinks we’re near the Arctic Circle, but we’re not,” said Pete Grum, the president of Rand Capital Corp., a Buffalo-based venture capital firm that saw its investment in Liazon jump nearly six-fold in just three years.
“They’ll all be rich people because of this deal,” Grum said. “You can get financing. This shows it.”
There’s no denying that the Buffalo Niagara region has been anything but a hotbed for entrepreneurship. The perception is that entrepreneurs with an idea for the next-great-thing can’t build their business here.
There’s an undeniable shortage of early stage investors and only about $5 million in venture capital flows into the region each year. That can make funding tough once a startup has squeezed all of the money they can from the friends and family who typically fund startups at their earliest stage.
And with entrepreneurs taking their ideas elsewhere, the region lacks the critical mass of budding businesses that would otherwise spawn a strong support system for those firms.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
The Buffalo Niagara region’s colleges and universities collect more than their fair share of research funding. 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.
Yet the region ranks just 97th in new business formation – an ominous indication that the region does a horrible job turning that research into new businesses. All too often, those innovations are turned into businesses someplace else.
“We are trying to convert the amazing amount of research ... into jobs,” said Howard Zemsky, the co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.
It helps that the state, through the development council, is backing a $5 million business plan competition that will launch early next year. The hope is that upward of 1,000 entrepreneurs will send in their ideas for a new business, and the best will get as much as $1 million to do it here.
Then there’s the Start-Up NY program that offers qualifying startups and businesses that are new to the area the chance to avoid all state taxes if they set up shop in a designated area.
“Now we have other tools we can use to help companies grow,” Levy said.
But it’s still an uphill fight. With so little venture funding flowing here, we don’t have a broad base of connections to the venture capital industry, which relies heavily on recommendations from one investor to another.
So while Levy said venture capitalists are more than willing to do deals here, it takes more work to tip them off to opportunities here than it does in places where they have a lot more connections.
“You say they won’t come to Buffalo to do deals? They will,” Levy said. “My colleagues in the venture business will fly anywhere for a good deal.”
Even so, Levy concedes, “it’s not easy for me to get VCs to come to Buffalo.”
But deals like Liazon’s – and Campus Labs and Synacor before it – are a start.
Liazon managed to attract funding from heavy hitters like Bessemer Venture Partners, Fidelity Biosciences and Bain Capital Ventures. Those firms now know that there’s money to be made in Buffalo.
Levy even made a pitch to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership last week that it should take out an ad in venture capital trade publications touting the Synacor, Campus Labs and Liazon deals so the rest of the industry knows, too.
“It demonstrates that you can absolutely do it here and you can absolutely succeed,” he said.