Venture Association to focus on educational events, target early-stage tech startups

Entrepreneurs group refines its mission, tactics

CINCINNATI -- For the past three years, the Greater Cincinnati Venture Association has “connected founders with funders” – that is, business entrepreneurs with people who have the means and desire to invest in local businesses.

It’s been known for its evening events at local night spots, where hundreds gather for fun stuff like a Wiffle ball home-run derby, but also to hear informal talks by successful local entrepreneurs.

This year, as its leadership has changed, the association plans to narrow its focus a bit by providing educational events and programming exclusively for local early-stage technology startups -- something that this area has an abundance of, said the association’s new president, Kevin Mackey. He is also the senior program manager/startup advocate for Cintrifuse, a local nonprofit whose mission is to make Cincinnati the premier destination in the Midwest for startup companies.

“To me, it’s the right strategy for the right time, given everything that’s happening in the (startup) ecosystem,” he said, and a sign of how strong the local startup community is.

The association has been moving in this direction for some time.

In May 2014, it had its first Joe Thirty, a morning event in which one early-stage startup tells its story and asks the audience for ideas to solve three of its most pressing problems. Those problems are identified in the invitations to the event, so that subject matter experts can attend.

Last March, the association had its first Breakfast Club, another morning event in which three early-stage startups make eight-minute pitches to an audience of entrepreneurs, investors and other startup fans. The pitchers can’t explicitly ask for capital, but they can follow up afterward with interested investors.

This year, the association plans to continue to hold Joe Thirty and Breakfast Club events every other month, along with evening events, Mackey said.

But it also plans to add two new events specifically for early-stage startups:

> An evening event in April, as yet unnamed, for people interested in “angel” investing – providing capital for early-stage startups. The event will have three speakers: an experienced entrepreneur who has taken money from angel investors, a “super-angel” who has invested in several startups and an attorney who can explain what angel investors need to know about investment law. Local angel investor organizations will also have representatives on hand who can speak to potential investors after the speakers finish.

>An evening event in September, Cash Pitch, in which eight startups chosen by entrepreneurs from outside the region make pitches to a panel of entrepreneurs, who will award the best one $25,000. They will judge the contestants on the originality of their ideas, the strength of their presentation, the qualities of their team, their industry knowledge/experience and their go-to-market strategy, Mackey said.

Funding is a huge issue for most startups, Mackey said, especially for those that don’t have a track record of traction in the marketplace. The $25,000 prize would be enough to help a company develop a product to the point where it can get enough feedback and market traction to get funding from an institutional investor such as Queen City Angels, he said.

The change in focus is nothing new for the Greater Cincinnati Venture Association. The group has gone through many iterations and much evolution since its creation in the early ‘80s, said immediate past president Vance VanDrake, an intellectual property attorney with Ulmer & Berne LLP. That’s one reason it’s been so successful, he said.

Five years ago, the group did only lunch meetings, where everyone wore a coat and tie.

“It was very service-provider oriented, with very few entrepreneurs,” VanDrake said.

When VanDrake became president three years ago, local entrepreneurs had no good access into the community. The evening networking events, with their casual atmosphere, were designed to give them that access point, he said.

Now, he said, Cintrifuse has matured into a nice entry point for entrepreneurs, and there are many more events for entrepreneurs than there were just five years ago. The big networking events aren’t needed as much as events with content, he said.

Through his work with Cintrifuse, Mackey, who became president of the association in December, can easily identify the startup community's needs as they change, so the association can adapt to help meet them, VanDrake said.

“There’s so much good stuff out there right now (for entrepreneurs), as a group, we don’t want to (duplicate it),” he added.

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