Guilford County and the surrounding counties aren’t exactly Silicon Valley when it comes to being a hotbed for start-ups, but a new venture fund run by the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce is trying to jumpstart – and foster the development of – new area businesses by providing money to promising companies in the critical early stages of their development.
Last week, eager entrepreneurs gave presentations to representatives of First Launch Capital Fund in hopes of being the first ones to receive financing from the initiative.
Lou Anne Flanders-Stec, executive vice president of entrepreneurship for the chamber, is overseeing the effort.
“We expect to write the first check before the end of the year,” Flanders-Stec said.
She said the only thing that would prevent that is if there are some big surprises in the due diligence stage, but added that’s unlikely to happen.
First Launch Capital Fund has raised $532,000 since spring and is on the path to the ultimate goal of $2.5 million. The fund will use a variety of funding methods to get the money to promising startup companies. It could be in the form of traditional loans, but the more common method will likely be the use of various financial instruments that provide fund money for the startup in exchange for ownership shares of the company.
If the fund picks successful businesses and sees solid returns, it could grow much larger than $2.5 million over time. The fund has been raising money from investors who put in a minimum of $15,000 and it has also has been receiving donations from those who want to help grow business in the area but have no expectation of financial gain.
The First Launch fund is a “traditional seed-stage venture fund” that focuses on finding and developing high-growth companies in the early stages of development. Fund organizers will work together with other local economic development organizations in an attempt to create a thriving startup community in Guilford County and surrounding areas.
Flanders-Stec has experience with over 20 startup and early-stage companies for which she’s played a funding or financial planning role, and she has served as the chief financial officer for the Signature Capital Fund.
She said that, in some cases, the type of financing that will be used for First Launch companies will be convertible notes – that is, the fund will issue debt that will later be converted into ownership shares when those companies issue stock.
At an early stage of a company, Flanders-Stec said, it’s very difficult to price the value of ownership shares; however, she added, that can be done with more accuracy later in the process.
She also said that the businesses need to be far enough along to benefit from the First Launch funding.
“We’re looking at companies with a product that’s pretty well complete and beta tested,” she said.
She also said that First Launch officers will thoroughly vet fund recipients.
“There are three experienced investors on our due diligence team,” she said.
The fund’s organizers want First Launch to profit and grow, but the ultimate goal is to drive economic development in and around Guilford County.
Flanders-Stec said the nice thing about getting donations on top of the money it raises from investors is that it offers a pool of money that can grow and be put right back into the fund to finance other ventures. She said that if the fund makes lucrative investments, it will be “evergreen.”
“We never have to raise that money again and as long as we have returns,” she said. “We don’t have to keep going back.”
Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President Brent Christensen said the fund is part of the chamber’s GROW campaign, a five-year multi-pronged program meant to enhance economic vitality in and around Guilford County. He said that, in the early stages of a business, a little well-placed funding can go a long way.
“In many cases, they don’t need a ton of money,” he said.
Christensen said any good economic development strategy has three prongs – recruiting new business, supporting existing industry and encouraging entrepreneurs, something he said he expects this fund to do.