Bill Rader likes to remind people that his company, Efferent Labs, was born at the Mayo Clinic. But he isn't referring to any of the top-ranked facility's research endeavors. Instead, the idea for Efferent Labs was born in a hospital bed--Rader's own.
It was while recovering from a lesion in his brain that had temporarily paralyzed half of his body that Rader first thought about the technology that would eventually underpin Efferent Labs.
Rader’s doctors had told him that he might never recover, but then Rader realized he could, once or twice a day, twitch his fingers. He was convinced that the lesion was shrinking, even though he had no way of monitoring its status in real time.
The lesion did shrink. Rader recovered and went in search of the technology he had dreamt up in a hospital bed.
From idea to R&D
Fast-forward to the present and the technology Rader was looking for now fits in the palm of his hand--an implantable sensor that will allow researchers, and someday physicians, to monitor cellular activity in real time.
But turning an idea into a tangible product took more than the passage of time. It took funding.
As Rader wrote in Forbes Magazine, "The difference between an idea and a business is money and execution. Lots of money."
Rader learned of the 43North startup competition which offers applicants the possibility of up to $1 million in start-up funding for their business. The catch: they had to commit to staying in Western New York for the next few years.
If the availability of funding wasn't reason enough to make a move to Buffalo, Rader saw even more benefit when looking at the city itself.
"The resources available--huge," he says, describing how the medical complex in Buffalo provides an environment where technology can move from development to practice cheaper and faster than it might in other locations.
"Life sciences is always difficult," Rader says. Most of the available funding is eaten up by major research centers in California and Massachusetts. What remains is about 10 percent of the total available funding to be squabbled over by 48-states worth of entrepreneurs.
In other words, he saw that he would get more value for his money in Buffalo. And he knew that success in securing any funding for Efferent Labs would depend heavily on the decisions he made early on.
Bill Rader. Photo by Nancy Parisi.So he applied to the competition and won, $500,000 to start work in Buffalo. The first step: figuring out where the next $500,000 would come from.
For Rader, the next steps after receiving funding were made easier by being in a place with to yourself in a place with a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem.
"I can take a dollar and turn it into two," Rader adds matter-of-factly.
His strategies for doing so are diverse. A good start is to look for other grants – "matching grants," Rader says, "[are] the lowest hanging fruit."
After that, federal grants for innovations research and technology transfer targeted toward small businesses (SBIR and SSTR grants) are a good option, but more competitive. Part of their value, Rader explains, is that they serve as a vetting-process for future funding opportunities.
In other instances, Rader uses his business savvy to find ways to cut expenses--effectively doubling his assets. If he gets a quote for $300,000 from a company for a project, he will find a person capable of doing the same work for less.
The primary challenge then becomes juggling the needs of a growing company. For Rader, that means balancing three main tasks: advancing the product, marketing, and seeking more funding, with an ultimate goal of getting the product ready for sale to a manufacturer. Achieving these tasks has meant keeping the funds flowing while at the same time leveraging them to their fullest. According to Rader, it boils down to one thing: creativity.
“Creative thinking allows you to maximize your value,” Rader says.
Finding the right fit--in funding and partners
Leslie McManus, owner of BluePrint Design Studio--an interior design gallery that just moved into its first location in the Horsefeathers building on Connecticut St, is looking to turn her years of experience into a successful business.
Sitting in her gallery, surrounded by shining stone slabs and bright, intricate tile patterns, McManus is in her element. When she speaks of her previous attempts to reach this point – "seven attempts" she says – it casts a new light over the gallery.
This space was hard-won.
For McManus, the challenge of securing a loan has been the limiting factor. She explains that those seven attempts involved asking for too much money, or too little.
"Trying to do it as an independent person, as a woman, was difficult," McManus says, noting instances where lenders would ask her what her husband's role would be in the business.
McManus has ten years of freelancing experience in Buffalo, prior to which she lived in Boston working in high-end design and furniture galleries. She had the design clout to go after her dream of owning her own gallery, but the treatment she received was discouraging.
What she needed wasn't just an opportunity--she needed the right opportunity to fund her idea. She found it with the Westminster Economic Development Fund – WEDI – a non-profit organization in Buffalo that seeks to strengthen the community through education and business initiatives.
They gave her a counselor – Yanush Sanmugaraja – who helped her lay out a business plan and apply for a loan.
For McManus, this was a lesson in adaptability. In the past, she had realized her business plans were too long, too short, and too unnatural for her artistic sensibility. Working with Sanmugaraja, she realized that what she needed wasn't just funding--it was a plan she could visualize.
"He let me run with it in my own style," McManus says. For her, that meant color blocking."It's kind of a natural thing for me."
She resolved to keep the plan simple, focusing on the quality of her products and skill, and was thrilled when her advisors could follow along with her plan.
With the loan she ultimately received from WEDI, McManus moved quickly to find a place to open her business. Her goal is to be part of the neighborhood--she wants her customers to be able to walk to the store, rather than driving to commercial centers in the suburbs.
But along the way she has faced challenges that securing a loan couldn't fix. For McManus, a big hurdle was finding suppliers who would work with her to stock her gallery. She had worked with many of them before, but this was a new challenge – what good was a gallery without products to display?
"When I was looking to finally have my own [gallery]--they didn't want to talk to me," she says. Eventually, she found someone who was willing to work with her--Deborah at Artistic Tile. Once again, what McManus needed was to find the right person--someone who would listen to her story and believe in her company.
Once other suppliers heard that a major company was willing to talk to her, McManus had a much easier time getting them to work with her. She now stocks products she can stand behind. McManus is aware that working with stone is not the most environmentally-friendly business.
"Once you take it out of the ground, you can't put it back," she says. Thus she seeks out suppliers who make efforts to minimize their environmental impact
With funding, a location, and products she can recommend for more than their aesthetic appeal, McManus has her eye on the next challenge: marketing.
Her first priority is getting her website up and running. Then, with a minimal budget, she intends to make the most of social media. She also knows she will need to learn to do product photography.
Going forward, she views her two main challenges as minimizing costs while building her image. McManus wants her clients to know that her work will reflect their style and needs.
"The final design is not going to be my design at your house," McManus says.
With enough growth, McManus hopes to hire 3-4 employees and move her business to a bigger, more permanent space within the next year. The possibility of moving further downtown--keeping the neighborhood feeling but upping her accessibility to clients seeking high-end design, may be an option.
"It will be a city boutique," she says in the voice of a designer with a picture already in her mind. With the right partners and the right funding obtained; she is on her way.