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New peer group in Buffalo helps entrepreneurs hit the ground running

The Avanti Entrepreneur Group, owned by business coach David Mammano, has opened its newest chapter in Buffalo.

The Buffalo chapter, which convened for the first time in June, offers peer mentorship to area businesspeople and startups across several industries.

“We say don’t go at it alone, even if they (entrepreneurs) have employees,” said Mammano. “The mission is to create a community of small business entrepreneurs who have that spirit of wanting to learn and grow together.”

Statistically, only one of 10 entrepreneurs will make it to one million in revenue, as opposed to franchisees, of whom nine out of 10 reach a million because the support network already exists, according to Mammano, a TEDx speaker and adjunct professor at the University of Rochester.

“Our benefit is that we are focusing on the small business entrepreneur and helping the zero startup get to a million,” Mammano said. “We really want Avanti to become that support system.”

Adaptability and accountability are two more benefits members gain from the peer group meetings, said Buffalo chapter chair Mike DiCioccio.

When DiCioccio first started his digital marketing and media consulting agency, Social Chameleon, he spent a great amount of time networking among groups such as BNI (Circle of Excellence) and Rotary Club of West Seneca, while conducting his own diligent research.

What was lacking from his entrepreneurial journey, however, is what he calls the “personal touch.”

“I was getting great content from books, audiobooks, podcasts, and videos, but I wasn’t sitting in front of someone who was saying, ‘Okay, well now that I’ve given you all of this information, what kind of questions do you have?’”

The group feedback and collaborative experience sharing that Avanti provides is what DiCioccio believes he was searching for in the beginning stages of his business development.

“We’re thinking similarly, our work ethics are similar, we’re iron sharpening iron,” DiCioccio said of the atmosphere at peer group meetings.

Avanti Buffalo chapter meetings will be held every other month at the Alliance Advisory building, 600 Delaware Ave., and monthly peer group meetings will be held at the Orchard Park Chamber of Commerce, 6524 E. Quaker St.

“My goal right now is to continue to add members to our group,” DiCioccio said.

Minority and women entrepreneurs get a boost from the Allstate Foundation and UB

If you're a woman or a member of the minority communities with a dream to take your business to the next level, you’ve got friends right around the corner. For nearly 15 years, entrepreneurs have built and grown their businesses with the help of mentors at the Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs Program, a joint venture by the University at Buffalo’s School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and the UB Center for Urban Studies.

The program started in 2004 to support women and minority entrepreneurs in the Western New York ecosystem as they move their businesses to the next stage of development. Since 2005, the Allstate Foundation has provided a grant to underwrite the cost of the program, making it more affordable for the entrepreneur, noted Alex Cleat Pelc, senior program coordinator.

To date, 297 entrepreneurs have graduated from the program.

Participants, called protégés, learn about different aspects of running a small business, devise realistic goals and timetables, and connect with existing resources and successful business owners to develop their companies. The program is geared primarily toward helping established businesses grow, rather than incubating new startups, according to Tom Ulbrich, assistant dean and executive director.

“The vast majority of the people going through our program are scaling up smaller businesses,” he explained. “We’re getting an occasional startup; however, many startups will just refer to the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) and other programs in the community. The idea is to grow them … and introduce them to mentors that will help get them to the next level.”

Protégés meet twice a month in class from September until May and also work outside the classroom through networking events and mentoring. They complete a revised or newly developed business plan, and three protégés are selected, based on their presentations, to win monetary prizes during the graduation ceremony at the end of the program.

The program limits classes to 30, with a mix of experienced business owners and a few fledgling entrepreneurs. Classmates build a mutual support system as they share common problems and find solutions.

One successful graduate of the program was only 14 and attending Tapestry Charter School when she participated, noted Cleat Pelc.

“Sandra Cunningham…went through the program a few years ago…She’s been on Good Morning America. She makes her own bath and body products, and you can find a lot of her stuff in local stores like Wegmans and Whole Foods. It’s called Zandra Beauty.”

This year’s Protégé of the Year was Allison DeHonney. DeHonney spent 20 years in the insurance field before starting her own company, Urban Fruits and Veggies, which serves local residents in the City of Buffalo who have no access to fresh produce.

The company helps customers eat healthier foods, feel better, and improve their overall health and wellness. Urban Fruits and Veggies operates a mobile produce market, offers a fruit and vegetable prescription program, and runs farmers markets on the East Side of Buffalo.

“Our prescription program is targeted to the underserved community with folks…who have health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular issues,” DeHonney explained. “So we work with clinics and physicians to bring that program into the community.”

DeHonney notes that her mentor “really understood my business and helped me focus on pricing my time, putting value on my time, and attaching monetary value to some of the services I provide.”

“I’m very happy I took the class,” she continued. “I’ve met some amazing people; my classmates have amazing businesses that I’m sure are going to be very successful. The class was really good at looking at what challenges you are facing and how (to) overcome some of those challenges. So I think it was a great experience.”

The Giving Project launches campaign benefitting Music is Art

The Giving Project, an online professional fundraising platform that works closely with local companies to generate large amounts of money for deserving charities while providing them with a low-cost and effective marketing tool, announced it will be launching its August campaign to benefit Music is Art.

Each month, the Giving Project will feature a new campaign to benefit a charity. These campaigns will be sponsored by area businesses and individuals who create exclusive prizes and experiences for the purposes of an online sweepstakes on When individuals donate to the charity via the website, they’re rewarded with entries to win the prize.

This month’s prize is two front row seats to the Goo Goo Dolls concert at Shea’s Performing Arts in Buffalo this October, as well as a meet and greet with Robby Takac, an autographed guitar, and a private tour of Takac’s recording studio. The contest kicked off Aug. 1 and concludes after the Music is Art festival on Sept. 8.

“We’re excited to announce this campaign. The prize is fantastic and we’re confident the community will be very receptive,” said Joseph Castle, founder and president of the Giving Project. “Aside from raising funds, we also hope to create exposure for Music is Art within the Western New York area.”

The Giving Project provides businesses with access to community outreach, social media development, brand exposure, employee satisfaction, and a low-cost advertising business model by sponsoring a campaign. If a business does not want to donate a prize, it has the option of becoming a partner in the campaign by matching a donation amount or making a flat donation to the cause.

“We want to have as many people as possible donating as often as possible,” said Castle. “In essence, we want to make giving a habit. We want to encourage everyone to take part in our fundraising campaign series by offering a chance to win great and exciting prizes. As always, we want to thank the Music is Art organization for making this campaign possible.”

Facebook boosts small businesses in Buffalo

When it comes to success in business, it’s not what you know, but who you know that matters. The City of Good Neighbors is lucky to know David Jakubowski, a Buffalo native who has been working at Facebook since 2014. Jakubowski was a champion for Ignite Buffalo and the Facebook Community Boost program to come to his hometown.

One of several such events held across the country, Facebook Community Boost was designed to help small-business owners improve their digital skills. But Buffalo’s program had an added incentive: the Ignite Buffalo competition, a $1 million dollar economic development initiative.

On July 9, the event kicked off at Erie Community College with keynote speaker Kevin O’Leary, a Canadian businessman, author, and television personality, who shared best practices from his years on “Shark Tank” and managing dozens of portfolio companies. Throughout the following three days, participants were able to attend breakout sessions and meet with Facebook staff to get answers to their questions on issues like connecting with customers and effective ways to use social media. The event culminated July 11, when 27 winners of Ignite Buffalo grants ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 were announced. These winners will also receive a year of free mentorship from Facebook and its partners.

Of the 27 winning businesses, 22 of which were women-owned, several were previously featured in Upstart NY. We asked a few of them how the program, and the grant money, will help their business.

Breadhive Bakery & Café and Revolution Spinning both received $25,000 awards. Allison Ewing, one of the worker-owners of Breadhive, says that they will use the grant to purchase another van, which will enable them to expand the café’s catering program. “It's amazing to see so many small businesses outside of the tech sector receive a capital infusion like this,” she said, “especially businesses like ours, that are difficult to capitalize!”

Colleen Kirk of Revolution Spinning explained that she and co-owners Amanda Meyers and Rachel McCrone are planning major renovations and expansion of their four-year-old business, and the grant will help them hire the additional staffing they will need, including a business manager, which will enable them to focus on long-term business development and community engagement. She added that attending the Facebook Community Boost workshops were an added benefit.

“Our biggest takeaways were social media related,” she said. “We learned some very useful info on how to better use Facebook and Instagram to target new clients, as well as some fun apps that can help our content be more engaging and interesting to our current clients. At 30-40 minutes per session, all the information was easy to understand, digest, and put into action!”

Both Mike Zak of Gro-operative and David Horesh of Oxford Pennant were the recipients of the top grants of $100,000 each.

“Winning this award is an honor and an affirmation that our mission of environmentally sustainable local food, that is democratically owned and operated by the workers, is as important to all people as it is to us,” Zak said. “We are going to use this money buy 10 new grow towers and six new fish tanks for our new, larger location. This will enable us to fulfill our current orders and more!”

Oxford Pennant has grown steadily during its five years in operation, Horesh said, but receiving the award was still “a really big deal to a company of our size. This is the largest injection of cash that we’ve ever received at one time, so I think the challenge that we face right now is making sure that we’re maximizing it and finding ways to combine it with our existing plans.”

Horesh is seeking guidance from his advisors and evaluating opportunities to ensure that he makes “the best possible investment and not just an investment that feels right.” Ideally, that investment will allow him to buy equipment, hire employees, and "supercharge the business.”

Whether they won an award or not, participants left the Facebook Community Boost program inspired with ideas to grow their businesses; ideas that they could immediately implement. It’s just another example of how Buffalo is continuing to find ways to support small business success.

Horesh notes that, thanks to the efforts of several local organizations, more new businesses are coming to Buffalo, and this influx is making Western New York an ideal location for programs like Facebook Community Boost. “I’m very grateful that we can enjoy the benefits of that,” he said.

Grant will sharpen focus on local clean energy efforts

FuzeHub, a nonprofit organization that assists small- and mid-sized New York state manufacturers with competitiveness issues, has been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to receive a $150,000 award to help close the gap between American innovators who develop new energy technologies and domestic manufacturers who produce them. And very soon, a portion of the funds will be put to use in Western New York, assisting the region’s growing clean-tech sector—renewable and efficiency energy technologies that support a global clean energy economy—through educational workshops and resources for entrepreneurs.

FuzeHub applied for the DOE’s American Inventions Made Onshore grant in April 2018, said Kim Lloyd, FuzeHub’s director of special projects.

“We have always been engaged in helping manufacturers across New York state with their scale-up challenges within the energy industry, but we wanted to increase our efforts” Lloyd explained. “When we heard about the AIM Onshore opportunity, we were excited to pursue it. The process included competing with proposals from organizations all across the country. Knowing that they were only going to select four awardees, we knew that required putting our best foot forward."

Apparently, their best effort did not go unnoticed.

“We received notification that we won at the end of May, and we were invited to the announcement at the MForesight National Summit in Washington, D.C., on the afternoon of June 13,” Lloyd continued. “The National Summit explored answers to big questions for American manufacturing by thought leaders and politicians in support of advancing manufacturing initiatives. Daniel Simmons, who leads the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, announced all four winners, including FuzeHub.”

While still early in the planning process, FuzeHub will be partnering with clean-tech incubators who will help them identify candidates for Build4Scale training, which helps innovators connect with manufacturers. Training also helps innovators avoid common pitfalls of product design by teaching them manufacturing design fundamentals in the early stages of prototype development, and provides them with the know-how they need to work with manufacturers.

As part of the New York Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a network of organizations that provides growth and innovation services to small- and mid-sized manufacturers in every corner of the state, FuzeHub’s efforts will extend beyond training.

“We need to make sure the training leads to manufacturing scale up, and the MEP centers are key to that effort,” Lloyd added. “In Western New York, these partners would include MEP InSyte Consulting and Launch NY to help with the necessary business and funding guidance the clean-tech sector companies would need to be successful. The Western New York Innovation Hot Spot/WNY Incubator Network, managed by the University at Buffalo, is a collaborative of multiple incubators (including the Directed Energy Virtual Incubator) and receives support from the state economic development agency. They will also engage its client innovators in support of our Build4Scale training.”

So, in a nutshell, what does this actually mean for the Western New York business community?

“Western New York is home to a lot of industrial manufacturing in a transition state” said Lloyd. “This landscape has changed drastically over the past couple of decades. Recently, there have been a few prominent renewable energy initiatives, including $1 million in investment in UB's Renewable Energy Future. The combination of these two trends makes Western New York ripe terrain for our efforts. Our goal is to be part of the clean energy solutions growth in Western New York and beyond, by helping promising clean-tech innovations get from the drawing board to the marketplace. As we help the clean-tech ventures grow, so too, will they help bring about business for existing Western New York manufacturers.”

Visionary entrepreneur Pete Cimino is helping move Buffalo forward

Before the Hertel Avenue restaurant and soft serve ice cream shop, before the food trucks that paved the way, literally, for a fleet of followers, lloyd Taco Factory co-founder Pete Cimino was an entrepreneurial pioneer moving in a completely different direction from food.

Cimino tried his hand at teaching, then ventured into real estate, hoping to take advantage of Buffalo’s property boom. His business partnerships didn’t work that time, but he plunged forward, navigating county and city regulations and permitting to install Western New York’s first food truck, a trend that had already blossomed in cities like Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles.

That was seven years ago. At the age of 36, Cimino is already a veteran restaurateur and an institution in the city. And he was recently named a Buffalo Business First 40 under 40 recipient as a vital, young business leader in Buffalo.

“I was obviously surprised. I wasn't expecting that at all. I’m honored to say the least, and also with that comes some form of greater responsibility. The expectations that come with being included in this group is that we’ll help move the city forward,” Cimino said this week from his second floor office above the lloyd Taco Factory restaurant.

Entrepreneurs start businesses for various reasons, whether it be a passion for the product or a desire to build something and watch it grow. Cimino said he wants to build a big company. With more than 150 employees already, he’s looking to increase that number to over 500.

But the passion for what he does — namely, creating delicious food in a casual environment — is still there. There are fewer sweaty hours these days laboring in his trucks or behind a hot stove. But when he is at lloyd, he still finds time to look around and watch the process, the efficiency, and the systems he helped create.

“It’s important to be a customer-facing CEO, getting out and listening to customers, saying hello, doing rounds of taste tests,” Cimino said. “When I meet with the managers weekly, it’s important to make sure they’re talking to people, the customers, the right way.”

For Cimino, lloyd started in an organic way, prepping in a church basement, keeping overhead costs as low as possible and relying on lawyer friends to help navigate the obstacle course of permits and licenses needed to operate a food truck in a city that was reluctant to adapt to the trend.

When Cimino won “Restaurant Startup,” a reality television show that aired on CNBC in 2015, he was forced into making the most difficult choice he’s had to make in his professional career-- turning down the cash prize to maintain control of the company.

He said the best way to find funding for a small main street business like his is to go to a bank or use a digital crowd sourcing platform like Kickstarter. For large-scale or high-growth tech companies, he advises seeking venture capital or private industry investment. But nothing replaces bootstrapping efforts and growing a company from its roots through hard work.

Going through that process has inspired Cimino to provide mentorship for young entrepreneurs. He speaks frequently at area schools and participated in a Q&A during the University at Buffalo’s entrepreneurship festival in early September, where he spoke about the difficult decision to turn down the $250,000 television show money, and spoke about the importance of failing in business — and learning from those mistakes.

Now Cimino is thinking about what’s next for lloyd. On a cold, rainy afternoon, he’s considering how to sell more coffee to entice customers into Churn, his new soft serve ice cream shop next to the taco factory. But from business parks in Williamsville to Canalside on a warm Saturday evening in the summer, any Buffalonian knows to look for lloyd. In less than seven years, his green trucks have become instantly recognizable.

“If you don't take any chances, you can’t win. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't,” said Cimino, acknowledging the positive reputation his company has built, and the pressure that comes with it. “I’m definitely still having fun. This sure beats teaching. I don’t have to think for a moment what it is that's moving me every day."

OneTen Capital announces third investment fund

With its largest investment thus far, OneTen Capital will partner with the Construction Robotics team to help them continue to create innovative robotic solutions to problems in the construction industry.


The company’s first system – coined SAM (Semi-Autonomous Masonry system) utilizes existing scaffolding and bricklaying workflow to precisely place exterior bricks.

“With mason worker counts down by 50 percent over the past 20 years, we saw that there was a very real problem and that a robotic
helper could make all the difference,” says Nate Podkaminer, chairman and co-founder.

Construction Robotics’ technology not only solves the labor problem, but also improves the health and well-being of the nearly 5.5 million production workers currently employed in the domestic sector alone. Heavy lifting poses serious ergonomic challenges to lifelong construction work—masons lay about 100 50-lb. cinder blocks daily. With this in mind, CR developed the MULE (Material Unit Lift Enhancer) and designed the initial system to help lift cinder and retaining wall blocks.


Using MULE, productivity increases dramatically and physical strain on the workforce is significantly alleviated. Customers are seeing a return on investment within months, and the company currently has a four-month backlog that is growing each day.


“When we brought the first MULE to a jobsite and realized how much faster it made the job go, we knew it would be impactful both to our company and to the well-being of hard-working masons. There are many other applications for this technology, and we are excited for the future of construction,” said Scott Peters, president and co-founder.


There are currently 11 SAMs and 56 MULEs in use today around the United States.


Even more impressive than these game-changing solutions is the growth of the business. CR is on pace to increase revenue by over 400 percent in 2018, and has several strategic partnerships with leading global companies in the works. The company has 30 employees today and expects to hire an additional 10 by the end of the year.

Construction Robotics has
been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and Forbes, among other leading publications.

OneTen has begun receiving commitments for a $6 million fund specifically curated for Construction Robotics.


“We are very excited about the opportunity to scale the great business that Construction Robotics has built. It is a terrific local story that is being told all over the world,” said Jenae Pitts, OneTen co-founder.

OneTen Capital is Buffalo’s first locally focused venture capital firm and deploys an active partner to work alongside founders in each investment--a process they have trademarked, called Coalition Investing. The organization invests exclusively in hardware and advanced manufacturing companies with engineering founders.


OneTen’s initial fund was in support of Vader Systems--a Getzville father and son team that has developed the world’s first molten metal 3D printer. The company announced its first two commercial sales to Becker, a leading global precision automotive castings manufacturer, earlier this year.


“We see a number of very exciting technologies in this area and are committed to building upon the manufacturing backbone of Buffalo and Western New York,” said Pitts.


“When you think of the Buffalo 20 or 30 years from now, it is possible that one of OneTen’s investments could be the next major employer and defining company for our region,” said Jonathan Amoia, OneTen advisory board member and co-founder. “That is exciting and will be made possible by the many people who have worked hard to build a supportive startup environment in Western New York.”

Small businesses and their champions honored at Small Business Week award luncheon

Small businesses in Western and Central New York were recognized for their accomplishments at a U.S. Small Business Administration Buffalo district awards luncheon earlier this month.

On May 11, 46 small businesses, nominated by local banks, chambers of commerce and community lending institutions, were recognized at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in front of about 300 attendees, Kelly LoTempio, Buffalo district SBA economic development specialist, said.

The small businesses were nominated based on a set of criteria established by the SBA, including the companies’ staying power, employee growth, sales growth, innovation, response to adversity, and contributions to the community.

“Small businesses are the engine to our economy,” LoTempio said. “They’re not all family owned. They range from concrete to clothing. They’re all small businesses that contribute to our local economy.”

Winners include Jason P. Barrett of Black Button Distilling, who was named Small Business Person of the Year, and Jonathon Ling, business development officer at PathStone Enterprise Center, who was honored with the Financial Services Champion of the Year recognition.

Chef’s Restaurant was named the Family-Owned Business of the Year, and John Vitale, chairman of SCORE Buffalo Niagara, won for District Director’s Recognition Award.

“Small Business Week recognizes the hard work, ingenuity, and complete dedication of our entrepreneurs. I am proud of the Buffalo district office winners for their personal achievements and their contributions to the American economy,” SBA Buffalo District Director Franklin J. Sciortino said.

LoTempio said attendance was up this year with several new partner agencies and their nominees represented. That includes Bank on Buffalo, Northwest Bank, and the Lackawanna Chamber of Commerce all presenting small businesses.

The awards banquet recognizes businesses in 14 of New York’s westernmost counties, which includes Rochester.

The following is a list of the SBA’s 2018 Buffalo District Office Small Business Week award winners.

773 North
Ace Specialty Company, Inc.
Andrew’s Jewelers
Arbeit Software LLC
Arro Manufacturing, LLC
Bailey Manufacturing Co., LLC
Baltz Concrete Construction, Inc.
Benefit Brokers of WNY, LLC
Benzinger’s Clothing Care
Borsari Food Company, Inc.
The Cat’s Pajamas Feline Hotel
Cedar’s Bakery & Deli
Dr. Francis P. O’Day DDS PC
Greg Liberto Focus
Growing Painz LLC/ POP! Party Supply
M.C.M. Natural Stone, Inc.
Makeup & Beauty Parlour Inc.
Mandela Market
The Mess Hall
Nash Connors, P.C.
Phatman Boardshop
Preston Medical PC
Ride Today Powersports, LLC
Robb’s Glass Inc.
Runners Roost
The Small Business Partners
SME Properties LLC / Auto Planet Leasing & Sales, LLC
Toralti & Marfurts Restaurant Inc.
Westside Value Redemption Center
Young Lion Brewing Company LLC

SBA District Winners:

Jason P. Barrett, Black Button Distilling: Small Business Person of the Year
716 Home Inspections: Home-Based Business of the Year
Chef’s Restaurant: Family-Owned Business of the Year
Jonathon Ling: Financial Services Champion of the Year
Tammy Worden/ConServe: Government Contracting Champion of the Year
John Vitale, Chairman, SCORE Buffalo Niagara: District Director’s Recognition Award
Herbert Courtney: Minority Small Business Champion of the Year                                                             
Hélène Biandudi Hofer: Women in Business Champion of the Year
William Ritter, SCORE, Upstate New York: District Director’s Special Award of Distinction & Achievement
Vanocur Refracteries, LLC: Exporter of the Year                                                 
William Smalley Cleary: Veterans Champion of the Year

Athenex begins work on new manufacturing plant in Dunkirk

Athenex, a global pharmaceutical company headquartered in Buffalo, has officially found a home for its new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.

The company, which was started out of a laboratory at the University at Buffalo in 2003, recently announced it will begin work on a 320,000-square-foot facility this month located in the Town of Dunkirk.

“Our Dunkirk site is the perfect fit for our project,” said Teresa Bair, vice president of legal affairs & corporate development for Athenex. “The site is easily accessible, has the potential for expansion, has access to sufficient energy and water supplies, and is close to the thruway, which will be convenient for our transport activities.”

The facility has been in the works for several years, with Governor Andrew Cuomo announcing the original plans in February of 2016, and is expected to have its construction completed in early 2019.

Athenex, which tabs itself as “a leader in the discovery and development of next generation drugs for the treatment of cancer,” has been on the stock market since last June, raising $66 million in its initial public offering on the Nasdaq.

The company, formerly named Kinex Pharmaceuticals, has been in operation for nearly 15 years, where it was run, in part, by former University at Buffalo chemistryp David Hangauer.

Hangauer, who retired from Athenex in 2016, spent much of his career focusing on developing protein-based kinase inhibitors, which are believed to restrict the growth of certain cancers, according to the Athenex website.

He, along with former CEO Allen Barnett, and current CEO Johnson Lau, have done extensive research and clinical trials on a chemotherapy treatment in pill form that has the potential to reduce pain and have patients spend less time at the hospital. According to The Buffalo News, the pill is a combination of a popular chemotherapy drug Oraxol and a molecule created by Athenex that allows the drug to be effective in the pill form.

The company has stated that it will invest $1.5 billion of its own money into the new manufacturing facility, with New York state also giving $225 million to the project.

The company, which has its home office in Buffalo, has nearly 500 employees worldwide, with other offices throughout the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. The new facility is estimated to have nearly 450 employees once it is fully operational, with the majority of those employees being from the area.     

“We look forward to attracting talent from across Western New York, including mechanical and electrical engineers, mechanics, operators, warehouse workers, plant service folks, and a broad spectrum of other positions we’ll need to keep the facility running smoothly,” Bair added.

UB students getting notice for innovative musical device

It’s one thing to make a lot of noise in Buffalo’s startup community. It’s quite another when you can do it while helping to make music.

Shane Nolan and Ryan Jaquin, both MBA and electrical engineering students at the University at Buffalo, made news this spring with their company Bitcrusher, as they notched impressive top finishes at the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition and the New York Business Plan Competition, and second place at the Bright Buffalo Niagara Entrepreneur Expo.

The pitch competition performances earned the Bitcrusher co-founders over $50,000 in startup money. Their product is a device that enables digital sound effects on a guitar while eliminating the need for additional bulky equipment.

Friends since their freshman year of college, both Nolan and Jaquin have a passion for music and are avid guitar players. Just a week away from graduating UB, the co-founders are balancing exams with managing a company that has a bright future in Western New York and an investment from a community that is showing it believes in them.

“It’s what we want to do. It’s what we do anyway. We’re kind of taking our natural interests and applying them to something that can take us into a career,” Nolan, a Westchester, N.Y., native, told Upstart NY during a recent interview at the Jacobs School of Management.

Like playing in a band, their pitches are confident riffs at this point, with Nolan and Jaquin playing off each other, both knowing what note to hit and when. They attribute some of their pitch success to practicing it in a performing arts class at UB. And they’ve been on the same page when it comes to difficult recent business decisions as well.

“It’s a really good partnership as far as our product beliefs go. Ryan and I are kind of at a point where something will come up and we kind of already know without saying it whose realm that falls into,” Nolan said.

One year ago, Nolan, 22, and Jaquin, 23, were finishing a senior design course at UB, where they had the opportunity to develop a prototype for the product while earning course credit. The following summer, the Bitcrusher co-founders began to explore the product’s market value and ask what the next steps are.

Their first pitch competition was the Bulls Launch Elevator 90-second event that earned them $1,500.

“I knew it was a great idea and I was really excited about it,” said Jaquin, a Long Island native. “But at the end of the senior design course we really just had a product. We didn’t know how we would make a business quite at that time or what it would look like. We really just leveraged our business knowledge and entrepreneurial knowledge from the MBA program to construct that aspect of it.”

Both the UB and Western New York entrepreneurial communities were beginning to take notice of the product. And as Nolan and Jaquin prepared for the prestigious Panasci competition, they were assigned Jack McGowan as a mentor, a project manager at Insyte Consulting and director of the Western New York Venture Association and Buffalo Angels.

“They take suggestions and they act on it. They continue to move their company forward and the results are demonstrated by the multiple competitions they’ve won over the last several weeks,” McGowan said.

Unlike the previous competitions, Bitcrusher was the only student-led company at Bright Buffalo.

“They’re very good presenters. They show the work that they put in. Their hard work comes out,” said McGowan.

Nolan and Jaquin said McGowan has been there for them every step of the way. And he introduced the Bitcrusher co-founders to representatives at So Park in Buffalo, an electronics contract manufacturer.

Having an agreement with So Park, Nolan and Jaquin said, has made a huge difference in their recent success.

Jaquin, a classic and alt rock enthusiast, still finds time to play locally with his band Remotely, while Nolan considers himself more of a technical guitarist, with formal training and an ear for the virtuosos. After exams, Jaquin and Nolan will be exploring a location in or around Buffalo to locate the company. The co-founders said they’ll be needing help soon to handle marketing, sales, and development.

“We’re hoping for it to be out there and in people’s hands in a year. Who really knows?” Nolan said. “Things can happen so quickly or with technical stuff things can take longer. But we’re really looking to get something that is true to our value proposition and get it out there and start seeing the market, taking on our technology.”

Youth Entrepreneur Marketplace empowers Buffalo’s young people to launch businesses

Too frequently, people of color living in Buffalo’s East Side communities aren’t seeing someone who looks like them on the other side of the counter at local businesses.

By teaching entrepreneurial skills to young people in those neighborhoods, local organizations and business owners are hoping to change that. Which is how the Youth Entrepreneur Marketplace and workshops started this spring.

Through the Community Action Organization of Western New York and in partnership with the MLK Business District Association, Masjid NuMan, Inc. and J&W Planning Group, LLC, young people under the age of 18, predominantly from Buffalo’s East Side, will learn skills to sell products designed and made by them and their families.

“Our motto is, we want people of Africa descent behind that counter because 20, 30 years earlier, businesses up and down Genessee, Bailey, Fillmore, they were (owned by) African people and we want that again,” Pamela James, program coordinator at the Community Action Organization, said.

Participants will go through a five-week training workshop program at the Community Action Organization on Fillmore Avenue, culminating in a Juneteenth marketplace at MLK Park on June 16 where their goods will be sold. There are six other marketplace dates scheduled throughout the summer at Fillmore and East Utica Street.

After a prior orientation meeting, about 25 kids between the ages of 6 and 17 and their families gathered May 8 for the first workshop. They heard from local business owners, including Royce Woods of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, who brought Monopoly to teach young people about exchanging money and the cost of doing business. In subsequent sessions, families will learn how to pitch a business and make a business plan. For those interested in serving food at the marketplace, the workshop will go over necessary permits and inspections. But beyond foundational business skills, the workshop will also teach young people that they can reach their goals through hard work and a passion for what they do.

MarQes, a 9-year-old East Side resident who sells collectibles and inspirational items and is also a motivational speaker, was one of the youth in attendance Tuesday.

“I just want him to know that he can do anything he desires,” said his mother, Lekya. “It doesn’t have to take him to be an adult to be an entrepreneur. He doesn’t have to wait until he graduates from school. He can dream big, he can inspire others, and he can also be inspired by what other people are doing.”

James said that those interested in participating in the workshop are welcome to come to the next event Wednesday, May 16, at the Community Action Organization, 1423 Fillmore Ave. in Buffalo from 5 to 7 p.m.

With entrepreneurship, James explained, families learn to be self-sufficient. That means they hire within their communities, generate capital, increase the tax base, and bring prosperity back to districts that were once booming decades ago.

“Our mission is to put businesses back on Fillmore, Genessee, and also East Ferry and East Utica,” James said.

For more information, contact Pamela James at the Community Action Organization of Western New York, 716-332-3773,

Good Neighbor app wins top prize in Civic Innovation Challenge

Clark Dever and Jordan Walbesser, the creators of Good Neighbor, a mobile phone-based app that gives Buffalo residents easy access to key data on services provided by the City of Buffalo, Erie County and New York state, as well as local non-profit organizations, were awarded the top prize in Mayor Byron W. Brown’s inaugural Civic Innovation Challenge – Powered by AT&T.

“This app embodies what I had hoped would come out of this competition. Good Neighbor equalizes access to city information for all of our residents. It also offers translation for those who do not speak English,” Mayor Brown said. “Anyone with a cell phone and this app can find the nearest police station or firehouse, get details on city services in their neighborhood, and much more. This is what the City of Good Neighbors is all about.”

"The quality of the innovative solutions developed for this challenge is extremely impressive and serves as an example of the vibrancy and creativity of Western New York's technology community," said Marissa Shorenstein, president, Northeast Region, AT&T. "AT&T is proud to have collaborated with Mayor Brown to host this visionary innovation challenge."

One hundred developers signed up to participate in the challenge, and 16 complete app entries were reviewed by a five-member panel of judges, which included Mayor Brown, Shorenstein, and Ulla Bak, president of Bak USA.

The journey to funding: Buffalo Automation’s story

Thiru Vikram learned a lot about artificial intelligence in self-navigating vehicles while studying engineering at the University at Buffalo – in 2015 it was still an evolving technology with applications that had yet to be fully explored.

But Vikram’s colleagues were focused on applying AI to motor vehicles. No one, Vikram said, was exploring AI uses for self-driving boats, both recreational and for commercial shipping.

Three years later, the company Vikram co-founded, Buffalo Automation, has reached several milestones in fundraising through venture capital investors, its most recent a $900,000 seed investment led by the Jacobs family, with a $100,000 follow-on investment from Z80 Labs.

“I’m very surprised,” Jon Spitz, managing director of Z80 said. “That’s a lot of money for Buffalo.”

Vikram’s business and engineering expertise may come naturally – he gained experience running a company through his family while growing up – but to grow a tech startup from the ground didn’t come easily.

The momentum for Buffalo Automation began in 2016, when Vikram and his team, including co-founders Emilie Reynolds and Alex Zhitelzeyf, all UB graduates or current students, began to win pitch competitions, including the locally prestigious Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition through the UB School of Management. The Buffalo Automation team earned first place in the 2015 Buffalo Student Sandbox competition and the 2016 New York State Business Plan Competition, among others.

That level of achievement, Spitz said, caught people’s attention.

“We got to the point where we were raising a significant amount of capital,” Vikram said. Z80 worked with the Buffalo Automation team to refine its pitch and introduced the young engineers to investors both locally and nationally.

For now, the team of eight is focused on growing revenue. Vikram said Buffalo is the logical location for Buffalo Automation. The eastern tip of Lake Erie is still a major shipping hub, and when commercial boats are dormant near the frozen mouth of the Niagara River, Vikram’s team can test AI applications for the self-driving ship.

In the last round of seed funds, Buffalo Automation surpassed its $700,000 goal. Other investors include Gerald Lippes of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman, investment manager Ted Pierce, and John Somers, owner of Harmac Medical Products.

The funding will go toward developing Buffalo Automation’s AutoMate system, which uses analytical data through sensors to pilot a boat, detecting debris and water depth and using an algorithm to find the most efficient routes. The technology can optimize fuel efficiency and improve safety, according to the company.

“He made a lot out of a little in terms of financing,” Spitz said about Buffalo Automation’s rapid growth. “He wasn’t going to be stopped no matter what. It’s still obviously very early, but with this financing he’s going to have an opportunity to continue to validate this idea and scale up.

“It’s the first step in a series of steps,” Spitz added.

Vikram said another added benefit to Buffalo is its proximity to Canada, where many major shipping companies are based. There’s no shortage of local talent, but Buffalo Automation can recruit from virtually anywhere with developers’ ability to work for the Amherst-based company remotely if they can’t relocate here.

Fleet management and autopilot applications are the company’s focus, but most recently Vikram said Buffalo Automation is exploring self-driving devices for yachts, speed boats and within recreational markets.

That means the UB engineers get to spend days on boats that can travel over 50 knots. And that part, Vikram said, can be a lot of fun.

Vikram credits the UB Technology Incubator’s tenX co-working space for supporting the company in its early stages. “We were always fortunate to have other people with experience lead the way,” Vikram said.

Currently, Buffalo Automation is also still developing customer testing, and constantly in the stages of responding to feedback from its products.

“As long as we can help him out, we’re going to do our best. We have an incentive to do that,” Spitz said.

Buffalo’s CDFIs reach out to the community

It’s a sunny Saturday morning in late March, and Yanush Sanmugaraja is standing before fewer than a dozen curious entrepreneurs on Buffalo’s East Side, explaining the importance of cash flow.

Sanmugaraja is an economic development director for the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, Inc. on Grant Street. Events like this make up the bulk of WEDI’s week-to-week community outreach programs.

For alternative lending and community development financial institutions in Buffalo, programs like the recently completed “Filling the Finance Gap” two-part series are an enormously important part of how they find potential small business entrepreneurs who may have a strong work ethic and solid business plan, but no way to secure financing.

These events, Sanmugaraja said, may not have an attendance of more than three to five entrepreneurs. But establishing relationships, he said, particularly in underserved populations on Buffalo’s East and West sides, is fundamental to developing a healthy small business ecosystem in those neighborhoods.

For local CDFIs and alternative lending agencies, the “Filling the Finance Gap” series was an opportunity to pool resources and work together in reaching potential clients. The series included participation from WEDI, PathStone Enterprise Center, Erie County IDA, and Excelsior Growth Fund.

“We want to show how financing can help you turn around your business,” Sanmugaraja said. “So that's really the job of our outreach. To be out in the community, show people that we’re here to meet their needs, learn what their goals are, and learn how they're doing and find ways to help them.”

Sanmugaraja said that just from the two events, the first held in February at the Beverly Gray Business Center and the second in March at the Community Action Organization, WEDI met five clients with whom it is now working. One client from the second workshop, Sanmugaraja said, was just approved for their first loan.

But not all loan agencies are the same. From Erie County IDA to traditional banks, the size and scope of loans differ. A large part of the “Filling the Finance Gap” series was to lay out what each agency does specifically, and who might be the best candidate for that organization.

“Right now, we’re trying to support small businesses and support our partners,” said Beth O’Keefe, a business development officer at Erie County IDA. “All these different organizations are doing different kinds of outreach on their own. The whole goal was to put efforts into collaboration, lower costs and time by working together, and hopefully, build on something there.”

Erie County IDA primarily specializes in maximizing tax incentives and providing larger loans within targeted industries, as well as smaller microloans to qualified businesses. O’Keefe said that at one time, there were limited microloan and CDFI agencies in Buffalo, and it primarily came from the City of Buffalo and the IDA. Today, the microloan community locally is not only more prevalent, but also working together in collaboration.

“I think, the people that I spoke to, they didn’t know what a CDFI was,” Sherri Falck of Excelsior Growth Fund said. “People I talked to at the event and leading up to the event were eager to have that information, and that was the whole purpose, to share information and raise visibility of who we are and what we do.”

Excelsior Growth Fund also does webinars and small business seminar series throughout the year. EGF’s next event is a webinar on how to apply for a small business loan, hosted by the Women’s Business Center at Canisius College May 31 from 2 to 2:45 p.m. More information can be found at

On Thursday, May 3, WEDI is hosting its own workshop on the importance of record keeping at West Side Community Services. Visit or call 716-393-4088 for more information.

As the weather grows nicer, bringing the community together from outside grows more difficult and attendance tends to drop. But Buffalo’s CDFIs are considering what’s next for another collaborative lending series in the fall.

“A lot of business owners, especially in Buffalo’s refugee communities, won’t explore the possibility of financing, in part because of the assumption that they won’t get financing from traditional sources,” Sanmugaraja said. “They won’t even reach out. And that interpretation is obviously completely incorrect. (As) alternative lenders, our goal really is to help people increase sales and revenue. We want to see how financing can help you turn around your business. So that’s really the job of our outreach."

Grant awarded to Excelsior Growth Fund and Westminster Economic Development Initiative

The KeyBank Business Boost & Build Program, powered by JumpStart, is celebrating the start of National Small Business Week by awarding $100,000 to Excelsior Growth Fund and the Buffalo-based Westminster Economic Development Initiative.


EGF promotes economic development and job creation by providing streamlined access to small business loans and business advisory services. WEDI works to empower Buffalo’s economically disadvantaged through economic development, community development and education.


"We are excited about our collaboration with Excelsior Growth Fund and JumpStart through KeyBank Business Boost & Build's financial support,” said Ben Bissel, Executive Director of WEDI. “Through this assistance, our organizations will be able to provide a full continuum of service, starting with training and capitalizing minority- and women-led microenterprises with microloans. Then Excelsior Growth Fund will help them and other businesses to scale up to be viable, sustaining and successful companies through small business loans and advisory services. The funding will lead the organizations to serve hundreds of additional entrepreneurs, who will start and expand companies that create local jobs. Buffalo's business ecosystem continues to grow through this investment in its future."


With this new funding, the two collaborators will deepen their existing partnership and together will offer a full range of loan options, from $500 to $500,000, to minority and women owned business enterprises (MWBEs) in the City of Buffalo.


Startup assistance and smaller loans will be handled by WEDI. EGF will focus on larger loans and associated advisory services. Both partners will also hold a series of collaborative educational workshops for minority and women owned businesses and entrepreneurs.


“Supporting small businesses and helping them thrive is central to KeyBank’s mission,” added Buford Sears, KeyBank Western New York Market President. “We are proud to be assisting two great organizations, WEDI and EGF, as they expand their efforts to help more women and minority business owners capitalize on the economic renaissance that is underway in Buffalo.”


Funded by a grant from the KeyBank Foundation in 2017, the KeyBank Business Boost & Build program is designed to stimulate economic growth in Ohio and Upstate New York by helping startups and small businesses grow and prepare the workforce for the needs of those companies.


Small businesses and entrepreneurs interested in learning more about the KeyBank Business Boost & Build program can visit

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