Launch NY was founded in 2014 as a nonprofit venture development organization in Upstate New York. Its mission is to provide both pro bono mentoring and access to risk capital for high-growth startups. Through its Opportunity Fund, Limited Partner Fund, and Nonprofit Seed Fund, Launch NY, the most active seed fund in New York State, invests in startups in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Ithaca, and Binghamton.
Among the newer tools that Launch NY offers to potential investors is its Investor Network. Marketed as “the first and only on-demand digital marketplace exclusively featuring investment opportunities in startup companies in Upstate New York,” the Investor Network empowers accredited investors to review selected companies conveniently from a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
The Network, established as an LLC, is managed by Launch NY; investments by individuals—in amounts as little as $10,000 through a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV)—may be made via a no-cost signup during its pilot phase, which ends December 31, 2020.
The recipients of the funds, startups—which may receive other investment from Launch NY through its other funds—also benefit from Launch NY’s additional offerings, like coaching, access to experienced entrepreneurs, and other elements to help with their startup journey.
An investor’s viewpoint
Rochester-based Steve Nicosia, president and CEO of Zen Advisory Partners, has funds in the Investor Network, and also provides mentoring and advice for Launch NY portfolio companies. Nicosia has had a long career in investing in and advising startup companies.
He joined the Launch team in 2015 as one of their Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, working with companies in the Launch portfolio. Nicosia says that when it comes to choosing companies to invest in or work with, he looks for several factors.
“I want to see that they have a business model around solving a problem; that they have a unique solution for that problem, and have a team that can deliver and execute on it,” he says. “I also ask if the market size they want to go after is big enough, and Steve Nicosia, founder and CEO of Zen Advisory Partners, and Launch NY investor and EIRwhat their exit strategy is.”
Working with Launch NY has other advantages for investors, whether they are deeply involved, like Nicosia, or passively putting in funds.
“As a Launch NY investor, you get wide exposure to companies in Western and Upstate New York who are looking for capital,” says Nicosia. “And, you can invest smaller amounts and get into bigger deals than you might as an angel investor.”
The access is literal, though virtual these days. “Once a month or once a quarter, Launch makes one of their portfolio company founders or entrepreneurs available to investors,” says Nicosia. “We get to hear their pitch and talk to them, ask questions, etc.”
His advice to startups and entrepreneurs seeking assistance?
“I encourage them to sign up for Launch NY’s free EIR services. With EIR guidance, they learn what they should focus on, like upfront customer discovery, testing their business model, building a great product, and figuring out how and how much they’re going to charge. Those are important decisions to make at the beginning. If you have a good business model, a strong team, and you know how to acquire new customers, you can keep growing,” he says.
“After that, startups which think they can grow to at least $10 million within five to seven years, while adding jobs to WNY, can apply for Launch NY funding. It is competitive, and that’s part of the journey,” adds Nicosia. “In Western and Upstate New York, it’s hard to get your first investor. That’s why Launch NY raised capital to bring that to early-stage startups.”
A founder’s viewpoint
Tinia Pina, founder and CEO of Re-Nuble, part of the Launch portfolio, innately understands the theories that Nicosia propounds, and also organically echoes some of his dictums.
To receive its initial investments, her startup had to first invest in educating investors about what they do: in a nutshell, they turn food waste from manufacturers, distributors, and processors into organic hydroponic nutrients which are sold to farmers who grow specialty products.
Raising initial funds through an online campaign in 2015, she was able to prove her model to her next round of investors by identifying the problem and her unique solution, showing how she planned to acquire customers—who already understood the problem—and how she would scale.
Re-Nuble founder and CEO Tinia PinaHer business, founded in New York City, has its manufacturing facility in Rochester. In addition to being near one of the largest indoor agriculture centers in North America, across the border in Canada, the location made her eligible to apply for the Launch programs. She’s also able to access many other regional programs especially focused on sustainable and agriculture oriented businesses.
Pina agrees with Nicosia that an entrepreneur must identify an embedded or prevalent problem they intend to address innovatively. “Your product or service can’t just be iterative of something that already exists, that you are only trying to do better,” she says. “If it is, you must revisit your solution or technology.”
Once that has been addressed, she encourages entrepreneurs to demonstrate to investors that helping the intended customer overcome the problem will contribute to their profitability. “With Re-Nuble, we walked potential investors through what the farmers already know: they want to use organics, but they aren’t, since viable products for their special, hydroponically grown products were not available,” she says.
Launch NY helped Pina with her seed round through a special purpose vehicle investment. “That investment made us more efficient, and we were able to access Launch’s Investor Network,” she says. “It was great to be able to leverage that—in effect these are our last angel dollars. Going forward, our investments will come from strategic institutional partners.”
Pina adds that all and any relationships may offer an entrepreneur benefits. “Don’t underestimate the value that others can bring,” she says. “I encourage others to be very communicative about their growth needs—talk to investors, advisors, team and community. Leverage them as much as you can to help. And that help may not come in dollars, it may come through conversations.”
To get where she is, Pina offers several pieces of related advice: “Talk with everyone you can about your idea, and your company,” she holds. “And, as much as it can be a distraction, participate in as many business plans and competitions as you can.”
Re-Nuble was a finalist in the 2020 Grow-NY $3 million competition, which announced its winners in mid-November. While she didn’t receive a major prize amongst the top winners, she was awarded $15,000 in cash and marketing services. And, in characteristic entrepreneurial spirit, she attests, “Participating in the competition was a beneficial experience. In addition to the prize, being a part of it helped raise our visibility, gave us another opportunity to tell our story. That all increases brand equity, and builds up momentum.”