On Oct. 4, 2019, a new energy source launched in West Virginia. It isn’t the kind of energy source that fires up your furnace or keeps the lights on.
The charge of this dynamic resource is arguably much tougher: igniting hope for a new economic future for West Virginia via start-ups and job creation.
Led by a small but mighty team of tenacious entrepreneurs, Vantage Ventures is a concentrated effort to launch high-impact, scalable businesses that tackle complex challenges.
Inspired by Station F, the world’s largest start-up facility in Paris, France, the 8,000 square-foot Vantage Ventures space fosters an intersection of creative, collaborative thought and entrepreneurial engagement at University Place on WVU’s campus, and will surely lead the way in moving West Virginia forward into an innovation economy.
Vantage Ventures enables founders building tech-based businesses in West Virginia by providing them a systematic process to find product market fit, determining their addressable markets, conducting proof of concepts, raising venture capital and completing other activities necessary to go from idea to scale.
In some cases, start-up companies are incorporating WVU’s intellectual property and leveraging its untapped pools of science, technology, engineering and business talent.
Its initial focus will be on four main market sectors: healthy, security, energy and sensory. Resident companies as well as West Virginia entrepreneurs can also access Vantage Ventures’ strong pipeline of mentors, executives and funding networks, access to which has previously lacked in West Virginia.
It's a complex idea with a simple call-to-action: Let’s rally our communities and reinvent West Virginia’s economy together through start-ups.
“One of the strongest components of the West Virginia culture is the sense of commitment to one another’s success.”
- Sarah Biller
From call-to-action to catalyst
Executive Director Sarah Biller, one of the founding executives of FinTech Sandbox, knows that nobody rallies behind their state like West Virginians.
“One of the strongest components of the West Virginia culture is the sense of commitment to one another’s success,” said Biller. “We want to embody that value system and provide a hands-on, learned approach to helping talented entrepreneurs build investable businesses here in West Virginia.”
And when people stay and do business, the rewards will come.
“We look at this as an opportunity to access untapped intellectual capital and resources to solve large problems and stand-up businesses that attract venture investment and are profitable,” Biller said.
It’s a concept that grew from a call-to-action in March when leaders from WVU and a delegation of West Virginians met with John Chambers, former executive chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems and current founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures, to discuss the potential for the newly renamed College of Business and Economics. The conversations paved the way for recreating West Virginia as a start-up state.
One of the participants in that March meeting was Javier Reyes, Milan Puskar Dean of the Chambers College and vice president of Start-up West Virginia, who was charged by WVU President E. Gordon Gee with coordinating resources to reinvent West Virginia’s economy.
“West Virginia is a place with tremendous resources and opportunities, but we have to think differently about job creation to move into the future,” Reyes said. “Vantage Ventures is the way to provide the infrastructure and resources needed to fuel start-ups and support the entrepreneurs with bold ideas that can transform our economy.”
“West Virginia is a place with tremendous resources and opportunities, but we have
to think differently about job creation to move into the future.”
- Javier Reyes
Just weeks after its official launch, the Vantage Ventures space is filling up fast with innovative partners.
MicroGenesis, for instance, is a high-tech horticulture operation that aims to produce better tasting, nutrient-rich microgreens, herbs and lettuce as well as build and deploy advanced agriculture technology, or AgTech. The budding company sprouted out of the WVU LaunchLab when founder, Jordon Masters, was a horticulture student at WVU. He uses a network of sensor technology and software tools to grow his products, which are served at restaurants throughout West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Masters is now looking at taking his greenhouse to the next level by partnering with Vantage Ventures.
“Vantage Ventures is for people past the idea stage,” Biller said. “We can best serve entrepreneurs once they have a beta product and are ready to further test things out with customers.”
Biller sees Vantage Ventures as a hybrid of the incubator and accelerator models, and leveraging the best of both to drive entrepreneurship in regional areas that don’t yet have a mature entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Incubators support start-ups in their infancy and operate on an open-ended timeline; accelerators catapult existing companies to the next stage (i.e., finding investors) and generally only last a few months.
“We knew we needed a new model of innovation for rural America,” Biller said. “There are incredibly intelligent, driven people across the country solving some very significant problems and our work must help them overcome artificial obstacles to their success like the lack of entrepreneurial resources because of geography and/or the historically poor track record of mobile venture money. Our first job is to provide a place and process for our entrepreneurs to access the same knowledge, resources and capital that their peers have in cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco.”
Other Vantage Ventures partners include Iconic Air, which specializes in air quality sensors, and Core 10, a software solutions company, to name a couple.
Biller believes there is also an unexpected advantage for entrepreneurs developing a start-up at Vantage Ventures, as opposed to Boston or Silicon Valley.
“Our secret weapon are the legions of Mountaineers who have and will lean in with their knowledge or their company connections or their capital to help our entrepreneurs build the next billion-dollar start-up,” Biller said. “There is no better network in the world that those with a tie to West Virginia University.”
“Our secret weapon are the legions of Mountaineers who have and will lean in with their knowledge or their company connections or their capital to help our entrepreneurs build the next billion-dollar start-up”
- Sarah Biller
A new narrative
Everything that happens in the Vantage Ventures space links back to Chambers’ grand vision – reimagining West Virginia as a start-up state.
“As important as it is for us to try to drive economic prosperity, the other critical aspect is that we have to start getting West Virginia to tell a different story about itself,” said Director Erienne Olesh. “We need to start envisioning the full potential of what West Virginia’s future can be.”
While programs like the West Virginia Business Plan Competition had been in place for more than a decade, there was nowhere for entrepreneurs with solid concepts and business plans to lift their ventures off the ground.
Vantage Ventures is geared to serve as that platform, which will steer entrepreneurs to stay in the Mountain State and reap their successes here. And above all, it could leave an impression on others and spark a new community of entrepreneurship and innovation.
But it will be a tall order. The crew at Vantage Ventures are focused on changing the narrative and turning positives into negatives.
“Entrepreneurship is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Olesh said. “We are helping companies harness the fortitude to withstand the grueling process of hearing ‘no’ over and over again. We also help them find ways to get to ‘yes’ faster through assisting with customer discovery and validating their business ideas.”
“In five years, the next generation of entrepreneurs will be leading thriving businesses in West Virginia with measurable economic impact,” Biller said. “That’s how we’ll know we’re successful.”