Global $5 Million Contest Launched to Start Business in Buffalo

By David Robinson
The Buffalo News, N.Y.

CALL IT SHARK TANK — Buffalo style.

State officials Wednesday launched a global business plan competition that dangles $5 million in prizes to attract entrepreneurs with the best ideas for starting a new business in the Buffalo Niagara region.

Like the reality TV show, the 43 North business plan competition, named for Buffalo’s latitude, dangles a grand prize of $1 million, plus free office space and support services for a year, to the entrepreneur whose idea is picked by a panel of local judges as being the most promising venture to emerge from the contest.

In return, the winning business must agree to start its venture in Buffalo and remain here for at least a year.

Overall, the competition aims to help launch 11 promising new businesses — with prizes ranging from $250,000 to $1 million — in an attempt to ramp up small- business growth in a region that has trailed the rest of the country in new business startups.

And while the region has been successful, overall, in attracting funding for new research at local colleges and universities, it has struggled to convert those discoveries into new businesses — something the business plan competition and other initiatives associated with the state’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative aim to change.

“All too often, we have been on the outside looking in when it comes to innovation,” said John R. Koelmel, the local executive and chairman of the New York Power Authority, which is providing the $5 million in funding for the competition.

“This is going to attract an even more scarce asset that we desperately need: intellectual capital.”

Supporters of the business plan competition also hope it helps the region catch lightning in a bottle, much as it did a decade ago when three University at Buffalo students won the top prize of $25,000 in the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition and went on to form Campus Labs in Buffalo.

“From that $25,000, we’ve created 100 jobs,” said co-founder Eric Reich.

This year’s competition is just the start. The plan is for similar contests to be held during each of the next four years, said Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who serves as the co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.

“These businesses won’t have a 100 percent success rate, but you can’t be paralyzed by fear of failure,” he said. “The heroes of economic development are the risk-takers. They don’t ask, ‘What if I fail?’ They ask, ‘What if I succeed?'”

Organizers hope the competition will attract upwards of 1,000 ideas for new businesses, which can apply for the prizes through the group’s website,

The competition, which plans to announce its winner at the end of October, also will include six runner-up prizes of $500,000 apiece and four more for $250,000 each.

“If you had an idea as an entrepreneur, what would you do with $1 million? It truly is a lot,” said Andrew Pulkrabek, the executive director of the 43 North initiative.

“But it can’t just be all about the cash,” he said. “Cash is just the start.”

Winners will receive rent-free space in the Z80 Labs incubator located in The Buffalo News building downtown.

They also will be provided access to other resources and mentoring services to help them turn their ideas into viable businesses.

The first phase of the competition officially began Wednesday and will ask entrepreneurs to provide a summary of their ideas that identifies their potential markets and customers and their visions for the ventures. Organizers hope upwards of 1,000 entrepreneurs will apply.

From that pool, the organizers will narrow the field to a smaller group of semifinalists that will be evaluated more intensely during a five-day session from Sept. 15 to 20 that will include 10-minute online presentations that will be able to be viewed by the public.

The final stage will take place from Oct. 27 to 31, when finalists will pitch their business to a panel of local judges through a 10-minute presentation, followed by 10 minutes of questions.

“It is going to get attention, not only across the state, but across the country and across the globe,” said Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, who made the comparison with the Shark Tank TV show. “It really is a tremendous opportunity to bring new businesses here and new jobs.”

George Chamoun, who co-founded Synacor Inc. 15 years ago, said prominent Buffalo business executives, from venture capitalist Jordan Levy to Jeremy Jacobs Jr. at Delaware North Cos. and former Goldome CEO Ross Kenzie, all offered him their support in the business’ early days. And he expects the 43 North competition winners will have the same type of experience.

“In what other town could a recent college graduate with an idea get embraced like this?” he said. “Our role is to help. The ideas and the money will get the name out there.”

To promote the competition, organizers plan to make presentations in a dozen U.S. cities, from California to New York City, as well as in southern Ontario, India, China and Israel.

The competition, part of the Buffalo Billion program, is being funded with $5 million in money from the Power Authority that comes from the sale of hydropower from the Niagara Power Project that has not been allocated.

43 North’s steering committee includes Zemsky and Levy, Buffalo attorney Scott Friedman, local venture capitalist Ronald Schreiber, David Zebro of Buffalo private-equity firm Strategic Investments & Holdings and Sharon Randaccio of Performance Management Partners in Williamsville.

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