How I won $500,000 For My Startup

Forbes I Bill Rader

Everyone knows that ideas are a dime a dozen. The difference between an idea and a business is money and execution. Lots of money. A whole lot of good execution, but lots of money too.

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Running Low On Cash

In May 2014 I was pretty much out of money for my startup Efferent Labs. My co-founder and I had invested a lot of our own money and resources, and had made great progress with our product, an implantable sensor to monitor cellular function from within the patient. However, we hit a wall raising money – too early for many investors, and not in the investment space for all the others we pitched.

Opportunity Knocks

I received an invite from the MedTech organization (the NY State Life Science Industry Organization), and was offered a slot to pitch my company in New York City to local investors during the “MedTech Metro” event. I jumped at the offer. It is imperative to recognize an opportunity when it is presented, and act on it. Execute or die.

I arrived in New York City knowing only when and where I should show up. When I got to the venue, I found that there were two other companies pitching that evening and I was slated to go last – a position I like, because directly after my pitch, I am able to talk to investors who still have my story fresh at the top of their minds.

The audience had a lot of good questions and I was able to make some interesting acquaintances. But the connection I made that ended up being the goldmine for me was not an investor, but rather a University at Buffalo business development executive. She had listened carefully to my presentation and wanted to chat.

The Connector

The business development executive from University at Buffalo approached me and asked if I had heard of the 43North competition out of Buffalo, NY. I had, but thought I might not be the best fit – we are not inventing an app, and I self-identified as “old guy.” I thought the competition was designed for millennials creating apps. We chatted and exchanged business cards, and I promised to relook at the competition. She encouraged me to submit an application, stating that we were “exactly what they are looking for.” In the final hours of the final day to enter, I did.

She was right! From the 9,600 applications originating from 96 countries and all 50 states, we were selected as one of the 113 semi-finalists! Even better, after a video pitch and an additional in-depth application, we were notified that we were a finalist with a guaranteed prize, competing for the grand prize of one million dollars. This was great news! We had the opportunity to showcase our company and great discoveries in front of an international audience, and at a minimum, we would walk away with a quarter million dollars in investment. If we beat everyone else, we could grab the grand prize, which could fund us for almost two years getting our medical device close to market.

"Stage on the Stage" at the Shea Performing Arts Theater - Buffalo (Photo by Nancy J. Parisi)

“Stage on the Stage” at the Shea Performing Arts Theater – Buffalo (Photo by Nancy J. Parisi)

The Competition

I arrived in Buffalo the last week of October 2014, ready to compete. After a couple days touring the Buffalo area and ecosystem, mentoring sessions and introductions, the day of the contest was upon us. The contest was to take place on the stage of the Shea Performing Arts Centerin downtown Buffalo. The Shea is a grand venue, which opened in 1926 and has a seating capacity in excess of 4,000. The stage was huge, so large as to house the entire pitch competition on a “stage on the stage”, with around 300 gallery observers. It was an intimidating setup, with seven judges from industry, investment and media closely reviewing and questioning each presentation. Strict rules on timing were enforced by an MC (an investor himself), who could hook you off the stage if you ran over time. The entire contest was broadcast on large screens in the theater, and simulcast on-line throughout the world.

Our time to pitch came in the afternoon. We were third from the last to present, so there was a lot of time to let our nerves take charge. We were outfitted backstage with wireless microphones and given last minute instructions by the production crew. I felt good, but a member of the crew asked me if I wanted an Altoid mint. I didn’t understand why at the time and declined; however, I quickly learned why it was offered when I stepped on stage. All I can say is, if you are offered an Altoid before presenting to a large crowd, accept it graciously. Within seconds of standing on the stage before the world, my mouth went as dry as the desert, something I had never before experienced.

In spite of the dry mouth, my presentation went great, and the question and answer period equally great. We exited the stage and could feel a win in our bones.

The Time Of Reckoning

After a few hours of evaluation, the judges had reached their decisions, the stage was transformed and a much larger audience had assembled in the main theatre. We contestants were lined up alphabetically behind stage awaiting our fate. Because of my disability, I was stationed just behind the curtains near the front of the stage. The judges were positioned next to me, and I was able to briefly chat with the main life science judge, who expressed his support for what we were doing.

To increase the drama of the finals, and not wanting any competitor to know their exact position in the competition, the winnings were handed out in reverse alphabetical order, based on award amount. The first prizes awarded were the four quarter-million dollar amounts. As each winner was announced, they claimed their prize and took two steps back, then the front line shifted to stage left, getting shorter with each announcement. There was a huge sigh of relief by those of us still standing after the fourth and final quarter-million dollar winner was announced; everyone left standing on the front line still had a shot at the million-dollar prize.

After a few more names were announced, our dream of the million dollar grand prize did not materialize. We had won a $500,000 investment for five percent of our company, a huge amount and at the time one of the largest contest awards in the world for startup companies. We were thrilled!

Winning Is A Great Thing

Just when we had hit the low of too many “Nos”, we hit the grand “Yes”. We won a half million dollars and a lot of other perks, including free office space and tax free status as part of the Startup NY program. In the 18 months since arriving in Buffalo we are making incredible progress and are getting closer each day to entering our market.

What seemed a near impossibility has proven to be the best move we made with our company to date. Since our win, we have made great strides towards our goal of helping people that are suffering from the effects of cancer chemotherapy. We are currently on track to reaching our first market, pre-clinical research, next year.

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