A $5 million business plan competition in Buffalo?
If that got your attention, that is precisely the competition’s intent. And Andrew J. Pulkrabek is working to make the big-money project a reality this year.
Pulkrabek, 43, came here from Minnesota to serve as executive director of the yet-to-be-named competition, an initiative of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative. Launch New York, which aims to promote startups, is providing support, but the competition will make its decisions independently. The funds come from the proceeds of the sale of unused hydropower by the New York Power Authority. The top prize will be $1 million; competition specifics of the competition will be disclosed soon.
Pulkrabek serves as chief manager of the competition and coordinates sponsorships, funding, recruitment, mentoring and incubator space. He has a background in venture capital and has held top leadership roles in medical and biotechnology companies. Pulkrabek talked about how the competition could bolster startups and investing in the region:
Matt Glynn: What got you interested in taking this job?
Andrew Pulkrabek: Where I come from in Minneapolis, it’s a very mature marketplace. It’s very stable, and there are real challenges there around funding. And when I started having the conversations around coming out to Buffalo, I really see that the area here is in a position that holds great promise. Not 10, 15, 20 years out into the future, but really today, for people that have an entrepreneurial spirit. And that’s really kind of my background. … I thought that this would be a really neat opportunity to be part of something that is going to be big this year, and has the prospects of being something I think very, very significant and fundamental for the future.
MG: Before you came to Buffalo, what were your impressions of this as a place for startups and entrepreneurs?
AP: To be very candid, I didn’t really have any real familiarity about startup culture within Buffalo. And of course, now having had conversations prior to my coming out with Jordan [Levy, who is helping oversee the competition] and with other folks, I got a real feel about the commitment of the local community leaders in terms of supporting entrepreneurship. I think Z80 [Labs] is a great example of that, where Jordan has really taken it upon himself to do something that can keep people here and grow the future economy, and do it in a way that is not just traditional manufacturing, let’s say, but is really about future economies.
MG: Have you seen anything on this scale anywhere else?
AP: This is certainly the largest business plan competition in the entire United States, bar none. … We’re going to give away a very significant amount of money and it’s going to make a very material difference. I think that it’s up to us, in terms of how we go out and tell that story and position it around the world, domestically and locally here.
MG: How will you ensure upstate gets the payoff from the prize money?
AP: We have certain obligations that will be passed through and we’ll share some more of that detail obviously at the point that the entire package is ready to be presented. … What we don’t want, obviously, is for someone to come in here and say, 'Thank you for the money, goodbye.’ Part of it is, it’s not just the forceful obligation of having people stay here, it’s the reason why they should stay here. It’s about having them come into Buffalo and integrate to the community, having them connect to [competition] judges and mentors, having them connect to researchers, having them to connect to organizations like Z80 as mentors, and people that can really help them succeed. We really want to envelop these awardees so that when come and they land in Buffalo, we give them the greatest prospects they could ever have succeeding with their opportunity.
MG: What is the key to increasing venture capital activity here, compared to a place like San Francisco?
AP: If you look at that specific example of San Francisco, if you go back 20-plus years ago, you’ll see where San Francisco was a dramatically different place, so too with Boston. I was giving a talk over in London a little over a year ago, and one of the conversations was, should England try to be Boston? And the reality is, when you try to set yourself up to be somebody else, you’re predefining a bad path. And we don’t want to do that. I think what makes an area successful is, you have to have the innovation, you have to have entrepreneurs, you have to have people who are willing to take risks. It’s about forming up an ecosystem. Money is part of it. You’ve got to have talent, you’ve got to have the politicians or the folks that necessarily want you to be there. And you’ve got to have then the infrastructure, so if somebody needs a wet lab or manufacturing space, we’re able to provide that. All of those pieces of the puzzle are in place here in Buffalo.
MG: Are there enough venture capitalists here in Buffalo?
AP: Yeah. Part of it sometimes can be attention, you need to get their attention. But if you’ve got the right management talent, if you’ve got really good skills, you’re a great innovator, you’re a great thinker, you’re a great businessperson, and you come with a great idea, great product or technology, you’ll get attention.
It’s not that there is no venture capital here, it’s not that there is no angel funding. That kind of stuff does exist here. Does it exist as robustly as all of us would want? I don’t think there’s any community out there in their right mind that would say – Boston and San Francisco included – that they have enough. You can never have enough. You always need to work to have more.