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Buffalo tech firm sets up program to advise local startups

Executives with Algonquin Studios are inviting high-tech startups to set up shop in the company’s offices and draw on the expertise and experience of company officials to put business ideas on a fast track to figure out whether the ideas have potential.

Just don’t call it a tech incubator.

“What we tell people is VCAMP is the intersection of incubator, accelerator, a traditional business school and probably the school of hard knocks,” Stephen M. Kiernan II, Algonquin Studios’ president, said in an interview in the company’s downtown offices, referring to the program by its acronym.

The Algonquin Studios initiative joins a number of incubators, innovation centers and co-working spaces that have opened in recent years to boost Buffalo’s growing startup community. The locations provide fledgling companies and their founders with access to low-cost space, mentors and potential investors.

Kiernan and other company officials say they were a tech startup before tech startups were cool, and they now want to share some of their hard-won business knowledge with the next generation of entrepreneurs.

The startup space is part of a major renovation of Algonquin Studios’ space in the Brisbane Building, where the company recently signed a 10-year lease extension.

Algonquin Studios has come a long way since 1998, when it was started by three friends. The company managed to survive the bursting of the Internet bubble and the Great Recession to become a gray-haired veteran of the Buffalo technology sector.

Algonquin Studios provides Internet content management, information technology and software development services to its clients. It has started, and spun off, a host of companies over the years, informally and without much fanfare.

“I know what it’s like to put it all on the line,” Kiernan said.

Now, the company is launching a startup for startups, VCAMP – Validate, Challenge, Accelerate, Mentor and Pressure – whose name offers a thumbnail description of the services provided to the program participants.

Algonquin Studios executives will invite tech startups to use space in their office, but the fledgling firms won’t be charged rent. Instead, Algonquin Studios will receive an equity position, as well as a share of any revenues the companies generate while located in the Algonquin Studios offices.

The companies’ founders will receive advice and feedback from Algonquin Studios executives, with the goals of testing their innovations to prove market potential and of accelerating the commercialization process.

There’s a high failure rate in the startup realm, and the startups’ founders should know at the end of the 12-month VCAMP experience whether it is worth pursuing the idea further.

“Look, why waste your time on an idea that isn’t going to get you to a place where you’re happy?” said David M. Thiemecke, an Algonquin Studios vice president.

One startup, GradFly, which helps students showcase their technical projects in online portfolios, already is using space in Algonquin Studios. The Algonquin Studios team has invited GradFly to formally join the VCAMP program, and it is waiting to hear back whether the startup will accept the invitation.

Algonquin Studios also is preparing to issue invitations to two other startups in the near future. The company hopes to host 10 to 15 startups in each 12-month VCAMP “class.”

Buffalo’s list of incubators and cowork studios includes the Z80 Labs tech incubator, on the first floor of The Buffalo News, and two communal office spaces, CoworkBuffalo on Main Street and dig on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Algonquin Studios executives believe the startup community is big enough for all of the spaces. “We do not view ourselves as a competitor to any of these things. We view what we are offering as a different piece of the ecosystem,” said Steven B. Raines, the company’s CEO.

VCAMP is part of a renovation, at an estimated cost of $500,000 to $600,000, of the 18,700 square feet of space Algonquin Studios uses on the Brisbane Building’s second floor. VCAMP tenants will work among Algonquin Studios employees and won’t be segregated in one section of the offices.

The construction includes a gym, locker room and expanded kitchen for Algonquin Studios employees, who regularly share ideas over communal meals. The work, which extends Algonquin Studios’ space in the Brisbane Building from Washington Street to Main Street, should be finished by the end of the year, with the first phase nearly complete now.

Algonquin Studios has had opportunities to leave the Brisbane Building but wanted to stay in Buffalo’s central business district and be part of the revival of downtown.

Company officials say they’re glad to see the nearby Hotel @ the Lafayette and Tishman Building brought back to life, and they’re excited about what’s happening at either end of Main Street on the Medical Campus and at Canalside.

Looking out the window of the Algonquin Studios offices at the construction activity happening just to the north and south, Adrian A. Roselli, another vice president, said, “It’s going to meet right here.”