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In new job, Launch NY CEO continues to boost area entrepreneurs

Marnie LaVigne spent nearly a decade at the University at Buffalo working to grow the area’s life sciences economy, first as director of business development for the school’s bioinformatics center and later as associate vice president of economic development.

Last month, she took a new job, as president and CEO of Launch NY, but she’s got the same office in UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences. And she’s got the same mission of promoting startup activity in the region.

LaVigne, who studied neuroscience as an undergraduate and clinical psychology as a doctoral student, succeeds Al Culliton, who had served as interim CEO after John Seaman’s contract wasn’t renewed.

Launch NY, modeled after successful programs in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, offers mentoring and other management-support services to would-be entrepreneurs in 27 upstate counties. The not-for-profit organization has hired four entrepreneurs-in-residence and helped 160 companies to date.

Launch NY has raised $8 million in a mix of private and public financing, including $5 million for the 43North business competition that falls under its umbrella. Its next step under its new CEO is to set up an investment fund that will provide seed money to startups.

Stephen T. Watson: What’s the goal of Launch NY?

Marnie LaVigne: We realized that we could not just take what were these very early opportunities for our investors and entrepreneurs and just send them off on their own. ...They were dying on the vine, or they were going elsewhere. So, in studying what else was happening and kind of getting our own feet wet, frankly, from about 2000, we tried our hand at these things. We’d bring venture capitalists to town and have them meet these folks. They’d say, ‘Neat idea, when you get further along come talk to me.’ So we knew that we needed not just money, but money paired with talent. Talent meaning not just on the technology side of the equation, but people who were experienced in bringing these high-potential businesses to market. So it’s that pairing that characterizes a venture-development organization as unique. We’re not just offering entrepreneurial services. We’re not just here as a VC group. But we’re a nonprofit model bringing both together.

SW: So you’re matching promising ideas with venture capital investors?

ML: We help prepare the deals. We see ourselves as being a first-money-in type of player. Whereas, the venture capitalists, they want to see that there’s this great track record, other money in. Where does that other money come from? Once you’ve sort of depleted the opportunity for grant money, you’ve got to have somebody willing to take that risk and get your proof of concept a little further along. That’s exactly where Launch NY is intended to play. But doing that with milestones and with requirements of engaging in that entrepreneurial mentoring process. We’re not just writing you a check.

SW: It remains difficult for local entrepreneurs to find venture capital backing, right?

ML: There was a report by Excell Partners back in ’09 that everybody was quoting, the governor started quoting it, showing that all our venture capital was going out of state. So that report was updated and it was just released about a month ago. It’s very powerful in looking at the fact that New York State still is not putting more venture capital in upstate, particularly. So you’re seeing that nationally New York State went from 4 percent of venture capital being invested in New York State to 7 percent, but it’s happening downstate. And it’s happening heavily in IT and related services. So here we are not touching what is $6 billion of hard science, mostly hard science research expenditures (at colleges and universities), half of it upstate. So upstate is really not seeing what we should.

SW: Is entrepreneurial ability a naturally occurring trait, or can it be taught to someone?

ML: We know that people can’t go out en masse and become something they’ve never seen before. So providing role models and education and training programs, experiences actually being in an entrepreneurial organization, that’s something that helps us figure out who can and can’t be on that road.

SW: What’s the state of the biomedical, or biotech, economy in Western New York?

ML: It’s just starting to reach the crest of a wave. We have had a number of starts and stops, and the reality is we continue to spawn a lot of new businesses in that arena every year. It’s still along the lines of five to 10 a year, which is substantial. And some of those are starting to yield and get national attention. And that ends up being your benchmark. People will say, where are your successful exits? So now we have companies like Empire Genomics, and Kinex, actually hitting their stride. In fact, you’re seeing them introduce really creative products, great business models. And then there are a number of others that are being attracted to the region. So I would say that it’s exactly where we want it to be, but we can accelerate it by making more connections with others in the industry all over the world.

SW: This region has played a role in developing some successful drugs and medical products, but the fruits of that research – the jobs, the spin-off companies – don’t always stay here. Has that changed today?

ML: Right now we have specific scenarios, with new drug development, that we would, in the past, not even bother to have the conversation about how to commercialize it here. We are now. And we’re trying to make a good assessment because, again, we can’t be all things to all people. And drug development is a heavy lift. But there is a portion of that pipeline that can help create wealth in Western New York, as well as jobs.