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More drama, excitement in store for 43North finals

The 43North business plan competition is gearing up to select the latest crop of winners in the $5 million contest.

This year, organizers are hoping to add more drama to the contest’s finals, which will be held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 5 in Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo. Instead of just three companies making a pitch for the $1 million grand prize and two runner-up awards, this year’s finals will feature pitches by 10 finalists, each seeking one of eight prizes of $500,000 and up.

The idea is to give the finals more of a “Shark Tank” feel and add both tension and drama to the competition’s finale.

The competition will cap a week of networking and educational events for entrepreneurs that will kickoff on Sept. 28 with The Pitch, a $50,000 business plan competition focused on minority and female entrepreneurs.

John Gavigan, 43North’s executive director, and Peter Burakowski, the group’s marketing director, discussed what’s on tap this year.

Two Buffalo companies among 16 finalists for 43North

Q: This is 43North's fourth year. Is it getting to be old hat?

Gavigan: Overall, I would tell you we're really excited. It always seems new, and I am not kidding you. It doesn't mean that we're forgetting the lessons learned, but every year it changes enough that it keeps us on our toes.

It's going to look different. I'm actually more excited for this one. This one, it's so much about celebrating our entrepreneurial community and our startup ecosystem and our inventors and our innovators, and not just celebrating 43North companies.

Q: How are the finals changing?

Burakowski: Last year, we had 15 finalists pitch on Wednesday. It got to 10 on Thursday morning and then three in the evening.

After, we sat the whole staff down and watched the finals. And we asked, what is the best part of this? Obviously, it's the pitches.

So why keep it just in the daytime, let's move more of the action into the nighttime. We decided we would have two rounds of pitching, instead of three, with the 16 finalists vying for a spot in the top 10. And then the night time would be the top 10 shooting for the eight prizes.

I think it will add a lot of entertainment value to the nighttime. It puts a little extra pressure on the teams.

Q: Will the judges be the same for the daytime pitches and the night?

Gavigan: You'll have 25 investors in the morning checking out those 16 companies. They're investors from all over North America who will be judging the final 16. They will select the final 10. Those 10 will then pitch to a separate group of seven judges and they will make the selection on who will win the award.

Now it's constant content. Last year, we had three pitches. Now we have 10. And there's audience participation because they get to vote for a $10,000 People's Choice winner.

It's now shifting from local judges and entrepreneurs and investors. Now we're going to bring in a wide swath of investors and stakeholders to help us winnow down who the award winners will be.

Q: How long will the pitches be?

Gavigan: In the morning, it's 10 minutes for the pitch and 10 minutes for questions.

Burakowski: In the evening, it's a two-minute pitch and five minutes for questions.

Q: Do you think this will be the format going forward?

Gavigan: I could see this being the path from now on. It's taken us a bunch of years. It's like everything else we do, whether it's incubation or the programs that we're running. Everything seems to be evolving. I can see this being the pattern for a while. It's just taken us four seasons to get here.

Q: The judging was spread over two days last year. What happens on Wednesday this year?

Burakowski: On the Wednesday of 43North week is the 716 Startup Showcase.

We'll have speed dating between past 43North winners and other startups from across Western New York with investors.

Gavigan: The investors will have tables and they'll get five-minute speed dates with entrepreneurs in the room. After that, there will be a networking, more social event. The entrepreneurs will have their tables displaying their goods and services and products. It will allow them to go a little bit deeper networking with one another.

Our key metrics will be how many follow-up meetings happen as a result of the event, and as a longer-term metric, were there any dollars raised as a result of any connections made during the event.

Q: How has the Buffalo Niagara region's entrepreneurial climate changed since 43North started in 2014?

Burakowski: The theme of 43North week is "Forward Together." How do we make sure this is not just an event, that this is not just about 43North. How do we make sure that the whole community is engaging in different ways?

Gavigan: For the first time in this community's history, we're going to have more than 50 early-stage investing firms and individuals here, looking to deploy resources, potentially, in some of our startups. It's more than doubled from last year.

The second big thing that we did was not just make it about 43North, make it about our entire startup ecosystem, from Launch NY to Z-80 Labs and other incubators and the University at Buffalo companies.

Q: After four years, do you think 43North has reached an inflection point where the contest is established and the region's entrepreneurial community has become energized?

A: I do believe we've hit an inflection point, but I think our journey will have a series of inflection points. It takes 20 years to build an innovation economy and an entrepreneurial culture in a community. We're still early in that journey.

Four short years ago, we were sitting in the bottom quartile among peer cities when it came to key metrics. We've evolved a lot since then. 43North has had a lot to do with that, but the collaboration within the community has had a lot to do with that, too. People have chosen to get engaged and participate. They've been inspired and they're believing in a way that they weren't, frankly, as recently as last year.

This is actually the time where we should be doubling down on our efforts. We're starting to see some successes, but it's not time to stop. In fact, it's just the opposite. This is where we need to put new gas into the tank and fire this up.

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