John Gavigan, who has guided the 43North business plan competition for nearly three years, is leaving the Buffalo Billion entrepreneurship initiative to return to the private sector.
Gavigan, who informed 43North staff members earlier this week of his plans to step down, is expected to formally announce his departure Thursday morning.
Gavigan leaves 43North on much more solid footing than when he joined the organization in February 2015. In the months leading up to his hiring, the future of the 43North contest was in question because the state had not approved funding for its second year. That uncertainty helped convince Andrew Pulkrabek, the competition's first executive director, to resign and return to his home in Minnesota.
Gavigan, in an interview, said he started thinking about leaving 43North early this year and informed 43North Chairman William Maggio and former chairman Jordan Levy in June that he planned to step down sometime after the event's finals in early October.
Since then, Gavigan said some opportunities "have been bubbling to the surface" for other positions, ranging from jobs with early stage companies to private equity firms that invest in promising businesses.
"I think a professional life is a series of new experiences and adventures," Gavigan said. "Unless you continue to reinvent yourself, you put yourself and your family at risk."
43North has formed a six-person search committee that includes both Gavigan and Maggio to look for a new executive director for the four-year-old business plan competition. Gavigan plans to remain in his post until his successor is hired and completes a transition period.
"The search is underway. We're inventorying the candidates right now," said Maggio, who hopes to have picked Gavigan's successor by the end of this year. "I would say it's a regional search, probably."
Under Gavigan, the 43North contest has repeatedly tweaked its format try to add drama to the contest's finals week and also attract higher caliber entries from more established startups.
After two years of casting a wide net aimed at creating a buzz for the contest and attracting thousands of entries, 43North switched gears in 2016, adding an entry fee to weed out less serious applicants and shifting its marketing program from one that took a broad approach to one that targeted specific segments of the startup community, including venture capital investors investors. The contest also tweaked its format, reducing the number of prize winners from 11 to eight, and raising the minimum prize to $500,000 from $250,000.
"I wanted to leave knowing that we had laid a very strong foundation," Gavigan said. "I love what we built at 43North. I know the next leader is going to be able to double down on what we've built."
The Cuomo administration launched the 43North competition four years ago, dangling a $1 million grand prize in an effort to jumpstart an innovation economy and rekindle a spirit of entrepreneurship in the Buffalo Niagara region, which had long lagged far behind the rest of the nation in new business creation. The state earlier this year approved $25 million in funding for 43North – enough to cover the prize pool for five competitions – through the Buffalo Billion II program.
Gavigan said he caught the "entrepreneurial bug" long ago. He started working as a teenager at his family’s business and has been involved in four start-up companies, including the interior design firm Eden Interiors in 2002 and Discover Buffalo Niagara Calendars, which he co-founded with his brother in 1999. Gavigan also worked as vice president of Eastern Managed Print Network, a sales manager at Xerox and was part of a turnaround at Xerographic Solutions.
Working in an office that he shares with the entrepreneurs from the prize-winning companies from last year's 43North competition only fanned his entrepreneurial fire, Gavigan said.
"I'm going back to my roots," he said.