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Another Voice: Buffalo’s startup community reaches tipping point

By David J. Colligan

Malcolm Gladwell, in his seminal book “The Tipping Point,” describes the central concept as the boiling point, or the moment of critical mass. As readers young and old know, he also examines how the littlest things make the biggest differences.

A number of “little things” were put into motion within the Buffalo startup community over the last decade. Before that, if you asked an entrepreneur about starting a business in Buffalo, they would cite a dearth of investors and no capital to fund a high-growth startup. If you asked an investor about startups in Buffalo, they would respond that startups were too few and too risky for investment. And thus, the situation was that of a chicken and an egg. Which comes first: the startups or the investors? It was a conundrum that hindered Buffalo for decades, stunting any growth needed to replace our former industrial greatness.

The first break in the stalemate came when a group of investors formed the Buffalo Angels, in 2008, which began as half a dozen risk-takers willing to invest in local startups, and now includes more than 50. Around the same time, two world-class entrepreneurs and Buffalo natives, Jordan Levy and Ron Schreiber, turned their attention to their hometown after leading successful venture capital careers in Boston and New York. They started Z80 Labs, an incubator for tech startups.

Next came Launch NY, a venture development organization with the purpose of mentoring and navigating startups through the tortuous phases of early development and growth.
Just as the startup ecosystem building blocks were being put into place, Buffalo’s coolness was evolving; places such as Babeville, the Elmwood Village and Larkinville were the early entrants, followed by Canalside and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

As a corporate attorney, I had witnessed the atrophy of the business community. Five years ago, a new wave of growth was on the horizon, and three partners and I started a law firm for startups, in the hopes of catching it. Now that wave has reached the shore.

How do we know if we’ve reached the tipping point? The best evidence is that outsiders have discovered our startup ecosystem. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo introduced 43North, to give away an annual $5 million through a pitching contest. And because of 43North, Facebook decided for the very first time to invest in small businesses, and partnered with M&T Bank to form Ignite Buffalo. And, we can now confidently point to the Founder Institute, Endeavor, Next Street and Techstars as all being at Buffalo’s doorstep.

The littlest things make the biggest differences. In this case, $80 million investment in startups occurred in 2016, and 2017. The 2018 total is over $175 million. The moment of critical mass has arrived.

David J. Colligan is a partner at Colligan Law and founder of the Buffalo Angels.

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