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43North winners get to work in new offices

When we last saw the winners of the 2018 edition of the 43North competition, they were celebrating onstage at Shea's Buffalo Theatre.

On a chilly Monday, they were settling into their new digs at 43North's offices on Ellicott Street and received an invitation from the mayor to drop by. It was move-in day for the startups, as they try to convert their success before a panel of competition judges last October into more jobs, investment and growth.

The companies are required to base their operations in Buffalo for at least one year, as a condition of being a prize winner. 43North officials are determined to see the startups stay much longer, by helping them build connections in the community and recruit employees.

Seven of the eight winners in the 2018 competition have arrived. The eighth winner, NaturAll Club, isn't coming. The hair products company received an "industry-specific investment" that prevented it from moving here from Philadelphia, said Alexander Gress, 43North's president.

As a result, the $500,000 that NaturAll Club won instead goes into a pool of follow-on funding that the 2018 class of winners will contend for at the end of this year. That pool now stands at $1 million.

Each of the winners in the 2018 43North competition was awarded $500,000; SparkCharge, from Syracuse, won an additional $500,000, making it the $1 million grand prize winner. Collectively, the seven startups which moved here have 40 employees, according to 43North.

SparkCharge is developing portable charging units for electric vehicles. The company has four employees here so far, said Joshua Aviv, the founder and CEO.

"It's a really amazing space to be in," Aviv said of 43North's offices. "Every day that you come in, you're really going to be motivated to hit the ground running. Everyone's pretty much doing the same exact thing, trying to build their company and get better day by day."

Joshua Aviv, CEO of SparkChange, which won the top prize in the 2018 43North competition. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Aviv on the night of his company's victory said his goal was to have 90 employees by the end of this year. "We're going to be sticking to that, but we're going to be updating that," he said Monday. "It might be a little more." He said SparkCharge is looking around at options for manufacturing space.

Two of the prizewinners, Immersed Games and Hi Operator, actually moved in late last year. Immersed Games, which is about to hire its 13th employee, came from Gainesville, Fla. Hi Operator started out in San Francisco and was most recently based in New York City.

Immersed Games has developed a video game to improve students' science and engineering skills. Lindsey Tropf, the CEO, said the company has met with Villa Maria College about potentially providing internships for students, and met with a University at Buffalo professor who is helping the business make connections.

Tropf said she is looking forward to tapping into 43North's resources, as well. "The 43North staff, they have people dedicated to just helping us recruit, for example, which is incredible," she said.

Tropf and the other 2018 winners each received a gold-colored buffalo-shaped pin from Mayor Byron Brown, who wears one of the pins on his lapel. Brown called himself their "new mayor," given that nearly all of the companies moved here from other cities, and pledged his support.

"I want to invite each and every one of you individually and collectively to feel free to come and visit me at Buffalo City Hall," he told the group.

While Monday's focus was on the 2018 prize winners, 43North's Gress said the competition's past winners are also delivering results. There have now been five editions of the business plan competition, launched as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Buffalo Billion program.

43North's 44 portfolio companies have raised more than $190 million in venture capital and $14 million in grants, and employ more than 300 people in Western New York, the organization said.

Gress said all eight of the 2017 prize winners are still here, and will help members of the 2018 class get acclimated. "The (2017) class is almost functioning as like big brothers, big sisters on the block," he said. "So they are another form of mentorship and support for the (2018) class."

43North is also lining up workshops for the 2018 class members to help develop their businesses, pairing them with mentors, and showcasing activities for them in the region, Gress said. "We really get them anchored here."

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