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Startup guru praises emerging scene in Buffalo

Brad Feld's casual clothes and casual manner give him the look of a cool entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

But he has the credentials to back up the image. The MIT graduate founded a firm in 1987 that he sold a few years later, putting him on a path to investing in startups. In 2006, Feld co-founded Techstars, which has built a presence around the world working with startups, including in Buffalo, in partnership with 43North. And he is co-founder of a venture firm called the Foundry Group.

Feld wrote a book called "Startup Communities" that 43North's chairman, Eric Reich, hailed as a must-read to his fellow board members and 43North's staff members. Feld visited Buffalo for 43North's finals week, culminating in the main event at Shea's Buffalo Theatre where $4.5 million in prize money was awarded.

Feld, 53, is passionate about creating startup communities everywhere, not just in the major metros.

"I now have a belief that every city in the world that has at least 100,000 people has a requirement of having a vibrant startup community if it wants to be a long-term sustainable city," he said.

The Boulder, Colo., resident recently shared his views of Buffalo's startup scene:

Q: How is Buffalo's startup community doing?

A: It feels like lots of amazing stuff is happening. You've got a couple of companies in town, startups, that are starting to become visible, meaningful companies …

The dynamics of those companies becoming successful – not just successful in terms of people they are hiring, but the wealth creation from those companies – and the fact that the people leading those companies and many of the early investors in those companies really care about Buffalo, that over a long period of time will generate reinvestment in the startup community in a significant way.

Now the key thing here is, it takes time. In "Startup Communities," I talk about having to have a long-term view. I like to say you have to have a 20-year view from today … You're literally looking out into the future, versus year by year.

43North helps past winners grow Buffalo roots

Q: How does 43North affect Buffalo's startup scene?

A: 43North's pretty extraordinary in a lot of ways. One is the magnitude is what it's doing is much larger than most or almost all, in terms of the scale of the awards given away in the competition, the investments made as a result of it.

If you think it from the standpoint of the engagement of the city, you want two kinds of engagement. One is you want entrepreneurs to start companies and stay here, and build their companies here. They don't all have to. That's not a requirement, but that's part of the motivation of what you're doing. I heard the stat that about half of the companies are in Buffalo that have been through the [43North] program, and that's incredible.

The other thing you want is, you want the community to see what's happening. I heard that there's going to be 3,000 people at the [43North finals]. That's mind-blowing to me. We run Techstars Demo Days, which are sort of the launch of the 10 companies coming out of the Techstars program, and we have huge Demo Days. And a huge Demo Day for us is 1,000 people.

Brad Feld speaks with Mary Wilson, widow of Bills founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr., at the 43North finals. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

It's not 3,000 people coming to this thing who are all going to invest in this thing. That's not why they're coming. They're coming because they have the sense of something happening in Buffalo around entrepreneurship and they're curious. Some of them are supporters, some of them are employees, some of them are probably friends and family.

Hopefully a bunch of them are people who are interested in Buffalo and supportive of Buffalo and trying to understand this different undercurrent, and how that undercurrent builds and grows the health of the community.

Q: Will Techstars do an accelerator in Buffalo?

A: I don't know, because I'm not part of that decision … We, Techstars, are co-creating with Buffalo a lot of fabric around the ecosystem development activity that is powerful. It's pretty obvious if you look at it from a distance where an accelerator could fit into that.

The conceptual challenge is resource time constraints on everybody's part ... Doing an accelerator is not 'OK, let's just do an accelerator over there next week.' … I don't know timing, or discussions or answers specifically, because I'm not at that level. But my sense is, we're on a path that is a very compelling path around deep engagement. Whether that deep engagement is an accelerator or just the other kind of activities we're doing, the deep engagement is there.

Q: Where do you see Techstars' relationship with 43North headed?

A: One of the things we've learned at Techstars is that you want to have multiyear relationships versus 12-month relationships. Because in a lot of these things, there's a lot of excitement in the beginning, then you sort of have to figure out how to operationalize things, and then you start doing stuff.

Remember, there's not a playbook. There's not a beginning and an end. There's this series of new developments, experiments, some things, some things that don't work.

Members of the 2018 class of 43North winners onstage at Shea's. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

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