For this edition of Ask the Expert, we spoke with Marnie Lavigne, Co-founder, and CEO of Launch NY, a Buffalo-based venture development organization marking its 10th anniversary this year. Since 2012, Launch NY has mentored 1,400 businesses and invested in many others through the state’s most active seed fund.
How does Launch NY help entrepreneurs?
We help high-growth potential startups by mentoring them, pro bono, and providing access to seed funding. We operate the most active seed fund in New York State and one of the most active in the country. We also have two specialty programs: our Emerging Cleantech Opportunity (ECO) incubator and Founders Go Big, an intensive program for companies led by underrepresented founders.
What should entrepreneurs know about working with you?
First is eligibility. You must be in our region—New York’s 27 westernmost counties—but more importantly, you have to have high-growth potential, defined as $10 million in annual sales by years five to seven.
It is also important for clients to know we’re not a typical venture capital firm where you go straight to consideration for money. We require a three-month mentorship period first. This is a long-term engagement, and we feel mentorship is crucial to set you on the right path—so your initial funding makes you attractive to other funders. Typically, our first company investment is $50-100k, but our companies have attracted 22 times that from other sources. It is that leverage factor we are aiming for.
What would you like investors to know about Launch NY?
We’re the only organization dedicated to fielding a high volume of strictly Upstate New York investment deals. We have several #investlocal financing programs and funds, but we also have a network of over 210 investors who go deal by deal. They can invest in a region they love and choose what companies to invest in. This includes the only round of deals that are exclusively underrepresented-founder-led companies.
Many investors want to support startups but don’t have the time or the inclination to handle or even understand all the intricacies of angel and seed investing. We make it possible to invest from the convenience of your laptop. You place your order and we do the rest.
Tell us about yourself
I’m an example of an entrepreneur who built a company in upstate New York. I’ve been down this road and realized my real passion is helping other entrepreneurs build their businesses here.
In the 1990s, I co-founded a Health IT startup in Rochester that we took public and grew to more than 100 people. I moved on to working in a variety of roles including another HIT company and another IPO. Then I returned to Western New York. Like so many others I thought “what can I do to make opportunities available for people here?”
In 2009, I was at the University of Buffalo. I was trying to help life sciences companies move forward and realized we didn’t have mentorship or risk capital. One of the country’s oldest venture development organizations gave the keynote at one of our forums and the lightbulb went off. So, I worked with a couple of co-founders to start Launch NY.
We started in 2012. In 2014, I left UB and became CEO. I started the seed fund in 2016 and within two years we became the most active in the state. We have over 80 companies in our portfolio, and we’re closing deals left and right.
What do you like best about your job?
I’m an entrepreneur at heart but growing something that is impacting a region and empowering so many individuals so they can help their communities—I can’t imagine a better place to be.
How are entrepreneurs dealing with worker shortages?
It’s always been a struggle for entrepreneurial businesses to find people because the environment is so different than in large organizations. It’s difficult to take a risky job that can’t even guarantee pay. You may get an ownership stake instead. And your job isn’t one job. You wear 10 hats.
But I’d argue that the entrepreneurial sector has been incredibly resilient even through the pandemic because it has always struggled. So, it might attract that gig economy worker and provide opportunities for a new way of thinking about work-life balance.
Any final words?
Regardless of where you see yourself relative to entrepreneurship, there is a role here for everyone—creating a startup, joining a startup, funding a startup, or merely cheering from the sidelines.