Idaho startups come back from Salt Lake City with funding

Sharon Fisher//March 22, 2019

Idaho startups come back from Salt Lake City with funding

Sharon Fisher//March 22, 2019

photo of john williamson
John Williamson is helping teach Idaho entrepreneurs how to get funding, and in the process, building a capital network in Idaho. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

For the second year in a row, a third of the startups presenting at the annual Investors Choice conference in Salt Lake City were from Idaho.

Did it work?

It’s too soon to tell for 2019 — it generally takes a year to hear back about funding — but of the nine companies that presented last year, six have raised more than $7 million, according to John Williamson, who led the two cohorts to the conference.

Williamson, a former senior vice president for commercial banking with KeyBank, fulfills a dual role. He’s director of Idaho operations with venturecapital.org, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit venture accelerator, and executive in residence for the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University. The dual role gives him a base in Boise where he can identify and train promising Idaho entrepreneurs.

Leif Elgethun, CEO of Retrolux, praised the conference. The Boise-based company, which produces software for the energy-efficient lighting industry, was involved in 2018.

photo of leif elgethun
Leif Elgethun

“Retrolux has participated in multiple Venture Capital programs over the past three years, including their Deal Forum, Pitch Coaching, and the Investors Choice Forum,” said Elgethun. “We’ve found their programs very accessible to participate in and have found tremendous value through the intensive coaching sessions with experienced entrepreneurs, investors and community supporters as well as opportunities to practice selling our idea to investors in pitch practice sessions. It’s like an intensive boot camp for novice entrepreneurs looking to understand their business and how to raise money.”

Another 2018 member was Snacktivist Foods, which went on to win $10,000 in the Trailmix processed food product pitch contest during Boise Startup Week.

In contrast with BSU’s Venture College, which covers the entire entrepreneurship cycle, Williamson’s program focuses on the financial. Venture College takes students who are going to be entrepreneurs and runs them “through the gauntlet,” he said.

“Mine is focused on funding,” Williamson added. “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

The goal is to use mentors — Williamson currently has 600, 100 from Idaho, who contribute 15,000 hours a year — to teach entrepreneurs how to talk to investors.

“They’re either a very successful entrepreneur, a very successful investor who knows how to pick winners, or a business services professional, such as a chief financial officer or property attorney, who has built a practice around serving the entrepreneur community,” he said.

The expectation is that successful entrepreneurs will pay it forward, Williamson said.

“We don’t charge entrepreneurs, but if you succeed, come back and be a mentor,” he said.

Williamson is also creating an internship program as liaisons between the mentors and the entrepreneurs. It has grown steadily — last year there were seven; this year there are a dozen and 15 to 20 are expected next year.

The final part of the program is what Williamson calls the “stakeholder summit,” monthly meetings with various organizations that have interest in providing resources to entrepreneurs in the growing Idaho startup ecosystem, such as Trailhead, the Idaho Technology Council, the Venture College and the Idaho Department of Commerce.

“I can do three or four events a year,” he said. “ITC can do a couple. If we combine resources and don’t schedule on top of each other, every three or four weeks we have a reason for that group to come together. Guess what: that’s a capital network.”

Elgethun said he has been pleased with the group’s approach to “supporting budding entrepreneurs and emerging companies.”

“We found them highly engaging with the right tools at the right time to help us not only understand what to do, but also how to do it,” he said.

Ultimately, the aim is to create wealth for Idaho, Williamson said. In Utah, the Investors Choice events have collectively raised $10 billion and created 75,000 new technology jobs — moving technology from 6 percent of Utah’s gross domestic product to 65 percent today.

“We challenge companies to start, find the money and change the world,” Williamson said.