Workshop culls good business ideas from the bad

Jun 27, 2011

No one would argue that new businesses don't face hurdles.

To help clear those, the University at Buffalo recently trucked in a few experts to deliver a dose of help - and constructive criticism.

The Pre-Seed Workshop is an intense 3-day traveling seminar meant to provide an environment where nascent ideas can get fleshed out into practical businesses - or nipped in the bud.

The overarching goal is to help western New York's economy find new footing through homegrown ideas, according to Judy Albers, who founded and hosts the fee-based, for-profit seminar.

"We are still early in the game," she cautions. "We're not developed like Silicon Valley or Boston. We don't have the numbers in terms of venture capital, in terms of startup [companies], in terms of know-how."

"But you've got to start sometime. So we're starting."

Milk local assets but also attract more milkmen 

Upstate New York, according to the Pre-Seed Workshop, ranks second in the nation for money spent on research and development at universities.

But Albers says that local asset requires legwork, in order to be translated into prosperity.

"You'll hear politicians talk about the new economy. They'll say, 'We're going to invest in research and development so that we can create jobs'," Albers says, scoffing. "Well, that's a big leap, you know?"

New ideas also require capital to come to life.

But according to a report that Albers co-authored in 2009 for Excell Partners, a University of Rochester-based venture capital firm, that capital is not forthcoming [requires registration]: upstate only nets 9 percent of all of the venture capital (VC) expended in New York State, and New York State already ranks just seventh on the list of states that capture the most VC.

Figures like that, according to Albers, are "depressing."

In western New York, Albers says, investors have historically made their money in manufacturing and are weary of sinking  dollars into the latest unproven technology. That's because more than 90 percent these new ventures have gone the way of the dodo bird within five years.

"The ones that succeed make up for the ones that fail. You only need one Google," Albers says.

Albers program is designed to help those failures happen quickly, at the earliest state, by vetting ideas in the workshop. Some businesses are based on bad assumptions, Albers says, and should not proceed.