On Wednesday night, at Ann Arbor SPARK’s fall Boot Camp celebration, young entrepreneurs and mentors gathered to hear 90 second pitches from this cadre of boot camp participants and 8 minutes presentation from the 3 finalists: QR Bars, Paxton Medical and Viryaa Studios.

Paxton Medical, an early stage company developing a disposable medical device allowing for efficient layout and securement of surgical tools during OR procedures won the contest and the associated benefits from SPARK. Good luck to the father and son team behind the venture.

This was the 25th edition of SPARK Boot Camp. As part of the process, Paxton Medical and the 2 other finalists benefited from a presentation coaching session from NEF coaches. The three teams present to a panel of judges, Alain Piette, Technology Practice Manager, MI-SBDC, Paul Riser, Managing Director, TechTown-Detroit and Skip Simms, Senior Vice-President, Ann Arbor SPARK.

During Boot Camp,, campers are taken through a rigorous process spanning a two-month period. Teams refine and develop their business idea through a customer discovery process with the help of a cadre of drill instructors. The goal of camp is to allow teams to fully understand customer pain points and to adjust their solutions accordingly .  As SPARK Boot Camp Director Viktor Brandtneris likes to put it: Spend your resources building what your customers want, not what you think they need.


This past Monday (9-15)  the online edition of the Wall Street Journal, contained an interesting interview with noted Tech investor Bill Gurley, a partner at Benchmark, entitled “Venture Capitalist Sounds Alarm on Startup Investing, Silicon Valley Has Taken on Too Much Risk, Gurley Says.”    Bill also writes a blog called Above the Crowd.  This article is part of a series in the Journal called “Tech Under the Hood.”

Mr. Gurley and Benchmark are investors in Uber, Zillow, OpenTable and other Web startups.  He has recently voiced some concerns regarding the money being poured into startups in Silicon Valley. 

The Journal asked the following question:  You quoted Warren Buffett's famous quote, "Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful." And then you wrote: "Although we may have not reached the level of observing obvious greediness, there is most certainly an absence of fear. Those that managed companies in 2008, or 13 years ago in 2001, know exactly how fear feels. And this is not it." What did you mean by that?

Mr. Gurley: Every incremental day that goes past I have this feeling a little bit more. I think that Silicon Valley as a whole or that the venture-capital community or startup community is taking on an excessive amount of risk right now. Unprecedented since '99. In some ways less silly than '99 and in other ways more silly than in '99. I love the Buffett quote because it lays it out. No one's fearful, everyone's greedy, and it will eventually end. And there are reasons, which might take all night to explain, why this business is cyclical over time, and the more chance you have to see different cycles and to see how it slips away, you can see it. There's a phrase that I love: "discounted risk." Do people discount risk? Right now you've got private companies raising $200, $400, $500 million. If you're in a competitive ecosystem and you raise that amount of money, the only way you use it—because these companies are all human-based, they're not like building stores—is to take your burn up.

He goes on to say.  “And I guarantee you two things: One, the average burn rate at the average venture-backed company in Silicon Valley is at an all-time high since '99 and maybe in many industries higher than in '99. And two, more humans in Silicon Valley are working for money-losing companies than have been in 15 years, and that's a form of discounted risk.  In '01 or '09, you just wouldn't go take a job at a company that's burning $4 million a month. Today everyone does it without thinking.” 

WSJ: Because the equity looks so valuable?

Mr. Gurley: Yeah, it's a whole bunch of things. But you just slowly forget, and half of the entrepreneurs today, or maybe more—60% or 70%—weren't around in '99, so they have no muscle memory whatsoever.  So risk just keeps going higher, higher and higher. The problem is that because you get there slowly the correcting is really hard and catastrophic. Right now, the cost of capital is super low here. If the environment were to change dramatically, the types of gymnastics  that it would require companies to readjust their spend is massive. So I worry about it constantly.

Mr. Gurley then responds to other questions citing reasons that it appears that things are getting  excessive.   A summation of his ideas is that burn rates because capital is readily available have gone to very high levels.  Public, SAS companies which he views as potentially among the highest risks are losing tons of money but Wall Street views that as ok for these companies.  There is a vicious cycle.   Money is available from the Street to fund these losses, at very high company valuations and other public company boards see this and decide to up their burn rate because they have money being thrown at them to fund those losses. 

This leads to companies that are less able to weather storms or “to get to cash flow profitability or the ability to generate cash flow” as valuations move higher and along with it operating costs fueled by investment dollars.  Consequently, there will be some failures which in Mr. Gurley’s view will be good in returning reality, or as he says, “sanity”, to the market. 

He also references liquidation preference as a factor that in time makes it more difficult for companies to raise money because, as he states, the “liquidation preference piles up on a startup”.  This fact makes it imperative that companies can show a clear path to cash flow and profitability or the money tap will ultimately be turned off. 

This article is thought provoking because it reminds us that we have seen this in tech sphere in 2001, and in other financial segments like in the mortgage bust that lead to the crash in 2008.  It always happens where too much money starts to chase opportunity.  Credit, investing and underwriting standards decline and there is a market adjustment.  Sometimes it’s painful.  Let’s hope that this time the adjustment will not require widespread and excessive pain in the public market which will, of course, negatively impact angel and early stage venture investing too.  That said, this underlines the need for all startup companies to take the money they can get when they can get it but to guard it and use it wisely in getting to a sustainable market position and a cash flow positive situation as soon as possible.  

Entrepalooza 2014 was held at the Michigan League on September 12.  As always, it was a fun and interesting event, with good lessons about entrepreneurship from experienced entrepreneurs of all ages.

As I listened to various speakers, one theme seemed to rise above all others: the importance of relationships with other people to the success of your business.

  • Keynote Speaker Rob Pelinka talked about a focus on service, and putting others first.  You need others (customers, team members, partners) in order to succeed, and putting them first serves you best in the long run.
  • Nancy Benovich Gilby said the “I think/I know” language has to go from the speech of entrepreneurs; they need compassion and empathy for the customer as well as passion for their product and business. 
  • Doug Cass said it’s easy to start a business, but hard to build the right team; you must surround yourself with people who can do the things you’re not great at.
  • The “Pathways to Entrepreneurship” Panel seemed to agree that one of the biggest pitfalls for startups is people.  You need a diverse team to execute; people who will get along well but challenge each other to excel.  The biggest message was “you can’t do it alone!”

Entrepalooza 2014 was sponsored by, among others, the Zell Lurie Institute, Center for Entrepreneurship, and Ann Arbor SPARK, all organizations that NEF works closely with in support of furthering entrepreneurship.  

Vestaron Corporation, the March 2012 NEF Showcase Presenter, recently closed its $10M Series C Preferred Stock investment round. The Kalamazoo, MI, company has received USDA clearance for some of its products, has on-going field trials in Michigan (and elsewhere), and is planning for accelerated market growth next year.

The inspiration for Vestaron’s technology derives from spider venom. They discovered how to recreate the key molecules in the venom, technically known as peptides, which have potent insect killing potential but which are safe to humans, birds, fish, and the environment, including honeybees. These peptides utilize new modes of action that have never been used in insect control, and therefore do not suffer from insect resistance.

The most recent round was led by new investor Cultivian Sandbox Ventures, a fund specializing in food and agricultural companies. Other major current investors including Southwest Michigan First Life Science Venture Fund, Open Prairie Ventures, Pangaea Ventures, Michigan Accelerator Fund, and others.

According to Dr. Robert Kennedy, Vesteron’s Chief Science Officer, “The NEF pitch coaching we received was invaluable. It got us into the form that that investors expect to hear, helped us anticipate pitfalls, and most importantly provided us feedback from an experienced audience in a low risk environment. It’s never too early or too late to benefit from NEF’s coaching.”

Start-Ups are constantly searching for funding sources. Investor Groups are inundated with requests from earnest entrepreneurs. Too often entrepreneurs fail to do some of the simplest things that can increase their chances of success. A recent article on succinctly summarizes 12 key "must haves" for your next investor pitch. Among the Tips:

1.Understand What Investors Expect

2. Know your Numbers

3. Ask For Help, Not Just Dollars

4. Share Your Vision and Mission

The article goes into detail not only for these four tips but eight others as well. The complete article is available at:

The New Enterprise Forum provides coaching teams that help entrepreneurs present their businesses in the best possible light when dealing with investors. If you would like to be considered for a pro bono teaching team please apply at:

A front-page article, “Business Launching ‘Shark Tank’ Style”, by Zlati Meyer in the Detroit Free Press on July 8 was subtitled: “Michigan contests fund start-ups that deliver a killer punch.”  This article highlighted the following ‘Shark Tank’ start-up competitions in Detroit and Michigan:

Each of these ‘Shark Tanks’ award funds to start-ups that best present their business concept to a set of judges who are investors or are experienced in what investors need to see in a presentation.  As the article points out, those start-ups who win are those who present best.  So how do start-ups know how to prepare and present a winning pitch?

This is what NEF does for start-ups – coaches them to prepare a presentation that includes what investors need to see and present it in a way that delivers that ‘punch’ in a way investors want to hear it. 

NEF is proud that Mark Kiel, founder of Genomenon and a graduate of NEF coaching, was highlighted (and pictured) in this article as someone who has been very successful in ‘swimming with the sharks.’

In his first opportunity to use the coaching he received from NEF, Travis Johnson, founder of Foodjunky ( won the Michigan-Macomb Innovation Center (MMIC) Best Shot Competition in Sterling Heights.  The MMIC competition provides entrepreneurs the opportunity to present their ideas to a judging panel who select the best presentation as well as offer insights and advice to propel the business forward.

FoodJunky, is an on-line application that allows for the coordinated ordering of food and beverages for meetings. Users can choose from any number of restaurants, submit their order and foodjunky takes care of the rest.

As Travis said in his newsletter shared with his NEF coaching team:

“Special thanks to my NEF coaching team. I think they did something right because the next pitch contest I entered (Best Shot by MMIC) I won! Along with over 5K in cash and services!”

Great job, Travis!

Ann Arbor SPARK’s “Boot Camp” provides an intensive 9-week program for up-and-coming entrepreneurs looking to prove themselves in the business world. Participants are subjected to rigorous training and coaching by seasoned entrepreneurs.

The program is designed to help early stage companies discover the feasibility of their business concept. It also provides the resources to build upon their business idea and create a workable business model. “Drill Instructors” act as mentor and coach to the participants, providing them with guidance in developing their business concept over the course of the program. These mentors also prepare them for investor pitches and provide access to potential customers.

The program begins with a half-day “Kick Off” where the various participants will be paired with their mentors and briefed on the weeks to come. Each week, the Drill Instructor checks in with each of the businesses in order to provide guidance and instruction. At the end of the nine-week session, businesses participate in intensive 2-day on-site presentations and working groups, where they present to a panel of qualified professionals who provide invaluable feedback. Following “graduation”, SPARK continues to help these companies grow through post-camp coaching.

With more than 300 graduates of Boot Camp since its inception in 2002, Ann Arbor and the surrounding areas have seen significant successes from many of the companies that have gone through the program. Leading software firm Menlo Innovations boasts of their Boot Camp experience back in 2002, where they were able to “set a tone for the rest of their progress,” which includes continued growth and profitability. Two years ago, they were able to triple their working space and they plan to increase their staff in the coming years.

A more recent graduate, Showtown LLC was impressed with the networking opportunities and quality of relationships they formed during Boot Camp. Showtown is an exclusive talent-based website aimed at providing a competitive online atmosphere where performers can compete against one another and connect with local venues to book gigs. Founder and CEO Marc Marras credits SPARK with helping them to “get out of the building and talk to potential customers and competitors and understand what is important to them.” Following their Boot Camp experience, they were able to implement and adapt their site, which is set to launch in Beta in the fall.

The 25th Annual Boot Camp begins on September 16th, local companies are gearing up to take on the challenge of Boot Camp and reap the benefits so many companies before them have experienced. 

Gerry Roston, NEF board member and recent past president, has joined TechTown Detroit as an executive in residence (EIR). As an EIR, Roston’s role is to identify technologies at regional universities, hospitals, and corporations that are ready to be spun off into new entities; provide business assistance to TechTown’s tech startups; and at the end of the one year assignment, take on the CEO role for one of the startups with which he worked. Roston is excited about this new role, “With the rebuilding of Detroit in full swing, I have to believe that there are numerous, viable technologies just waiting to be accelerated. These types of businesses will attract more talent to Detroit, which will further help the rebuilding process.

Paul Riser, managing director, technology-based entrepreneurship at TechTown, is pleased that Roston has accepted this role. “The Detroit Technology Exchange (DTX) [the programmatic partnership that supports the EIR position] is focused on recruiting and grooming talent for tech entrepreneurship opportunities and on converting innovative technologies into Detroit-based startups. Given Gerry’s expertise and extensive network of connections throughout the state, we are certain that he will have a positive impact on the Detroit tech entrepreneurship community.”

Roston’s recent interactions with TechTown were as an instructor for the Labs Venture Accelerator and the DTX Launch Detroit. In both cases, he represented NEF and provided instruction on effective investor presentations. According to Roston, “The quality of the teams in both sessions was amazing – and that was a key factor in my deciding to become more involved with TechTown.”

Detroit Technology Exchange (DTX), a partnership between TechTown Detroit, Bizdom, Invest Detroit, and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center. It is supported by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.’s Michigan Strategic Fund and the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan.

The New Enterprise Forum is happy to announce the election of Stefan Sysko to its Board of Directors. Mr. Sysko is an entrepreneur with a diverse background with 20+ years of experience, much of which has been spent advising small business owners on developing strategy and on executing at a high level. His career includes broad experience in strategic marketing planning, market development, new product and business development, and training.

Sysko has been a consultant, advisor and mentor to dozens of start-ups and hundreds of small businesses. He advises startups, emerging, and turnaround companies with launch, growth, and rebuilding strategies. He helps founders discover and effectively tell their story, develop their value proposition and identify potential roadblocks resulting in focused, viable business plans. Through a strategic partnership with metro Detroit-based Poco Labs, Sysko helps companies with concept development, consumer research and product design.

He is a mentor at Detroit Creative Corridor Center, and helped develop and currently runs the highly successful Retail Boot Camp for TechTown Detroit. He serves on the Marketing & Development Committee for Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit.

Sysko holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Wayne State University and an MBA from Eastern Michigan University.