I told you I was thinking bigger: The launch of InnoVenture.com

This appeared as an Op/Ed in the Greenville News on April 29, 2012
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Awhile back, I had lunch with a large corporate client who told me that for InnoVenture to be really successful with them, we had to identify new business opportunities that can grow rapidly around the world. A short time later, I had dinner with a partner in one of the southeast’s largest venture capital firms. She told me she had gotten back from a trip to the west coast with companies she had invested in, and venture capitalists there weren’t interested if the companies weren’t billion dollar opportunities. That one-two punch caused me to begin telling friends I needed to start thinking bigger.

The slogan of a large Silicon Valley venture capital firm is, “Start small. Think big. Increment your way there.” Frequently an entrepreneurial person in a large corporation, a university or an independent company has an insight about a new business opportunity. The insight initially is personal, informal and not fully formed. The entrepreneur reaches out to the people he or she knows well and asks for feedback about the idea. These colleagues introduce the entrepreneur to people they know with access to customers, capital, talent and technology the entrepreneur needs. Through a series of serendipitous connections like this, usually the business turns out very differently than anyone, including the entrepreneur, anticipated. Sometimes the entrepreneur develops a business that can be highly successful and grow very rapidly.

This scenario plays out every day in Upstate, across the nation, and around the world. Twenty years ago, I started a company in Greenville called Capital Insights. I organized a group of fifteen business leaders to whom I would bring entrepreneurial business opportunities. When they found one compelling, they would invest and introduce me to peers in the region who also might be interested in investing. Over a few years, we raised $15 million from 150 wealthy individuals, which was a rounding error in mid-town Manhattan but a big investment in entrepreneurial companies here in the 1990s. We invested in a portfolio of high impact companies, which was a good thing because we had some winners, like Earth Fare and Specialty Electronics, that had to make up for some losers.

During a brief stint at KEMET, I founded InnoVenture based on a similar social business development model. Over the years, InnoVenture has refined a conference format designed to help entrepreneurs across diverse organizations discover and develop new business opportunities together. We find entrepreneurs working in large corporations, universities and independent companies who make brief presentations about new business opportunities they see and the resources they need to succeed. Allies and partners help us promote our conferences to their contacts, which draw around 500 people with access to resources the entrepreneurs need to succeed. Over the years, numerous highly successful companies, like Lab21 and Hoowaki, have gotten started and boosted as a result of InnoVenture.

This year, we are taking our distinctive social business development process to an entirely new level. We’re launching InnoVenture.com to become the leading global community for discovering and developing new business opportunities. Just like I have done over several years, someone with a new business opportunity can present it online, share it with a close group of colleagues, and ask them to share it with their contacts. Those interested can follow the opportunity, which connects the opportunity presenter with those who have access to resources the presenter otherwise wouldn’t attract.

Just like Capital Insights did, major companies and universities can use InnoVenture.com to discover a portfolio of opportunities and watch it develop over time. It is impossible to predict which companies will be the most successful, so this portfolio approach allows major companies and universities to invest most of their resources in the ultimate winners without knowing on the front end who the winners will be.

InnoVenture.com is based on a simple, but powerful, idea that can spread rapidly globally. LinkedIn.com went public last year and now has a valuation of $10 billion. InnoVenture.com has huge potential like this, too. We know our vision is bold. We also believe it is possible.

How do you start or participate in a company which can grow rapidly? Innovation is a contact sport. The only ones who win are the ones who get in the game with smart, talented people who have ideas and resources to help companies grow. InnoVenture 2012 is an opportunity to do that live on May 8th and 9th at the TD Convention Center in Greenville. You can connect for free with smart, talented people on InnoVenture.com year around and around the world. Hopefully we’ll see you there.

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