ASHEVILLE – Ahead the transition to become CEO of The Collider as he leaves Venture Asheville, Josh Dorfman spoke with WRAL TechWire about his experiences with the venture group and what he hopes to accomplish in his new role.
- What are your greatest accomplishments at Venture Asheville? And how do you think this program has contributed to the greater innovation economy in Western North Carolina?
Our greatest accomplishment is that we developed and continue to implement a unique entrepreneurial ecosystem strategy that plays to Asheville’s strengths. We’re a destination city that attracts great talent and wealthy individuals who could live anywhere.
So our strategy to build local, high-growth ventures is people-centric and reflected, for example, in how we anchor our entrepreneurship program (Elevate) in team mentoring and why we chose to structure our angel investment program as a network of investors as opposed to a fund in order to create opportunities for more relationship building and connectivity.
It’s been scientifically hypothesized that Asheville and Bhutan are tied for happiest and friendliest places on earth. I can’t speak for Bhutan, but for Asheville that means we’ve been able to build the exact kind of welcoming, pay-it-forward startup community that startup gurus like Brad Feld espouse. And since a startup community can only advance at the speed of trust, I’d say we’ve done a good job of building trusted relationships among the many leaders of Asheville’s startup community and with the hundreds of enthusiastic participants.
- Venture Asheville was awarded the NC IDEA Ecosystem Partner grant last year. What are the results of this partnership so far?
The grant has enabled us to further operationalize and scale Elevate, our high-growth entrepreneurship program. We continually invest in training for our mentors and building the capacity of our operations team, so we can scale up the program from supporting the 15 participating startups, when we received the grant last year, to 50 startups by 2020.
- You mentioned in your letter that the Economic Development Coalition and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce are committed to seeing Venture Asheville grow in effectiveness? Can you elaborate on this? Any new plans in the works?
We’re midway through our 5-year plan to foster 50 early-stage, high-growth ventures and attract at least $10 million of equity funding to fuel their growth. We’re tracking well toward those goals. The opportunity for the next Director of Venture Asheville is to improve upon the foundation we’ve established through Elevate and Asheville Angels to accelerate local startup formation and attract more startups from regions outside the Southeast to relocate to Asheville.
For example, we recently played a leading role in the launch of the Mo Summit, which brought CEOs of high-growth, positive-impact companies and startups from across the U.S. to Asheville. We believe Venture Asheville can play a prominent role in telling the Asheville startup success story to a wider audience of high-growth ventures who are getting priced out of other markets in terms of talent and real estate.
- How many businesses and mentors are/have been involved in Elevate?
Currently, 50 mentors support 25 startups. Each mentor selects two startups to work with, so there’s typically 3 to 4 mentors working as a team with each startup. There also no end date for startup participation in our program. 12 of our startups are currently in Year 2, which is important because that’s when we really start to see the benefits emerge in terms of achieving product/market fit and rapidly growing revenue.
- What fuels your interest in The Collider? Sustainability innovation has been integral to your career. How do you think you can bring this asset to your new role at The Collider?
The Collider exists to foster breakthrough advances to help humanity adapt and thrive in the face of climate change. Our vision is to be the best in the world at developing, training and funding climate data entrepreneurs.
Our opportunity hinges upon the fact that Asheville is home to a large concentration of climate scientists (including 10 Nobel Prize winners) and the largest repository of climate and weather data in the world, thanks to the headquarters presence of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
I’ve pursued a career in sustainability, entrepreneurship and innovation as a result of living in China over 20 years ago and bearing witness to the country’s rapid transformation from a bicycle society to an automobile society. I was Kryptonite Bike Locks’ Business Manager in mainland China at the time, so I had a front row seat. My interest in The Collider is fueled by the opportunity to build a global entrepreneurial ecosystem stemming from Asheville that aims to tackle one of the most critical challenges confronting our civilization.
- What specific projects will you be working on as The Collider’s new CEO?
Our plans are to vastly increase the odds of success for any climate data entrepreneur, whether it’s an individual expert, a CEO of a tech-enabled consultancy or a founder of a pure tech startup. This includes unique offerings tailored around climate and weather data and also some standard tools, in terms of bootcamps, workshops, mentoring and funding.
We’re going to increase our cadence of industry events to bring the market to Asheville, and we’re going to roll out podcasts and newsletters aimed at establishing The Collider as the go-to source and connector for digital and data climate companies.
We’re going to build bridges to colleges and universities to develop robust pipelines for startup and tech talent. We’ll also look to get global quickly by offering virtual memberships to mission-aligned startups, be they in Dusseldorf, Nanjing or San Francisco.