Editor’s Note: Kevin Eckert is a partner at TFX Capital (TFX), a Charlotte-based venture capital firm that invests in early-stage technology companies founded by military and national security veterans.
CHARLOTTE – The pace of venture deals appears to be accelerating across the United States, and within North Carolina. And the size of those investments are also increasing in amount, as recent data shows that during the first three quarters of 2021, there were 235 venture capital deals in North Carolina, with a total valuation of more than $2.8 billion.
There’s one segment of companies that may be a particularly good bet for venture capitalists, according to the Charlotte venture capital firm TFX Capital: veteran-led startups.
WRAL TechWire spoke with Kevin Eckert, a partner at TFX Capital, a veteran-led and service-driven venture capital firm that invests in early-stage technology companies founded by military and national security veterans.
According to Eckert, TFX Capital believes supporting veteran-led startups can result in durable outcomes for entrepreneurs and investors, and also the creation of important products and services that may alter the course of society. A lightly edited transcript of our interview with Eckert is below.
WRAL TechWire (TW): You’ve stated that TFX Capital believes that supporting veteran-led startup companies is a wise investment strategy. Is there any available data or other success metrics that demonstrate this thesis?
Kevin Eckert, partner, TFX Capital (Eckert): The data is somewhat limited, though we continue to push our industry to improve collection. What we do know, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA), is that 1 in 10 small businesses in the U.S. are owned and operated by veterans and that veterans are 45% more likely than someone without military experience to start a business. This is despite less than half a percent of the U.S. population having served in the military. There are roughly 2.5 million veteran-owned businesses, which generate $1.1 trillion in sales and $195 billion in annual payroll. With this degree of over-representation occurring in the leadership of small businesses we know there is something entrepreneurial happening within this talent pool. At TFX, we help unleash this potential to generate both societal impact and durable outcomes.
TW: You are a veteran yourself. Could you share a bit more about the transition from military function into a civilian role? What aspects of military service prepare a person for entrepreneurship?
Eckert: This transition typically is not easy. It often depends on what one’s job was in the military. For example, I served in field artillery in the Marines, for which there is no direct civilian or commercial equivalent from a technical skills standpoint. That said, there are numerous roles in the military that have direct commercial applicability, such as cybersecurity, that uniquely position transitioning service members for private sector roles. Regardless of the job held in the military, though, all veterans are pressure-tested physically and mentally while serving and gaining valuable experience at a young age. They are responsible for leading teams, making decisions and accomplishing missions in high intensity environments, where resources are often scarce, information is limited and the stakes are high. In many ways this type of environment is very similar to starting and leading a company. It is this experience and the traits developed by it that more than anything else uniquely positions veterans as entrepreneurs – they come armed with resilience, discipline and servant leadership.
TW: You mentioned earlier that 1 in 10 small businesses are founded by a veteran. Is this consistent with how the VC industry is investing? Are there enough investments in veteran-led startups, in your opinion?
Eckert: Within the venture capital industry, the data on veteran-led startup investments scarcely exists though we continue to push for better collection efforts, which organizations such as the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) are starting to do. As more organizations focus increasingly on diversity and inclusion metrics and initiatives around under-represented groups we expect the data to improve. Some of the data we’ve seen collected by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University point to declining rates of veteran entrepreneurship over the last two decades. This is despite about two hundred thousand service members transitioning out of the military every year, a quarter of which would like to start a business, according to IVMF. What is the problem then? Access to capital is one of the big ones—particularly in the startup ecosystem. With veterans representing less than three percent of employees at venture capital firms, according to the 2021 NVCA Deloitte Human Capital Survey, a huge translation gap exists. This is why TFX exists: to fill an unmet need by providing a deliberate source of capital for veteran-led startups.
TW: What’s the opportunity, in your estimate, to expand investment in or support of veteran-led teams?
Eckert: We estimate that there are roughly a thousand or so startups founded every year by veterans and that number is growing as more investors and the government tap into this talent pool. When TFX started there were just three other early stage venture capital firms that targeted veteran founders; now there are almost two dozen. As veterans become increasingly involved in starting dual use companies, that is those developing technology that is applicable to both the public and private sector, there are increasingly more opportunities for funding from the federal government. Previously only groups within the government like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and National Science Foundation offered funding to early stage companies via grants. Now there are at least a dozen such groups. The Air Force alone via its innovation groups, AFWERX and AFVentures, underwrote over $400M in grant funding last year and will exceed that as this year comes to a close.
TW: Are there support structures in place for veteran-led teams? And more specifically, are there any here in North Carolina?
Eckert: There are a number of organizations and events that support veteran entrepreneurs – and are part of our network at TFX Capital. Patriot Boot Camp (PBC) by Techstars and Bunker Labs are organizations that have operated for several years with a focus on helping veterans start their entrepreneurial journey and with which TFX is involved. Bunker Labs maintains a presence in Charlotte and Raleigh while PBC is a program hosted in different locations several times a year. Hofstra University sponsors the Veterans Venture Challenge, PenFed launched the Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program, Rice University supports the Veterans Business Battle and NYU has Veterans Future Labs, to name a few. And, of course locally, TFX hosts the Charlotte Veteran Startup Showcase every year.
TW: I know you often invest locally in the Southeast region – any North Carolina-specific success stories?
Eckert: A startup that has experienced rapid growth since the onset of the pandemic is ProctorFree, located right here in Charlotte. ProctorFree , which is one of our portfolio companies, provides an on-demand, convenient, and cost-effective online proctoring solution for higher education, professional certifying bodies and corporations. The ProctorFree platform allows organizations to elevate their credibility and reputation while providing convenient learning opportunities for a global audience. Army veteran Mike Murphy is the company’s founder and CEO and I have the privilege of working with Mike and his team as a ProctorFree board director.