RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK Investors and startups are gearing up for an eventful week as the perennially popular Venture Connect conference brings them together this Wednesday and Thursday. It will be a two-day marathon of pitches and, hopefully, deals.

“We want to create an environment where those connections can be made and [we want] that to happen as quickly and seamlessly as possible,” said Jay Bigelow, Head of Entrepreneurship at CED. “There’s stuff happening all the time. There’s two tracks going on, there’s pitches, there’s panels. It’s a busy two days for everybody.”

Quality over Quantity

Bigelow and the team at CED (the Council for Entrepreneurial Development) have a lot of practice with prepping for the event, but they’re keeping things fresh with some new twists this year, including a new venue. The event is shifting from the former GSK headquarters in RTP to the Citrix Building in downtown Raleigh, which is currently empty. The new location, spanning 100,000 square feet across three floors, offers ample space for participants to spread out.

Despite the larger venue, the event is scaling back from its record-breaking numbers of last year. Only 125 companies will be taking the stage, down from 180 companies in 2023. Bigelow said their focus in the previous year was rebounding after COVID and getting as many companies as possible the exposure and stage time. This year, the focus is back on “quality over quantity.”

“We still had 230 to 240 applications and we said, “Let’s shoot for 125,” said Bigelow. “So, we tried to raise the bar a little bit, make it harder to be selected, and therefore everyone selected is, we think, above the rest.”

The smaller list means a bit more time and focus for those participating, with 5 minutes allocated for each pitch. But Bigelow also reflected on the “pitch fatigue” that can come with so many sessions.

“For investors, it almost becomes overwhelming for them. They can’t segment them,” explained Bigelow. “So we’re grouping them into smaller chunks. No session has more than eight.”

With the sponsors and 125 pitching companies, the CED team expects around 200 investors and a total of 1,200 attendees, a total on par with last year’s event.

Investment Expectations

Last month, CED released its annual Venture Report which covers investments in North Carolina-headquartered companies for the 2023 calendar year. As expected, the funding report reflected the slowdown of the economy and investor caution. The 214 deals that took place in 2023 raised a total of $1.6 billion. While this represented a relatively small drop in the number of deals (269 in 2022), the state had a deep dip in funding compared with the $4.2 billion raised in 2022.

While Bigelow is pragmatic about the recovery, he does see positive signs going into this year’s Venture Connect.

“I wouldn’t say we’re seeing a jump in investments yet, but they’re at least listening to new company pitches, and that’s really what we’re trying to do is make that first introduction,” said Bigelow. “There’s a lot of meetings that happen between [the introduction] and that term sheet but if we can get that ball rolling, that’s a good thing for the region.”

What a startup show: Behind the scenes at the biggest-ever Venture Connect

People’s Choice

The CED planners have once again opted to use a mobile app for attendees and registrants during the event. In addition to the usual schedule, maps, and alerts, the app also lists all participants and provides ways to connect with them. As in past years, the event will have dedicated spaces for impromptu meetings and deal-making. Bigelow stressed the importance of making those connections.

“If everybody that goes to the event meets five people they didn’t know before that could be helpful for their business, then it’s a success,” he said. “More people, more connections. That’s what we’re after.”

The mobile app is also getting a secondary purpose this year. As in past years, each session of pitches will include 6-8 companies, all from a similar industry: MedTech, AI, FinTech, Biotech, etc. Unlike past years, however, these sessions will be emceed by a past founder with some success in that industry. These emcees will not only be the guide for the session’s pitches, but they’ll also become a mentor to one lucky company. Using the mobile app, session attendees will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite pitch of the session. That company wins bragging rights and mentorship time with their session emcee.

More to See

Venture Connect won’t be all pitches. Keynotes are planned for each day with Levitate CEO Jes Lipson taking the stage first thing on Wednesday. There will also be an interview with NC Innovation President and CEO Bennet Waters and, on day two, a panel on university involvement in biotech ventures.

There’s no shortage of social sessions either, culminating in a celebration atop the Citrix parking deck on Thursday evening. Tickets are still available with prices increasing as the event approaches. Last-minute tickets will be $899 for the Summit, and $299 for the Thursday evening celebration.

Despite the extensive plans, Bigelow is particularly enthusiastic about the companies.

“My focus is on the founders and operators that are building great scalable companies,” he said “Helping them get ready to be on stage or helping them prepare to meet investors is always the thing that I start with.”

But he wouldn’t pick any favorites.

“All my babies are beautiful,” Bigelow told me, smiling fondly. “I don’t pick one child over another.”