Worcester Venture Forum brings people together


At the final round of presentations for the Venture Forum 2013 business-plan contest, Ailis Tweed-Kent and her partner Anh Hoang presented their business idea to an audience of 60 people including four judges. The two young women want to develop a new drug for osteoarthritis.”We need five to six million dollars to start our business,” Ms. Tweed-Kent said. She and Ms. Hoang, students at Harvard Medical School, were dressed in black suits, looking like two business school graduates interviewing for their first job. “The medicine still needs experimenting. We are planning to have animal tests next year. That is why we need that amount of money, and I think the same reason why most biotech startups would need lots of funds.”The women were persuasive — they were selected from among the four finalists for the Forum’s $10,000 prize.

The contest, held in November, is one of the key initiatives of the The Venture Forum, which has encouraged entrepreneurs in the Worcester area for decades. Recently, the forum split from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

“We left WPI because we are expanding,” said Mitchell Sanders, chairman of the Venture Forum board of directors. “We would like to reach out to a bigger community.”

People who attend the forum’s events fall into three categories: middle-aged men wearing rimless glasses and suits; young 20-something students trying to act like they are 10 years older; and people wandering and holding a slice of free pizza who are there for entertainment and education.

A typical conversation at a recent forum event:

“Hi, it’s so nice to finally meet you. My partners and I would love to hear what you think about our ideas,” said a young man in purple silk shirt and black suit pants. The response from the woman in a designer’s suit and heels: “Sure, I think you need to specify the clients your products are targeting to.”

Unlike technology startup events in Boston or New York or where young geeks in superhero hoodies, old sneakers and plastic framed glasses dominate, events held at The Venture Forum are more like fancy fundraisers for investors to meet startups instead of the other way around.

“We have numbers of different committees taking care of different needs,” explained Lorraine Tice Jones, chief operating officer of New Venture Evolution, a consulting firm. “Fundraising, marketing, program planning, membership, sponsorship and a liaison group.”

Ms. Jones said she has been the planning committee for more than five years. “People here have interesting careers and are doing interesting things. I learned a lot and made great connections here,” she said.

Among the forum’s board members are financial specialists, local entrepreneurs, business consultants and a former city manager.

On Dec. 10, another Tuesday night, five men and five women sat across a circular table in a glass-walled meeting room in the WPI campus center. This was a meeting of the Venture Forum board; the members concentrate on certain specialties.

At the group’s December event, which was a panel discussion with the theme of personalized medicine held after the board meeting, most of the participants identified themselves as local entrepreneurs who came to meet new clients. These business people offered financial, legal and marketing services and advice to people who just started a business. There were also venture capitalists and angel investors there looking for places to put their money. Only six people in the hall raised their hands saying they were startup entrepreneurs. They were students who had just formed a team and had an idea. They came to The Venture Forum for help to move their ideas to the next stage.

WPI civil engineering student Xiaokong Yu said she had been to almost all the events The Venture Forum held at WPI. “I’m interested in startups, plus they have lots of great lectures,” Yu said. She was wearing a pink Northface wind jacket and jeans. She said she hadn’t come up with a business idea yet, but had learned a lot from the forum. “I have some friends who are members here, but I’m not. I just came here for the lectures and panels. It’s a bit like a free MBA program to me,” Yu said.

Mr. Sanders, the chairman of the forum’s board, identified funding as a major problem for all technology startups in Worcester.

“The VC community is struggling right now because there are very few active funds, and the few that are investing are looking at later-stage deals,” said Mr. Sanders. “The trend in Worcester and all around the country is that entrepreneurs need to be more resourceful at securing capital.”

At a stage when money is tight, seizing every chance to get more attention can be an alternative way out.

“It’s not all about the money and funding. There’s also publicity people can get from our events,” said Lisa Hamaker, chairwoman of The Venture Forum Marketing Committee who also runs a marketing consulting firm in Bolton. “Contestants of our business plan contests and one-minute pitch contests get to practice how to present their business to a large audience here. These are also valuable skills for startup entrepreneurs,” Ms. Hamaker said.

Ms. Hamaker offers her marketing specialty to board members and startup entrepreneurs at the forum events. “It’s a great opportunity to meet potential clients and helping out those new startups. I’m always amazed by how people in the startup community are so willing to help with each other,” she said.

As for the winners of the forum’s prize in November, they have a plan for using the money. “The $10,000 is going to be used to register our intellectual property,” said Ms. Tweed-Kent.

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