The Editorial Board: 43North finale reflects the blossoming of a healthy startup ecosystem in WNY

Nov 2, 2021

Both competition and collaboration drive the technology startup economy. That was evident at last week’s grand finale of the 43North business contest, where the entrepreneurial energy was vibrant.

Audience members in Shea’s Performing Arts Center cheered when the grand prize went to Top Seedz, a Western New York company. Seven other companies claimed $500,000 runner-up prizes, including two from our region. All were applauded by a crowd that was grateful to be part of a live competition after last year’s hiatus.

There was also a feeling of generosity and shared excitement at Shea’s, a sense that Buffalo’s startup ecosystem is revving its engines and ready to climb higher.

The growth of entrepreneurship in this region is both thrilling and a little unexpected. After all, the 43North contest was typically seen as a stepchild to other, more flashy components of the Buffalo Billion economic development program. Indeed, the 800-pound gorilla of that effort was the $959 million RiverBend project whose performance has thus far fallen short of expectations. 43North, by contrast, is building for Buffalo’s future and showing itself to be a growing powerhouse.

Western New York depends on a few dozen large and well-established companies that provide jobs, tax revenue and philanthropic dollars that anchor the region. Startups, companies formed by risk-takers with drive and imagination, are where tomorrow’s growth will originate.

For a long time, hardcore techies followed the famous motto of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg: “Move fast and break things.” Western New York entrepreneurs may break some molds in how things get done, but they are more interested in building than smashing things.

Rebecca Brady grew Top Seedz into a local startup success. It’s not a technology company, but an example of the maxim about building a better mousetrap. Top Seedz built a better cracker, using organic, gluten-free ingredients. Its artisan crackers and roasted seeds are carried in 350 stores. Brady has ambitious plans to increase that number, helped by the $1 million prize.

Top Seedz also won a $50,000 grant in 2018 from Ignite Buffalo, another organization promoting startups. The company’s potential for growth and job creation, as well as the personality of its New Zealand-born founder, won over the judges at 43North, who have an interest in backing winners. The state-funded business accelerator takes a 5% stake in each of the eight companies that win prize money in the 43North finals.

The competition’s last locally based champion was ACV Auctions, in 2015. The makers of a used car auction app became the region’s first unicorn when it went public this year with a market value exceeding $1 billion.

The two Buffalo companies among the seven runners-up are BetterMynd, an online therapy program for college students, and Verivend, a cloud-based network for business payments.

The heart of Buffalo’s technology corridor stretches from the revived Seneca One tower to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

43North’s headquarters are in Seneca One, where M&T Bank has invested $58 million in a technology hub. Odoo, a Belgium-based software company, has its East Coast headquarters in the tower, and Serendipity Labs offers flexible office space in its tower location, with another planned at Fountain Plaza.

The University at Buffalo operates an Innovation Hub on the Medical Campus that aims to commercialize research from UB as well as other local medical research institutions. The hub includes a business incubator that supports startups.

The success of Odoo and HiOperator, a customer service company and former 43North prize winner, helped convince Centivo to establish a presence here. The digital health plan company has an operations hub in Cheektowaga and office space in UB’s Gateway Building on the Medical Campus.

Our thriving startup scene has room to grow, of course. There is tremendous competition for venture capital from startups across the country. Some entrepreneurs will choose predictable locations like Austin, Seattle, Silicon Valley or greater Boston.

The work ethic of Western New Yorkers, as well as our comparatively low cost of housing and short commute times, our great cultural institutions and robust creative class, mean the region will continue to draw the Buffalo-curious from other cities. A growing startup culture will entice more of them to put down roots and stay awhile.

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