“New name, new scope, new partners, same mission,” is how The Venture Forum bills itself. The first three characteristics are quite important. No longer is the Forum tied directly to WPI. And no longer is it largely a gathering for consultants schmoozing for business.
This February, The Venture Forum was spun out of the WPI Venture Forum, which began in 1990 and will now be phased out. The new non-profit organization calls itself “a community of science and technology entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs ready to learn, launch and grow in the Metrowest and Worcester region.” (Intrapreneurs are employees of a business or organization who possess the entrepreneurial spirit.)
Like the old Venture Forum, the new one is a virtual organization, with no paid staff and office space. The new Forum also has 40 to 60 volunteers, the ability to hire people on a contract basis and an undisclosed annual budget.
Through the new Forum, both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are able to “access sound ideas, solid advice, and a wider network.” This, according to the Forum, is designed to “hasten the path to success for innovative entrepreneurs and to promote the overall business environment” in our region.
The new Forum’s events, which are open to the public, feature volunteer business professionals and educators who assist start-up companies “that are the lifeblood of our emerging regional community.” Attendees include entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, investors, manufacturers, service providers, researchers, inventors, and college and university students, faculty and alumni.
A good case of enlightened self-interest
Mirick O’Connell, a founding sponsor of the WPI Venture Forum, is a current sponsor of The Venture Forum. Call it a case of enlightened self-interest for the full-service Worcester law firm.
“We believe that sponsoring The Venture Forum supports both the Central [Mass.] and Metrowest community in which our offices and clients are located as well as the technology entrepreneurial community with which many of our attorneys and clients are involved,” states Brian Dingman, a Mirick O’Connell partner.
This sort of self-interest is just what Paul Danis is looking for more of. He’s chair of The Venture Forum as well as founder and principal of Eastwoods Consulting in Boylston, which advises companies on the commercialization of life-science technologies. He began attending WPI Venture Forum meetings in 2006, eventually becoming a board member.
Following are edited highlights of an interview with Danis.
Getting people out of their silos
What was the catalyst for spinning The Venture Forum out of the WPI Venture Forum?
The main thing we were looking at was how to grow the Forum. We’d been looking at it for a few years because we felt we had a lot more to provide the community if we could expand. We looked at expanding in a lot of different areas, and one we thought [was important] was to build more relationships in the community more directly. So with that said, we felt the best thing was to spin [the Forum] out of [WPI] to an independent organization … make connections with other organizations in the area – other institutes, other incubators, financial [organizations] – and then start to grow it that way and become more of a centralized hub for [WPI]. …
Is WPI still involved?
Yes, WPI is our founding partner and we do have an agreement with them to maintain a strong relationship, where they still provide some in-kind support as well. We also have a good relationship as far as potentially offering access [by entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs] to some of [WPI’s] people who want to present [financing] cases … and participate on [Forum] panels. … [WPI also] still hosts some of our meetings and that should continue.
What is the main goal in year one that you’re looking to accomplish, that no one else out there is doing either at all or particularly well?
… [O]ne of the big challenges out here in the entrepreneurial ecosystem is that there’s lots of pieces floating around. They’re all kind of going in the same direction but they’re not really connected. So our [goal] initially in the first year is to start to build some connections with these other pieces.
So we’ve got all these entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial silos operating out there, but people aren’t coming out of their respective silos to collaborate with people in other silos.
That’s right. These silos are wonderful, everyone’s pushing hard [and] there’s a lot of effort out there. [The Venture Forum is] trying to make some connections between those [silos] so that when someone at UMass [Memorial Health Care, for example] wants to connect with someone a financial institution, we potentially can be a matchmaker and make those kinds of connections happen for them.
Do you think people in those silos, for the most part, are happy and excited about this opportunity, or are you going to have to drag them kicking and screaming out of their silos in order to collaborate?
We’ve actually been really surprised at the response … . We’ve had very positive response from people who want to become involved because they see as well that there are other areas that they would love to connect with, but they just don’t have a mechanism for that. …
The Venture Forum’s next monthly event, titled Go To Market: Market Sell or Perish – The Most Critical Phase of a Fledgling Business, is set for Tuesday, May 14 at 5:30 p.m. in WPI’s Campus Center. The cost is $25 for general attendees. There’s no fee for corporate members and their guests as well as for all other members.
Steven Jones-D’Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production. He produces and hosts The Business Beat weekly radio show for 90.5 WICN.
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Paul Danis is a past chair of The Venture Forum as well as founder and principal of Eastwoods Consulting in Boylston.