Fort Worth entrepreneurs took the center stage last week to share their stories of startup dreams and successes.
Ever imagine taking a great idea and parlay it into a successful business under your watchful eye? Tens of thousands of people try it every year. Some succeed while others fail.
Several Fort Worth entrepreneurs who have turned their ideas into lucrative ventures shared their experiences along with some advice during a Business for Breakfast session on May 16, sponsored by the North Texas Community Foundation and Plaid for Women. Darlene Boudreaux, executive director of TECH Fort Worth and founder of Cowtown Angels served as moderator.
Topics discussed included the managing the funding journey, the genesis of entrepreneurial ideas and why choose Fort Worth over the United States startup capital of Silicon Valley in California.
Among the panel of entrepreneurs was Bill Burns, whose Fort Worth-based eye care firm Encore Vision is in the process of being sold to Swiss drug manufacturer Novartis for $375 million in upfront payments plus an undisclosed amount in future payments.
Encore Vision developed a topical treatment for presbyopia, a common age-related eye condition that strikes people beginning around age 45. The condition results in loss of near distance vision, making reading and other activities requiring close-up vision difficult.
Burns, who spent many years in the pharmaceutical industry, first recognized the “large impact opportunity” of a simple treatment for presbyopia while working for Alcon, where he held various executive positions, including vice president for pharmaceutical and consumer products.
While helping Alcon rank product development priorities, Burns was intrigued by the commonness of presbyopia but said his suggestion was rebuffed. So Burns tucked the file with the rankings away for safekeeping.
“I pulled it back out when I retired from Alcon and it still had the same sheet of paper in it that I put in 20 years earlier,” he said.
His connection to an ophthalmologist and optometrist who had a patent for treating presbyopia led to the founding of Encore Vision in 2006 and bringing his product – EVO6 – to market. Burns was one of the first entrepreneurs to receive support from startup incubator TECH Fort Worth. The firm also received funding from Cowtown Angels and did its early laboratory research at the University of Texas Health Science Center.
Among the funding sources of Encore Vision is Bios Partners, a venture capital firm focused on early-state biotech investment. Les Kreis, founder and co-managing partner of Bios Partners, also participated on the breakfast panel. With 24 years of experience in various types of capital investment markets, Kreis is also a principal of Steelhead Capital Management, a family office managing a portfolio of small business investments and start-up ventures.
“It’s challenging to raise money for the investments that we do,” said Kreis, a founding member of Cowtown Angels. “You’re talking about winning or zero. And so people have to understand that the investments we make can be very risky or very rewarding.”
As an advocate for women in business, and particularly women entrepreneurs, Elyse Stoltz Dickerson’s biotech startup firm, Eosera Inc., has developed a product to remove earwax that will be sold on Amazon Exclusives. Since Amazon Exclusives features products only sold on Amazon.com and a brand’s own website, Amazon Exclusives will be the first to carry Earwax MD.
With more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the health care and pharmaceutical industries, Dickerson launched her company two years ago and raised $1.2 million within the first three months.
Dickerson said her strategy was to find “very successful men who believed in me.” Part of the reason she sought out male investors is because few women are willing to invest, which makes it harder for women to acquire venture capital, she said.
“We as women have a responsibility to invest, and until we’re investing at the rate that men are investing, women are still going to be underfunded, because studies have proven over and over again, we invest in people that are like us, because that’s who we relate to,” Dickerson said. “So we as women need to get out there and we need to start researching companies. We need to start putting our money into these companies and supporting these women.”
As vice president of growth and general manager of Texas for Booster Fuels, panelist John Parker is leading the expansion in Texas of a gas fill-up service that brings the gas station to the customer.
“It’s the Uber for gas,” said Parker, who was an early employee at Uber Technologies, where he helped expand the Uber’s rides on demand business in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Parker has worked closely with AllianceTexas to bring the mobile fuel delivery service to the parking lots of major employers, particularly in North Fort Worth, using a GPS technology like that used by Uber to locate vehicles needing a fill-up. Customers use Booster’s mobile app to request the service, then pay by credit card. Booster matches local service station prices and furnishes the same quality fuel as those stations.
“You basically never need to go a gas station again unless you want a slushee or something like that,” Parker said.
When it comes to support for entrepreneurs and the availability of venture capital, the panelists agreed that efforts underway in Fort Worth are making a positive difference.
“In other cities, I think they may be doing a better job of aligning the resources a little bit better and they’ve made a little bit more progress,” Kreis said. “Fort Worth is trying to achieve that right now.”
Parker’s firm, Booster Fuels, has operations in Silicon Valley, which he described as the epicenter of venture capital but also one of the most difficult places to launch a business.
“We started here, in some respects, because it wasn’t Silicon Valley,” Parker said. “It’s hard to bootstrap and get a true startup business of the ground in a place where the poverty line is like $80,000 a year. Our rent for our office out there is literally seven times what I pay for rent here in the DFW market.”