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Rohit Gupta was working at a San Francisco investment firm that specialized in real estate as the housing crisis of 2008 began to spiral.
Gupta was struck by his firm’s exposure to the broader whims of that market, even if his own company was acting responsibly.
He was also meeting lots of ambitious Bay Area startup founders around that time.
He convinced his firm to take some bets on startup tech companies, including a succession of investments that included Counsyl, Palantir Technologies, Coupang and Biomeme.
Each one turned into a grand slam.
It was the start of an illustrious career in venture capital. Gupta, now living in Berkeley, California, participates in a few investment groups, including Future Communities Capital, where he is managing director.
The premise of Future Communities is to find tech-enabled startups looking to disrupt existing markets and to plug them into its vast range of potential partners and customers.
That led Gupta to Buffalo, where his firm has been the lead investor at two local startups this year. That includes the $1.6 million pre-seed round closed by HELIXintel and the $700,000 round completed by Ognomy.
His sudden volume of business activity in Buffalo is no accident. Gupta was familiar with this part of the world, mainly through his master’s degree program at Cornell University, from which he graduated in 2003. A few years ago he got an email from 43North President Colleen Heidinger about the state-funded business competition that seeks to boost the startup economy in Buffalo.
Over a coffee in Los Angeles, Heidinger invited Gupta to Buffalo to be a judge in the competition, a role he has since reprised.
Buffalo is no Silicon Valley, of course, but what Gupta saw here was interesting. Namely, a cohesive startup scene that supports entrepreneurs through the grueling process of business creation. He looked at the general convergence of priorities in the political and business environments. And he said 43North’s program has become uniquely effective at uncovering strong startups as they mature into bigger companies.
“What we look for in a tertiary market is that ecosystem,” Gupta said. “It’s hard to overstate the value of that, and Buffalo has done it really well, this idea that there is talent and capital there.”
Gupta got yet another message from a Buffalo connection last year, this time from Peter Burakowski, a former vice president 43North who is one of the co-founders of HELIXintel.
HELIXintel wants to move the archaic industry of industrial equipment maintenance toward a high-tech future, with a web-based marketplace and maintenance tracking. Gupta said CEO Jon DeWald particularly impressed him by marrying the immediacy of a startup with a long-range vision for his company’s place in the industry.
“Nobody is saying this is the most fascinating industry in the world, but I started digging in and saw that they were taking a pen-and-paper industry and changing it overnight,” Gupta said. “They are looking at a really big market that is not addressed by anyone else.”
Future Communities helped the HELIXintel develop a more efficient investment presentation. The investment firm also has a deep well of potential early adopters and clients that could fit HELIXintel – Gupta said work is underway to connect them in meaningful ways.
Next up was Ognomy, which officially closed its pre-seed round recently at a number much higher than its initial target. Gupta has experience in the startup health care and medical technology fields, but he didn’t count sleep apnea among his priorities.
But the vision articulated by Ognomy founder Dr. Daniel Rifkin – already a successful sleep specialist in Buffalo – helped Gupta take a harder look. He found a company tackling a serious medical condition that is hard to treat, a specialized market-leading solution and a massive business opportunity.
“Dr. Rifkin owns seven sleep centers in Western New York,” Gupta said. “He didn’t need to do this. He saw this gap in terms of patient care and said, ‘I can make a credible difference in people’s lives.’ ”
Gupta said Rifkin and Chief Operating Officer Greg Ross have been ready with detailed answers to most of his questions.
In his mind, the idea went from a yawn to an exciting med-tech play.
“There is a long tail of health problems that stem from sleep apnea,” he said. “If we can just get to half of (untreated sufferers), that’s a huge change.”
Gupta’s involvement in the Buffalo startup ecosystem isn’t a series of coincidences. His take on the region is that its natural assets – from affordability to its colleges and universities to its health care campus – are being supported by public-private partnerships and a surge of energy from the corporate business scene.
The community reinforced his belief in the worthiness of its startups, and he’s open to backing more of them.
“It makes sense to say, geographically, that we want to have a hub and spoke approach,” Gupta said.
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