Before it could be celebrated it had to be built.
Before it was built it had to be created.
Buffalo’s startup economy has emerged partly through modern and universal business paradigms – every company is now a tech company, we often hear.
But what’s happening here is bigger than that, the result of a vast recalibration of public, private and philanthropic resources in Western New York.
You could call it a grand experiment in regional economic world-building, and if you haven’t been paying attention, the startup and tech movement has become a primary economic force in Buffalo.
It’s not a hobby anymore. Nor is it a pipe dream, a silver bullet or a scam.
It’s the sound of a community straining to break free of an economic cycle that dates to the mid-20th century.
The starting point is ACV Auctions, which was founded a few years ago by a couple of guys in the old Z80 Labs incubator in the Buffalo News building. ACV went on to become Buffalo’s first software unicorn and executed a successful IPO in March, generating wealth for its many executives, employees and investors in Buffalo.
But ACV’s power goes beyond its physical existence. That a disruptive, market-leading tech startup can be supported by hundreds of millions in venture capital, attract high-level corporate talent and do it all from Buffalo is an answer to all those who said it couldn’t be done.
One-offs and luck happen, of course, but ACV is followed closely by a surging regional portfolio of tech companies, each of which is a major story in its own right. HiOperator had a handful of employees a few years ago. Now it employs hundreds who will work at a new 25,000-square-foot headquarters in the downtown Roblin Building.
Squire Technologies has become a story of national significance. Circuit Clinical expects to have hundreds of employees in Buffalo in the coming years. Venture-funded Kyklo chose Buffalo as its headquarters in 2020.
Global software firm Odoo tabbed the city as its East Coast operations hub last year as well. Bay Area company Torch Labs is growing its Buffalo-based engineering firm here.
Tackle.io’s CEO is in Buffalo, surrounded by a growing number of employees. PostProcess Technologies, CleanFiber, Strayos, Kangarootime, Kickfurther, Viridi Parente, Ellicottville Greens, HELIXintel and many others have raised private capital and are in the midst of significant growth runs in Buffalo.
A variety of organizations have played supporting roles. The most prominent is 43North, a state-funded nonprofit that holds an annual business competition. Winning companies, including many listed above, agree to operate from Buffalo for a year in exchange for prizes that typically range from $1 million to $500,000. 43North then provides a physical incubator and a variety of support services, from mentorship to corporate introductions to helping founders find childcare.
It also has served as a powerful marketing force for the thesis that Buffalo’s characteristics – workforce, affordability, access and the relative cohesion of its top business leaders – make it a place where ideas and projects can become surging enterprises of national significance.
43North’s impact is set to grow, as well. With ACV as its first significant exit, it has created a foundation to take proceeds from successful companies and reinvest them into companies and causes that further the region’s tech economy.
Launch NY is another influential organization, supporting startups through investment and mentorship programs. The nonprofit aims to help companies throughout western and central New York as they create business models and prepare for rounds of private capital. It now plays a role in the origin story of many companies that go onto bigger things.
The University at Buffalo has redoubled efforts in recent years around fostering high-tech commercialization and being a more accessible community partner. Along with a catalog of grant programs and its incubator space at Baird Research Park in Amherst, UB now makes equity investments in companies out of its Innovation Seed Fund and recently opened a 42,000-square-foot tech incubator on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
A number of high-profile support entities have joined the fray. The Western New York Impact Investment Fund has turned the theory of impact investment into practice in Buffalo; Endeavor unveiled a Western New York chapter during the pandemic; Scott Friedman and Andrea Vossler provide investment and support services through Varia Ventures; Entrepreneurship for All announced this month it is opening a Buffalo office, seeking to spread the entrepreneurship bug into impoverished neighborhoods; David Schaub has created his own bullhorn through his WNY Entrepreneur Podcast and networking events.
Ten years ago, Patrick Whalen was one of the few voices saying this was possible in Buffalo, if only startups had the space and support they needed. That journey has brought him to Niagara Falls and the new TrEC incubator (run by Niagara University’s Global Tourism Institute).
There was a time when you could walk into Z80 and, with a quick scan, witness the approximate entirety of the growth-oriented tech scene in Buffalo. Those days are gone. The startup economy has organized itself around Seneca One Tower, the formerly moribund skyscraper that has been reimagined by developer Douglas Jemal as a live-work-play environment designed to entice tech-enabled companies. The building is anchored by M&T Bank’s recently completed Tech Hub but commercial tenants also include 43North, Odoo, PCI, Serendipity Labs, AML RightSource and Lighthouse Technology Services. Outside the tower, modern flex or coworking space now includes Hansa, K Haus and the Innovation Center. Convergence Coworking is a new option in Hamburg, while UNOVA Coworking is off to a successful start in Springville.
Early-stage capital comes from diverse sources, including 43North, Launch NY, WNY Impact Investment Fund and Varia Ventures. ACV Auctions co-founder Jack Greco has invested in more than 70 startups in Buffalo and central New York in recent years. The Buffalo Angels remain an active funding entity. And a variety of business leaders from other industries are now contributing their time and treasure to young companies. Out of the numerous examples, Buffalo’s top banker, M&T Bank CEO Rene Jones, is a board member of ACV Auctions and an investor in Squire.
Breaking down the barriers between the business communities between Buffalo and Albany is an age-old conversation. There’s no denying that each community still acts within its own distinct silo, but driven by opportunity, tech offers a chance to make meaningful progress. The job spans ecosystem-building groups like Upstate Venture Connect, venture capital firms like Armory Square Ventures and exciting companies such as Syracuse-based TCGPlayer and many others.
Buffalo’s tech ecosystem has come a long way indeed, but it still falls behind many of its municipal brethren in the U.S. that boast a dizzying amount of investment activity and growth. Years of hard work still stands before the realization of this promise.
Just as the growth of the medical campus, the redevelopment of downtown buildings and the wave of breweries and other amenities have created questions about a resurgence for some, but not all, so too must Buffalo’s tech economy contend with the scope of its impact. Will minorities from poor communities have a place at this table? At the very least, it’s an issue that has been acknowledged. EforAll aims at the issue directly while Launch NY’s leadership have adopted it as an essential goal. M&T is building workforce programs for the specific purpose of introducing community members to new careers in tech. TechBuffalo – funded by New York state and the WNY impact fund – has been billed as a major upskilling initiative for tech careers in Buffalo. A group of regional business leaders are working to woo bitWise Academy, a pioneering education, training and jobs company, to the region.
If you’ve read this far, you can see that Buffalo has so many new things going on that they defy succinct explanation. And that’s not to leave out the politics, rivalries and philosophical head-butting that attend substantive commerce. But it’s no longer a city that turns its back on the builders among us. For the builders among us, it’s a place where you can do what you do.
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