A growing number of students come to NC State looking to start their own businesses, and for good reason. Here, they have access to a breadth of resources, research initiatives and industry partnerships. There are physical and virtual spaces to support collaboration with like-minded students, and programs and events where ideas might spark across disciplines. Indeed, NC State is ranked among the top 20 universities for undergraduate entrepreneurs.
With such a supportive and synergetic environment, it’s no wonder so many businesses get their start here. But what happens next?
Enter the Wolfpack Investor Network (WIN), an angel investing platform that brings together entrepreneurial NC State alumni to support businesses with a connection to the university.
“One of the things that has kept the Triangle from being the Silicon Valley of the South is the lack of venture capital,” says Joe Sinsheimer, the network’s managing director. “Think about the NC State ecosystem. There’s just not enough capital to support all the great ideas. But what if we look at our own alumni base? Our wealth lies in business expertise and talent, as well as money. What would happen if we injected more wealth into that ecosystem ourselves?”
As a 23-year veteran of early-stage venture investing, Sinsheimer’s job is to reach out to university-affiliated startups and curate hundreds of yearly investment proposals. The goal? Connect NC State’s best and brightest with WIN — and create a virtuous circle of alumni entrepreneurship, business creation and investment.
Membership in the network is open to accredited investors who have ties to NC State. In practice, that means alumni investors end up supporting alumni entrepreneurs. For NC State graduates, WIN offers an ongoing relationship with their alma mater that lets them apply the business expertise and skills they learned as students. And that expertise is key: WIN members are seasoned investors who can recognize exciting — and profitable — new ventures.
Companies often present live to a room of WIN members. Far from a typical sales pitch, WIN-vetted ventures share in-depth information about growth potential, operating costs, margins, overhead and company culture. Investors in the audience ask pointed questions, and the discussion continues until potential investors are satisfied. The experience is somewhere between classroom and boardroom.
One company that recently received WIN backing is Spiffy, a mobile car-care business that started in Durham, N.C. Scot Wingo, Spiffy’s chief executive officer, earned a degree in computer science from NC State in 1991. His previous company, ChannelAdvisor, provides auction and marketplace management software and services to companies like IBM and Best Buy. And Spiffy is home to other NC State grads, including Ryan Eade, the company’s chief technology officer, and Morgan Metzger, a 2017 Poole College of Management alumna. She started working at Spiffy part-time while still an undergraduate. “It’s been really fun to work for a startup,” said Metzger. “Beyond everything I learned from my major, I’m using a variety of outreach platforms, like social media, digital and design.”
A Cycle of Entrepreneurship
So far, the bulk of WIN applicant companies represent business-to-business software, consumer products and services, and pharmaceuticals. Companies that have benefited from the network’s support include FilterEasy, Feelgoodz, and Tethis, which is set to disrupt the diaper industry with a super-absorbent natural polymer. Last March, it received the largest investor contribution yet in WIN’s short history.
Student involvement helps set WIN apart. The network invites graduate students in NC state’s Jenkins MBA program, as well as top STEM students, to offer their analysis and insight during company screenings as part of a diligence team. Gary Sanguinetti, an MBA student with concentrations in technological development and finance, is one of three diligence team leads tasked with researching potential investments.
“Working with WIN has given me tremendous hands-on experience,” said Sanguinetti. “In my tech classes, we focus on finding and developing new technologies that may be profitable. It’s really helpful to see these companies that are a few years down the line, and the process they went through with their development.” This emphasis on experiential learning through industry engagement is typical of the Poole College of Management and NC State at large — and it’s part of why there’s such a deep pool of alumni talent for WIN to draw from.
Starting out, WIN aimed to recruit 35 members in six months. Across its first 18 months of operation, it’s attracted four times that number. “We’ve tapped into something that people want to participate in,” says Sinsheimer. “The opportunity to connect with and support fellow alumni in the arena where you’re an expert — it’s the ‘do’ part of ‘Think and Do.'”
New membership is driven by word of mouth and referral: Nearly all members are there because another member recommended the network. Abby Phillips, assistant director for member services for WIN, estimates she and Sinsheimer spend just 10 percent of their time on outreach and the other 90 percent connecting with and vetting potential companies.
For students engaged in NC State’s culture of entrepreneurship, seeing business owners and investors continue their relationship with the university is important, and inspiring. Long after graduation, the NC State community remains a resource of experienced and committed alumni ready to take part in the future of the Wolfpack. Beyond traditional forms of giving, WIN provides a platform for alumni to give back with their time, talent and expertise, ensuring that the next generation of NC State grads can continue to create prosperity across the state.
This post was originally published in NC State News.