Photo credit: WADE VANDERVORT
CEO of Uplift, Darius Roberts during an event held to announce federal funding for Nevada-based startups at the International Innovation Center, downtown, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. By Casey Harrison It’s been several years for Las Vegas entrepreneur Darius Roberts, but help might soon be on the way. Originally from Tulsa, Okla., the 42-year-old Roberts moved to Las Vegas in 2014, and recently started the company, Uplift Solar. By using a computer chip his company invented, Roberts claims he’s discovered a way to make solar panels and batteries more efficient — effectively helping the panels harness more electricity, he said.
Uplift Solar is doing well, Roberts said. So well, he said, that the company is seeking another round of funding from investors to grow his venture. But by the time he moved here, the lucrative venture capital spending in small-time startups stalled, leaving him to wait until the time was right. And there’s no better time than the present, he said.
“In 2015, there was a lot of excitement here in Southern Nevada about the startup ecosystem,” Roberts said. “And that cooled significantly. It’s almost like there was a winter, and now it’s like the spring again. I think it’s time to grow.”
So the news was welcome Wednesday when Nevada State Treasurer Zach Conine spoke with small-business owners to announce that the state’s Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI), will be helping more than 40 in-state startups to receive federal funds in the form of venture capital. The move was announced in cooperation with StartUpNV, a nonprofit statewide business incubator and accelerator, which helps companies in their infantile stage with mentorship and receiving capital from a network of investors.
The SSBCI funds will be administered by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and are still subject to final federal approval. The program launched in 2010 after the passage of the Small Businesses Jobs Act of 2010. It was revived last year when the American Rescue Plan passed Congress with $10 billion earmarked to help states with investing arms. Nevada’s is called the Battle Born Venture Program.
“The Battle Born Venture Program is designed to make equity investments in early stage, high-growth Nevada businesses with the goal of generating returns for the fund, while creating good, paying jobs here in the community,” Conine said. “With these funds, Nevada will be able to provide additional support to promote entrepreneurship and provide startups with much needed early stage capital to grow and hire more Nevadans.”
The state’s funds will be invested in 10 companies at the “pre-seed” (which in investor lingo means companies with less than $500,000 in revenue), as well as another 30 companies at the “seed” stage (between $500,000 to $2 million in revenue) over a three-year span, Conine said. The funding is to match investments made by StartUpNV’s affiliated venture funds, which include a newly released $10 million seed fund.
But, there’s a catch: All 40 companies receiving investments must have participated in StartUpNV’s investment bootcamp and business accelerator, according to co-founder Jeff Saling, the nonprofit’s executive director.
“I’m proud of the success StartUpNV has had in developing an ecosystem and to help grow the startup community,” Saling said. “By investing in our homegrown startups, Nevada is investing in its own future to create a more resilient and diverse economy to benefit generations to come.” StartUpNV has helped 33 companies around Las Vegas and Reno raise about $76.6 million in capital since it was founded in 2017, as well as another $3 million in investments from the nonprofit itself, Sailng said. The way he sees it, between an influx of California transplants coming to Nevada and a diverse underserved community throughout the valley, the state is ripe for businesses to put down roots.
Saling added Nevada should be seen as an appealing place to launch a startup because the state so easily rebounded from the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and is still heavily reliant on the gaming and tourism industries — which provides clear inroads to untapped markets here.
“We need to do better to better support our local startups and diversify our local economy,” Saling said. “And while it’s great to have outside help and outside money, as Nevadans, we can and should do more to help ourselves.”
Conine agreed, and said if the state invested wisely, the deal could be a win-win for startups and taxpayers. There’s also the added benefit that a fast-growing company based in Nevada will hire Nevadans first when it comes time to hire new employees, he said. “This is the problem that Nevada has always had,” Conine said. “The companies can’t get started here because the money is not here. And then they can’t stay here because the money is not here. They root somewhere else and then grow and hire people somewhere else, and then we have to spend a lot of money trying to encourage them to come once they’re already mature companies.” Ed Nabrotzky, CEO of SEE ID, a startup that uses location and mapping software to track equipment and personnel in real time, credits StartUpNV with getting his company off the ground. He framed Wednesday’s announcement as an important lifeline between small businesses and a state looking to diversify its economy.
SEE ID was one of the initial 33 businesses StartUpNV helped incubate, and the company now has more than 20 employees, Nabrotzky said. He plans for SEE ID to stay in Nevada as the company grows because of the initial help he got getting the ball rolling.
“I’ll be honest, I think the last piece of the puzzle is an ecosystem that can find these startups and these great ideas that will make them grow and give tremendous force going forward,” Nabrotzky said. “I think it’s going to be fantastically successful.”
And it’s that ecosystem, Roberts, with Uplift Solar, said that leads him to believe the time is right to grow. And having a community of like-minded entrepreneurs and a network of investors can help forge relationships that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible.
“I think the startup ecosystem in Las Vegas is poised to grow, and I want to be a part of that story,” Roberts said. “I think StartUpNV provides a community, and it’s that kind of network sharing that makes everybody work together.”
Originally published in the Las Vegas Sun: https://lasvegassun.com/news/2022/sep/01/state-partners-with-nonprofit-to-keep-startup-comp/