Seed Stage Investor Helping Entrepreneurs Adapt and Succeed

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For startup founders, finding investors is one of the most important steps on the ladder to success. However, it is also one of the most difficult things to accomplish and requires a good amount of preparation along with understanding the market in order to work out both in the short and long-term. While it is important for companies to put in the work necessary to earn the attention of investors, there are organizations throughout the country whose sole goal is to help startups get off the ground and succeed, and who pride themselves on just how often they make that happen. For the Southern Pennsylvania area, one of those organizations is Innovation Works.

Founded in 1999 and based in Pittsburgh, Innovation Works is the largest seed-fund investor in the area and to date has supported over 450 companies while having invested $86.2 million in them. The investment firm focuses on technology-based businesses, which can deal with anything from robotics to life sciences to software which have potential commercial application. One of the firm’s goals is to fund companies that will help the regional economy generally through job creation, so the projects they invest in need to be appealing to consumers. Terri Glueck, the Director of Community Development & Communications at Innovation Works, says that while there are several important components for the companies who join the investment firm, one of the main ones is understanding the needs of the customer. “Every investor wants to know how big the potential market is,” she says, and that the entrepreneurs who come to them for funding and assistance should not only know quite a bit about their customer base but be willing to work with Innovation Works on a plan to increase that knowledge.

When it comes to figuring out what people will pay for in the first place, Glueck says, there are various ways budding entrepreneurs can do so, such as utilizing online surveys or focus groups to gather user data. However, she explains, it is important that these entrepreneurs are willing to “absorb that user input and then respond to it,” meaning that they have to adapt their product and company based on the information they gain from their customer base. Being willing and able to adapt is another main component for the companies Innovation Works chooses to invest in, in that they need to coachable and able to take advice and pivot when need be. “Being able to take and respond to feedback is the mark of a good entrepreneur,” Glueck says, and that the people they take on need to be willing to listen to experts and not be too steadfast, especially when the evidence shows that they need to make adjustments.

Another important component for the companies that Innovation Works invests in is if their idea is patentable and/or defensible in some way. Glueck explains that it needs to be determined how difficult it would be for someone else to join the market once they have, and if the entrepreneur can “own a certain part of that space,” as well as if they have a “novel enough idea and can execute on it.” Lastly, she says, the team and the entrepreneur both need to decide if Innovation Work’s resources will be enough to get them to certain milestones.

While Innovation Works is looking for companies that fit with them in the sense that they can work together harmoniously, they are not looking for founders to fit into any specific type of mold. If anything, the firm wants a diverse group of team members and entrepreneurs as diversity overall is beneficial to the economy. “I think it’s been proven that when there are diverse people looking at an opportunity, you’re going to come up with more creative solutions, you’re going to pick better companies, and the companies are going to more creatively solve problems,” Glueck says.

She explains that startups in general tend not to be particularly diverse because they often are pressed for time and resources, so the founders tend to just reach out to people that they already know to join their team, and it is not uncommon for the people close to us to be very similar to us. With that, the firm makes it a point to help coach entrepreneurs in being open-minded in who they look for in their recruitment as well as giving them access to a wider pool of people to select from. “What Innovation Works tries to do,” Glueck says, “is be that resource to help you unleash your own innovative, creative processes and thinking.”

For companies who are interested in working with Innovation Works, there are various ways in which they can find out more information and meet the team, including networking events such as open coffee or their monthly education sessions, both of which are free and open to the public. The firm also holds office hours with their team members that can be signed up for through their website. Entrepreneurs who want to apply for a spot with Innovation Works or one of their accelerators, AlphaLab or AlphaLab Gear, can do so by first filling out the online questionnaire. Glueck says that there is room for almost any type of company or team at Innovation Works and they are happy to consult with anyone and impart the wisdom they have amassed over the years. “There are certain universal challenges that really travel from one industry to another,” she says. “That’s really what we bring to the table. We can help you not step in this hole that we have seen lots of entrepreneurs be challenged by.”

Updated September 12, 2019

Company Profile

About Innovation Works

Innovation Works is the largest seed-stage investor in Southern Pennsylvania. Founded in 1999, the Pittsburgh-based company has since added on accelerator programs AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear for software and hardware startups, respectively. Terri Glueck has been with Innovation Works since its own startup phase, and as the Director of Community Development & Communications not only assists their portfolio companies with communications strategies but also leads the communications efforts on behalf of the organization.

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