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July 18, 2013

Blackstone LaunchPad’s Warrior Fund earmarks $10,000 for WSU entrepreneurs

by Lucy Ament Hern, Educational Outreach

A tea aficionado, a pair of graphic novelists, and a team of Detroit development enthusiasts are poised to take $10,000 from Blackstone LaunchPad’s Warrior Fund after persuading a panel of venture capitalists they have scalable, marketable enterprises worthy of investment.

Blackstone LaunchPad, the Wayne State business laboratory funded out of New York City by The Blackstone Group’s Blackstone Charitable Foundation, each year through its Warrior Fund awards up to $5,000 each to Wayne State student-run ventures that successfully pitch their ideas to a panel of Detroit-area business experts. During its first round of pitches on March 22, Blackstone LaunchPad awarded $17,000 ( of the $35,000 in its 2013 Warrior Fund to three for-profit ventures and one nonprofit. The Warrior Fund is supplied by two grants from Michigan Initiative on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (MIIE) as well as gifts from several corporate funders.

On July 12, during its second round of pitches, three of four competing ventures were given funding on a contingency basis, meaning they will receive the funding after modifying aspects of their business plans the panel decided were vague or unsound.

“The ability to award funding on a contingency basis is one of the strengths of the Warrior Fund, because it reflects how venture funding behaves in the real world,” said Blackstone LaunchPad Senior Program Administrator Aubrey Agee. “In business, venture capitalists rarely answer with a categorical ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Rather, they point out aspects of a venture that need to be improved before they can be confident investing. Last week’s competitors learned that investors have a big say over the content and execution of a business plan.”

To wit, Elias Majid, owner of Eli Tea, presented panelists with an ambitious plan to market his 30 global and U.S.-grown tea products in three distinct ways: wholesale to restaurants, online by the tin, and by the cup in a brick-and-mortar teahouse. The panel praised Majid’s expertise, his enthusiasm for raising the profile of tea in the Midwest, and the quality of his high-end herbal, chai, and apothecary teas, but concluded that three market “fronts” were too many to tackle right away.

Urging him to build his wholesale business before pursuing online sales, which require costly packaging equipment, or a tea shop, which has significant overhead expenses, the panel determined that $3,000 would allow Majid to market his teas to Southeast Michigan restaurants and cafés, particularly in Asians and Middle Eastern communities in which tea is a cultural staple. Majid was given 14 days to complete an assessment of how he will focus on this specific revenue stream in order to receive the money.

Another winner was illustrator Kelly Guillory, who with New Jersey-based writer Jaime Acocella is producing a graphic novel through their company, Ashur Collective. Blood Money: The Road to Detroit tells the story of two men who, through a split inheritance, are forced to run a mafia together or lose their profits to money-hungry rivals. Billed by Ashur Collective as “The Sopranos meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Blood Money features post-racial characters and a social commentary on Detroit, exploring themes such as gentrification, inadequate police protection, “ruin porn,” the challenges of attracting new residents, and the uneven pace of improvement among areas of the city.

Guillory presented what the judges characterized as a realistic and comprehensive five-year timeline for rolling out print and online versions of Blood Money as well as follow-up novels capitalizing on its anticipated success. Guillory, who believes Blood Money is ideal material for a “cult classic” film, requested $4,073 in Warrior Funds for printing and copyright expenses and to cover the cost of exhibiting in October at Youmacon, Detroit’s anime convention. As with Eli Tea, the judges gave Ashur Collective two weeks to secure the funding by submitting to them a list of specific artists, publishers, distributors and potential mentors with whom Ashur Collective will network in order to promote its novel.

Finally, ClickTheCause, a crowdsource funding platform for social impact in Detroit, persuaded the judges it can affect meaningful change in the city if it makes critical refinements to its business model. ClickTheCause engages communities through collective participation, specifically by enlisting Detroit-area businesses to supply the incentives that donors receive when funding ClickTheCause campaigns.  In addition to receiving a tax deduction, contributing businesses expand their customer base when donors redeem their incentives.

While lauding the thoroughness of the pitch, presented by Mark Crain and Norman Dotson, judges were concerned that the high level of personal involvement the organization promises its clients would prove impossible to deliver given the number of campaigns it would need to host to achieve a workable revenue stream while keeping just 5% of all fully funded projects. Judges urged ClickTheCause to abandon its 5% fee and impose a sliding scale based on project size. They agreed to give the venture $3,000 for marketing and web development if it compiles within 60 days a list of 12 specific projects that need crowdsourcing – six of which it will actively court.

Panelist Monica Wheat, a digital entrepreneur and Detroit-area consultant who founded Digerati Girls to increase the number of women and young girls in digital entrepreneurship and marketing careers, said she judges the Warrior Fund pitches to “build the ecosystem” of entrepreneurship in Detroit and to honor the mentoring she received getting started in her field.

Other Detroit-area executives who served on the July 12 panel are Gary Shields, adjunct professor in the WSU School of Business Administration; Frank Doria, senior director of the Gorman Venture Group; Jess Daniel, founder and chief enabler for FoodLab Detroit; Nancy Philippart, executive in residence with Engineering Ventures at Wayne State University; Lou Ann Counihan, managing member of R.L Wittbold-New Philadelphia, LLC and a senior financial executive; Brian Bosche, Venture for America fellow at BizdomDetroit startup accelerator; Janet Joiner, assistant dean for student affairs of the WSU School of Social Work; Chandra Moore, design principal of architecture and design firm coG-studio LLC; JacquelinKirouac, project coordinator at Detroit Creative Corridor Center; Nic Wetzler, commercialization principal at Wayne State University Technology Commercialization; and Dennis Atkinson, director of corporate engagement at Wayne State University.


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