Bridging the Gap
Alchemy is a term that dates back to medieval science — specifically, the effort to convert raw materials into gold.
It was a fruitless attempt, of course. But the four partners at the Alchemy Fund have a similar idea, one with far more potential.
Their idea is to spin ideas into — well, not gold, exactly, but profitable businesses.
Last summer, Brett Gearing, Randy Krotowski, Kevin Sanborn, and Chris Sims had an idea for a different kind of model for cultivating startup businesses. “We spent a lot of time fleshing out the objective and plan, to see if the model would actually work, and most of that entailed going to universities, meeting the academics, faculty, and staff, and saying, ‘hey, what do you have in here that’s interesting?’” Gearing told BusinessWest.
“They were more than willing to show us their research, what they spend their whole lives working on, and some of them recognized there might be commercial opportunities — but a lot of them didn’t realize it; they were busy focusing on the research.”
Those conversations convinced the four partners that the Pioneer Valley has no shortage of promising ideas sitting in labs and classrooms which, with some support — funding, advisory services, business acumen, and staffing — could become viable companies. “That was our first checkbox — there are plenty of good ideas in the area,” said Gearing.
In short, he explained, the Alchemy Fund aims to create new ventures from ideas cooked up at universities and health systems, among other sources. The team will search out these technologies and concepts, identify product and market applications, recruit founding teams, provide seed funding, handle back-office services, and coach the new company along.
“We named this product Alchemy because of how it transforms its raw materials,” Gearing explained. “Our typical starting point is an underappreciated lab technique, an industry problem whose time has come, or an existing startup team targeting the wrong market.”
The first burst of fund-raising has amassed about $1 million, and Alchemy made its first project investment, in a screening mechanism for diabetes originated at Western New England University. “We think the opportunity to bring that company to a viable business is really great, given the market size and all the attention to diabetes,” said Gearing.
Certainly, the startup and venture-capital culture are nothing new to Western Mass., and neither is medical or technological innovation, thanks to a knot of notable colleges, universities, health systems, IT firms, and precision manufacturers. However, while traditional venture-capital enterprises have startups knocking on their door, Alchemy believes some of the best ideas are being developed by people who may not be thinking about marketability — but should.
“And there are plenty of both opportunities and money here, and many ideas haven’t really spun out as ventures yet,” Gearing told BusinessWest. “We started by focusing on academia, but we’ve evolved, and we’re looking at both academia and healthcare systems. That’s where we are now, and so far, so good.”
The four Alchemy partners have backgrounds ranging from institutional investment to venture capital to health and wellness, and met through the region’s robust startup ecosystem, Gearing said.
“We realized there was a lot of talent in this area, and we wanted to do something in the Valley for the Valley, and thought our skill sets would work well together — and so far they have,” he went on. “If we find we need a specific skill set we don’t have, our model is flexible enough that we can bring an expert in.”
The team has explored about 25 potential opportunities in fields like polymer science, engineering, computer science, wearables, and healthcare, and is looking closely at a handful of those.
“My partners and I will kick the tires on each idea and try to get a sense of what the market looks like, how much money it takes to bring it to market, and whether we have the right skills to get it to that point,” he explained. Often, it’s a challenge simply to convince the purveyor of a good idea to take the idea to market.
“Sometimes the person doing this research is a chief data scientist or polymer scientist or engineer who might not even want to run a business because they don’t have the time. Or they might be a tenured professor and have a great gig, and absolutely love what they’re doing. So we come in and say, ‘we love your idea; we think we can make a business out of this.’”
Gearing expects the idea originator to come on board, in most cases, as a chief scientist or engineer to help move the research forward, and Alchemy will surround him with a team with the business acumen to help bring that idea to fruition.
“Once there’s a commitment there, our goal is to bring it to a stable state and then hire a CEO, COO, and help with back-office services like accounting, bookkeeping, and fundraising. That’s important because, when I look at startups, they spend a lot of time pitching their idea, raising funds, and educating people on what they’re trying to do, and less time working on the actual business. So we’ll handle a lot of that.”
To be successful, he added, Alchemy’s partners are essentially drawing on their experience and cobbling together elements of already-successful models. “We can say, ‘I know this works,’ or ‘I know this is troublesome because of XYZ.’ We’re still honing the model, but I think we’re really onto something.”
The money raised from investors will pay for a number of expenses, he noted, depending on the project. In the case of the diabetes project, because it’s in the medical space, some money might be spent on clinical trials.
“We’ll also certainly try to source a CEO in the first six months, and help build a team around them. Every scenario is different. It might be product development, it might be testing, it might be branding or marketing, and it might be a whole combination of these things.”
The goal, he emphasized again, is to spin off successful, independent companies that can grow in the region. “Ideally, we’ll bring them through several levels of funding until the real money comes in. That’s our goal — to get them to revenue as soon as we can and get them to stand up on their own.”
Working in Concert
Gearing, who has also taught at Elms College and serves on its entrepreneurial leadership board, understands the potential bubbling under the surface at the area’s many institutions of higher learning, and he’s familiar with the expansive network of entrepreneurial support across the region, from Valley Venture Mentors to TechSpring to the venture-capital community.
“I think it all needs to work together in concert, and that’s where we fit in,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s an opportunity for all of us to fit together and work together collaboratively. Through this network, we’re able to find people to help ideas along. If I need someone in the insurance space or whatever the case may be, people are more willing to open up their doors and support what we’re trying to do. And once we have proven this model works, I think it only gets easier.”
While the Alchemy Fund has been operating under the radar in many ways, even while looking for investors, he added, it’s time to take the profile to a higher place. “We wanted to make sure all the pieces fit together well, and now we have a story to tell.”
A story that’s only beginning.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at email@example.com