Investors see the value in Canyon Ventures Center

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Gillian Rea
GCU News Bureau

Scot Jones is an investor who lives in the Phoenix market, which means he’s in the right place – it’s one of the fastest-growing entrepreneurial hubs in the country.

GCU students provided an analysis of the companies that pitched at the grand opening of the Canyon Ventures Center.

Then someone from his church told him about the grand opening celebration of the Canyon Ventures Center at Grand Canyon University on Wednesday afternoon, and Jones saw that he was in the right place there, too.

“I was surprised at both the scale and the depth of what they’re doing here – the traction that they already have as well as the individuals who are involved,” he said after listening to pitches from four startups residing in the 6-month-old incubator, GCU students’ analysis of those companies, and overviews of two student ventures, Santa Calls and Lux Longboards.

“I thought the format for today’s event was very nicely done. I appreciate their altruistic approach to the community as well. It’s always great when you take an older guy like me and put him back on a college campus to feel that energy and excitement.”

There was only one thing left for Jones to do: He joined the Canyon Angels, the early stage equity investment organization started by GCU Assistant Professor Tim Kelley in 2015. Jones liked what he saw so much, he was willing to put his money on its success.

“I don’t invest much in the market. I have a tendency to invest in people – this is a good venue for that,” he said.

GCU President Brian Mueller called the professional presentation "typical of a GCU event."

The event drew an overflow crowd of more than 300 to the Canyon Ventures Center, which opened in August and already houses 33 companies. The main requirement of those startups, in return for free rent, is that they employ GCU students, and that total is up to 70.

The vibe had people talking, including GCU President Brian Mueller.

“It was an unbelievably upbeat, positive, professional event,” Mueller said. “I just thought the quality of the companies, the quality of the presentations, the size of the crowd, the organization of this by the project management team, all of those things made an unbelievable impression on the business community in Arizona. It’s just become typical of a GCU event.”

Dr. Randy Gibb, Dean of the Colangelo College of Business and a key organizer of the event, said, “Even more important than just the total numbers is getting the right people in the room. So for this event, the right people in the room were business leaders in the Valley, entrepreneurs and then, finally, the investors who wanted to become part of Canyon Angels and support the ventures in Canyon Ventures.”

One of those Canyon Angels members is Tom Fulcher, President and founder of The Idea Gardener, a business development and marketing consulting organization that, in his words, tries to turn B-plus companies into A-plus companies. He saw an A-plus venue and event, too.

Michelle Eichner of Digitile values the camaraderie at Canyon Ventures.

“I think building the center and then populating it and integrating the resources of the University – not just the students, but all of the resources of the University – into this community have propelled these ventures and Canyon Angels,” he said. “This will double or triple, easily, this year. It’s got such momentum. You see 300 people here today. I think everyone who RSVP’d showed up, because there was no room.”

Fulcher was particularly impressed with the two student presentations, by December 2019 Canyon Challenge winner Eli Miller of Santa Calls and by the Lux Longboards team, led by Weston Smith.

“I said to somebody that one of the students did a presentation that I would like to show to a couple of my clients and say, ‘This is what a presentation should look like.’ The student groups that did the analysis were very strong, too.”

Besides showing off the incubator’s new features, the event also was a big moment for the four Canyon Ventures occupants who did presentations – ICTtracker, RexPay, Digitile and Home Key – and also drew the attention of the angel investors. Jones, for one, said he will explore putting some money behind one of them.

Investors listen to pitches at Wednesday's event.

“The event’s great because it provides a lot of exposure,” said Michelle Eichner, founder of Digitile, a file productivity platform. “Even if some of these people aren’t investors, it’s providing exposure about Digitile and creates a buzz.”

Digitile was one of the first companies to take advantage of Canyon Ventures and everything that comes with it, including the Cyber Center of Excellence in the same building, on 27th Avenue north of Camelback Road and south of Colter Avenue. The relationships between the entrepreneurs-in-residence are important.

“We trade everything from the ideas to who do you know, can you get me in the door, do you know an investor, can you introduce me to this company because I’m trying to sell into it,” she said. “There’s a camaraderie here, particularly for those of us who have been here since Day 1. From that perspective, it’s become invaluable.”

That camaraderie is no accident. It’s practically required.

“We work as a team here,” said Robert Vera, the center’s director and the emcee of Wednesday’s event. “I tell everybody here, this is how it works here: You’re now a servant leader. You know what that means? You’ve got to take care of the person to the left of you and to the right of you and help them believe in themselves.”

Director Robert Vera said helping each other is central to the culture of Canyon Ventures.

Kelley introduced another valuable component at Wednesday’s event. The Canyon Angels now have a sidecar fund, which means investors can put their money there and know that it will be triggered only if two or more people from the group invest in one startup.

“The theory is if two smart people invest and they know the market, then it’s good enough for a lot of us,” said David Blackledge, who teaches at GCU and is a founding member of the Canyon Angels advisory board. “I’ve been a member of sidecars and other angel groups about six or eight times, and it comes to the point that you’re playing with house money.”

But the key to Canyon Ventures mimics the key with every other GCU enterprise – the education of students. Kelley teaches a class on entrepreneurship that also meets in the building, giving students a first-hand look at what it’s all about. Three of the student teams that analyzed the startups' pitches received "instant scholarship" money ($1,000 for first place, $750 for second and $250 for third) at the event. 

“Being here in Canyon Ventures is an inspiration every time you walk in the door,” Kelley said. “The students feel that they’re really part of the startup community. They feel how each organization, each entrepreneur is dealing with the struggles of raising capital, finding customers.”

Blackledge knows what that’s like, too. He has been part of the Valley’s entrepreneurial community for the better part of 35 years.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this.

“The biggest problem was lack of capital for venture entrepreneurism,” he said. “There were angel groups – they’re good groups, but everyone at a point maxes out. I think with our adding in the space and hiring GCU students, this adds a whole ’nother dimension.”

And there is one aspect of those other angel groups that Blackledge found empty: Potential investors hear the pitches, then decide on their own what to do – sometimes after they have gone home. The merger of Canyon Angels and Canyon Ventures is crucial. So is the faith-based atmosphere.

“This is a real community,” he said.

A community that no doubt will be adding more members, and soon, as a result of Wednesday’s event.

“I just sat back and watched it and was just proud to be a part of it,” Mueller said. “It was a demonstration of excellence. It was a demonstration of teamwork. It was a demonstration of connecting with the community, which is a hallmark of GCU. I just thought everything that we are and are continuing to become was represented in this event.”

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


Related content:

Fox 10 Phoenix: New innovation center opens at Grand Canyon University

KTAR: GCU incubator space helping startup companies grow

KJZZ: Grand Canyon University's Canyon Ventures offers space for startups, interns

AZ Big Media: GCU opens innovation and business-acceleration center


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