Will Baird, CEO and co-founder of Boreas Monitoring Solutions, and Lauren McCullough, CEO and co-founder of Tromml Inc., won first and second place, respectively, at this year's Big Launch Challenge. They stand holding big ceremonial checks.
Will Baird (left), CEO and co-founder of Boreas Monitoring Solutions, and Lauren McCullough, CEO and co-founder of Tromml Inc., won first and second place, respectively, at this year's Big Launch Challenge. Photo courtesy of the Launch Place.

Danville-based angel investor The Launch Place has had an eventful year, with the exit of an early portfolio company and two pitch competitions that drew entrepreneurs from all over the country.

The Launch Place held the larger of its two annual pitch competitions on Oct. 5. Called the Big Launch Challenge, this event is geared toward early-stage tech companies looking for investors. 

This is the 11th year that The Launch Place, one of the top angel investors in the Southeast U.S., has hosted the competition.

Eva Doss, its executive director, said that the Big Launch receives applications from across the U.S. — with a concentration in the Southeast — and sometimes from other countries. 

“It’s grown into one of the largest pitch competitions in the Southeast,” Doss said. “I would say the major focus is Virginia and North Carolina, but we have received applications from New York to San Francisco to the European Union to France.”

This year, 10 finalists from among 116 applicants presented to a panel of angel investors at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Durham. The judges came from across the country: Detroit; Naples, Florida; San Diego; Austin, Texas; Roanoke; and Northern Virginia.

An angel investor is someone who invests in a business startup early on, when other investors are typically unwilling to provide funding, usually in exchange for convertible debt or ownership equity.

These investors can help entrepreneurs make a significant economic impact, said Paul Gouhin, CEO of the Angel Capital Association, which has co-hosted the Big Launch for the last four years. The ACA, which is headquartered in Kansas City, Kansas, is a professional society of angel capital investors.

“Entrepreneurs are the engine for economic growth, and angel investors are the fuel for that engine,” Gouhin said.

The ACA has also named The Launch Place as one of the top three most active angel investors in the Southeast United States.

But it didn’t start that way. The Launch Place was founded as a business consulting service in 2005 and didn’t rebrand to an angel investor until around 2011.

During its time as a business consultant, the organization began seeing more and more requests from startups rather than established companies, Doss said. She and her team helped with business plans and go-to-market strategies, but they couldn’t help these startups get funding.

“As a startup, you can’t go to the bank and get a bank loan, and there were no investment sources around here,” Doss said. 

So The Launch Place created a network of private individuals to aid tech startups.

A little over an hour south of Danville is North Carolina’s Research Triangle, a hub of tech entrepreneurship. The Launch Place, which has an office in Durham, has been able to attract startups from this area, as well as from the Dan River Region. 

Almost 70% of the companies in The Launch Place’s portfolio are based in North Carolina, with the rest in Virginia, though some have locations in both states, like The Launch Place itself. 

It has prioritized creating strong ties with investors around this region, as well as around the country. And the organization still offers business consulting services to companies outside of the tech space as well.

The Launch Place has seen three startups exit since its first investment in 2014, which means they were acquired by larger companies or set an initial public offering to begin publicly trading shares. 

Exits are often viewed as successes for an investor, because they mean that an investment has met its profit objective. This is also when an investor recoups its investment funds. 

“In order for the Launch Place funds to be evergreen and sustainable, we need to recoup our investment dollars at some point,” Doss said. “We look at exit points when we invest in a company, and ultimately, what we want is for them to hire employees and create economic impact.”

There’s no set time for exits — they happen at different points in each company’s lifespan. 

Doss said that a company usually qualifies for an exit when its product is on the market and it has generated enough revenue for another, bigger venture capital organization to be willing to help with a larger scale-up. 

“We are not a big venture capital fund,” she said. “We are small in the VC world, so we will not be able to participate in multi-million-dollar fundraising efforts for the future. So for us, the company having a solid product, growth pattern and interested venture capital investments is enough to exit.”

The Launch Place typically invests between $25,000 and $75,000 from its pre-seed investment fund into early-stage startups. Many of those companies go on to receive additional investments from The Launch Place’s seed funds, in amounts that range from $250,000 to $1 million, Doss said. 

To date, The Launch Place has invested $7.5 million into 25 companies, and the total market valuation for these companies is around $150 million, she said.

The organization has raised a lot of the money for these funds from the Danville Regional Foundation. [Disclosure: The Danville Regional Foundation is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.]

The Launch Place’s most recent exit, in April, was a Durham-based company called Roobrik, which markets an online decision platform that helps caregivers browse for senior living providers. 

“It has been really exciting seeing the growth and evolution of both the product and the management team,” Doss said. “It’s very rewarding, especially knowing that we were the company’s first institutional investors. … It’s really nice to see the growth of a concept or an idea into an actual product.”

The Launch Place first invested in Roobrik in 2015. That early support was “critical,” Nate O’Keefe, the company’s founder, said in a news release following the company’s exit. “They continue to fill a critical gap in our region for early-stage capital.”

Doss said that Roobrik’s founder and employees are now able to offer advice to newer startups from the position of a more developed company. 

This network is one of the great things about the entrepreneurial industry, Doss said, and one of the big goals of the pitch competitions. 

At the Big Launch, not only were the finalists able to present their startups to angel investors, but they were also able to meet other successful entrepreneurs and investors, like members of the ACA.

The Launch Place’s other annual pitch competition, called Idea Fest, is held in the spring and is geared toward entrepreneurs who are even earlier in the process than Big Launch applicants.

Two of the Big Launch finalists who presented this year were previous Idea Fest winners. 

Acta Solutions, which provides an automated customer service communications tool for local governments, won Idea Fest in 2022. And Tromml, which helps provide e-commerce insights for companies to increase profitability, won in 2023. 

Tromml, based in Durham, was also the second-place winner of this year’s Big Launch, receiving $5,000 in prize money. 

The Big Launch’s first-place award of $10,000 went to Boreas Monitoring Solutions, also a Durham-based company, that makes a weight-based monitoring system to protect cryotanks, which are used to store specimens in fertility clinics, from failing.

As winners, Boreas and Tromml will also receive business consulting from The Launch Place, according to an Oct. 6 release about the Big Launch.

The Launch Place’s next pitch competition will be the 2024 Idea Fest, which will be held in the spring in Danville. 

Grace Mamon is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at grace@cardinalnews.org or 540-369-5464.