By Jesse Wood
When Pete Catoe founded ECR Software as a college student at Appalachian State University in the late ‘80s, he could have benefitted from an organization like Startup High Country, which provides seed-stage capital and mentorship to young, high-growth companies.
“Certainly. I had an angel investor who basically loaned me $7,000, and I was able to pay off some debts, so I could start my company,” Catoe said. “Absolutely, it would have helped.”
The new ECR Software building on Market Hills Drive hosted a press conference on Thursday announcing the High Country Impact Fund, a collaboration between the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership focused on Appalachian economic development based in Washington, D.C., Ascent Business Network, a Boone based entrepreneurial training nonprofit, RAIN Source Capital Management, a capital management group based in Minnesota that manages angel investor funds, and Startup High Country, a Boone based organization advising, building and investing in entrepreneurial and start-up ventures.
The fund is also partnering with Angel Capital Group and Appalachian Angel Investor Alliances. This regional fund is for local entrepreneurs in the Watauga, Wilkes, Ashe, Avery and Caldwell counties of North Carolina and Johnson County in Tennessee.
The pitch is that currently no angel investment funds based in the High Country exist – until now. The High Country Impact Fund seeks to “create good, high-paying jobs, establish access to emerging sector opportunities throughout the region and deliver attractive financial returns to its investors,” according to information provided by Startup High Country.
Angel investor groups typically provide $35,000 to $100,000 in seed-stage capital to get companies off the ground. They also invest their time and knowledge in providing guidance, mentorship and advice to founders. So far, the High Country Impact Fund has raised $500,000 of its $1 million goal.
“One thing about Boone is we have a lot of great entrepreneurs going way back,” Catoe said. “People who always wanted to live here kind of had to create their own existence. Boone has a long history of entrepreneurship. I think the fund will help. It’s not a main part but a part.”
“We are really excited about having that opportunity here,” added Catoe, an investor in the High Country Impact Fund along with John Cooper, owner of Mast General Store, and others.
At the press conference, two local startup founders, Zak Ammar of Vixster and James Wilkes of Hive Tracks, “pitched” their companies to the audience.
Founded by an App State MBA grad, Vixster has been described as the Uber of trash delivery and recycling as it pairs people with trucks/vans to haul trash with residential owners in rural areas who want the city convenience of a trash-hauling service. Currently, they operate in several counties in Western North Carolina and are looking to expand.
Hive Tracks is essentially beekeeping software that beekeepers use to track their hives on smartphones and computers. Founded by James Wilkes, former chair of the Department of Computer Science at Appalachian State University and a beekeeper himself, Hive Tracks has over 25,000 registered users in 150 or so countries. Its growth strategy includes providing this software to major commercial bee farms.
“That’s just fascinating to me that I am in a place where the world headquarters of Hive Tracks can be in Creston, N.C.,” Wilkes said.
Another speaker at the press conference included Earl Gohl, federal co-chair of Appalachian Regional Commission, who described Appalachia as the “next great investment opportunity in America.”
“In order to maximize, achieve, take advantage and reach those goals, it really takes an eco-system and a community to come together and bring resources and be intentional in supporting entrepreneurs and the folks with the goofy ideas that bring to reality investment grade opportunities that provide jobs and economic opportunities for a very long time,” Gohl said.
He added that this really is the mission of ARC – to see the Appalachian community prosper along with the American economy. Angel funds, he said, are a “small part” of this economic growth in the future.
“Not the whole thing, but an important piece,” Gohl said. “It really shows that the community has been willing to get together and invest in themselves and invest in their future. There’s a lot of work and energy that goes on before you actually raise your first dollar or invest your first dollar but it’s an important signal to the rest of the community that you believe in the future of the High Country and believe there are opportunities here for your kids and grand kids going forward.”