[caption id="attachment_230982" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] A new venture capital fund and accelerator program will invest in diverse-led tech companies in Delaware. | Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com
WILMINGTON – Bronze Valley
, an Alabama-based venture capital fund and pre-accelerator program, is bringing new opportunities for underrepresented entrepreneurs in Delaware.
Founded in 2018 by veteran banking executive and entrepreneur Neill Wright, Bronze Valley uses a unique blend of government and private funding to advance the work of minority-led, early-stage technology companies. After expanding in its first few years, Bronze Valley has now set its eyes on investments in the First State.
For Wright, it’s a homecoming of sorts, as his late father James Wright
was the president and CEO of Beneficial Bank in Wilmington, a trailblazer as a then-rare Black man to lead a majority-owned bank.
“My dad decided to sow his entrepreneurial oats back in 1990, where he built a cadre of guys from Beneficial and took them to Alabama and bought the former Tuskegee Federal Savings & Loan,” his son said.
In 2007, Wright was working in corporate finance for Citigroup when his father fell ill and asked his son to come to Montgomery to help with then-First Tuskegee Bank.
“He said, ‘Come down here for 90 days to help me out, and 90 days turned into about nine years,” Wright recalled with a laugh.
In 2015, Wright sold the bank to New Orleans-based Liberty Bank and soon after began working on Bronze Valley, a venture capital fund that utilizes a community development financial institution (CDFI). Best known in Delaware through loan entities like True Access Capital, CDFIs combine government funding and private investments to assist communities that have historically been underserved by conventional banks.
“Our focus is areas where there is a dearth of venture capital,” Wright said. “It's a prerequisite that [our portfolio companies] be diverse, so that's where we intend to focus. It’s not something that happens overnight, it's a long-term view just like investing in venture capital, but we're committed.”
Today, Bronze Valley has invested about $5 million in 30 companies in its portfolio in 12 states in the Southeast, Midwest and mid-Atlantic. The average investment size is between $100,000 and $500,000, Wright said.
As a CDFI, it structures that funding as convertible notes, priced equity rounds or simple agreements for future equity (SAFEs). Since that capital appears like debt on the front-end, Bronze Valley looks for early-stage companies that already have revenue or have a plan for revenue within six months.
It has already gotten financial support from the Carney administration and Barclays Bank, and Wright said that Bronze Valley would apply for more funding through the state’s recently announced Small Business Credit Initiative. 2.0 funding
. He has also already been meeting with other banks in the state that could invest in the CDFI to meet their Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) requirements.
“Wilmington happens to be the banking capital of the country, perhaps the world, so there's a lot of opportunity there,” he said.
In September 2020, Bronze Valley launched the Venture Lab, a pre-accelerator program that provides consultant services and startup-centric “C-Suite On-Demand” advisors who can answer more technical questions for each entrepreneur. One Wilmington-based business, HX Innovations
, went through the program after learning about it from True Access Capital. The goal of the eight-week Venture Lab is to get a participant to an institutional fundraising round of $50,000 or more and or acceptance into an equity-based accelerator program.
“We realized that it made sense to be more than just to bridge the capital, but also provide a platform of services that startups would need to help ensure their success,” he said. “It's really been game changing.”
Bronze Valley was also attracted to Delaware due to its historically Black university, Delaware State University. Inside of the Venture Lab, it runs both a startup company track, and a university track specifically focused on HBCUs.
Alabama has the highest concentration of HBCUs with 14, and the Venture Lab’s university track there has about 75 participants. In Delaware, Wright hopes to have 25 to 40 students in each program cohort.
“It really is a venture and ideation studio to get these students thinking about careers in technology, technology, entrepreneurship, and/or venture capital,” he said.
Bronze Valley’s Delaware programming will be led by Darren Stephenson, a veteran accelerator leader who previously worked for accounting heavyweight Deloitte. The fund’s offices will run out of DSU’s Riverfront campus in Wilmington, with the Venture Lab’s university track based at the main Dover campus.
With upward of 85% of venture capital funding going to Boston, New York and Silicon Valley, serving the other large swaths of the country are increasingly important. For diverse founders who don’t have the same professional networks, that gap becomes wider, Wright said.
“What we're looking to do is democratize access to venture capital and do it with an elegant solution,” he said.
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