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Why this Alabama venture investment platform is taking on Delaware

Bronze Valley, a minority-facing VC firm, CDFI and venture lab, has big plans for the state and region.

A Bronze Valley entrepreneur making a startup pitch in Birmingham. (Courtesy Bronze Valley)
Delaware has all of the pieces necessary to be a thriving tech hub, except for one.

Launching a startup in Delaware is challenging. That’s despite its prime geographic location between New York City and DC; despite having universities that turn out talented tech-facing graduates; and despite being the home (or second home) of some of the world’s biggest banks.

Delaware startup founders have told us time and again that the biggest hurdle for startup founders in a technology sector is the lack of venture capital funding. Some local startups in recent years have turned to crowdfunding, traveling away from Delaware to pitch to VCs, or moving away from Delaware altogether.

Minority founders, especially those who are Black and Latinx, struggle the most to land startup funding, in line with the rest of the nation. But Delaware has one of the largest Black populations by percentage in the US, with Wilmington, a majority Black city, as an economic center.

Delaware does have Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFIs, that support Black and brown entrepreneurs, including some in technology. Most of their funding focuses on Main Street-type businesses — the restaurants, shops and fashion lines that need funding and loans, but not to the financial level of a tech-related startup.

But things are about to change.

Bronze Valley, a Black-owned and -focused VC firm, CDFI and venture lab out of Birmingham, Alabama, is launching its first cohort in Delaware, bringing its full package of services to the First State and surrounding mid-Atlantic region.

If you’re looking for the connection between Alabama and Delaware, you’ll find it in Bronze Valley’s president, Neill Wright, who grew up in Wilmington and graduated from Hockessin’s Sanford School. His father ran Beneficial National Bank in Wilmington, and he followed the financial path, working Wall Street with investment banks like JPMorgan and Citibank before going on to own First Tuskegee Bank, an African American-focused CDFI, in Alabama.

Neill Wright, president of Bronze Valley

Neill Wright, president of Bronze Valley. (Courtesy photo)

Wright sold First Tuskegee in 2016. While deciding what to do next, he started talking about technology-based economic development with John Hudson, then SVP of economic development at Alabama Power. They clicked on a mutual desire to close the funding access for early-stage companies, Wright told Technical.ly.

He moved from Montgomery to Birmingham in 2018 to find it an emerging technology hub.

“Right right around that time, there was a fairly large exit for this market,” Wright told Technical.ly: Instacart competitor Shipt was acquired by Target for $550 million. “That kind of got the city and the state on the map. But we recognized very early on that we needed to do more.”

Bronze Valley started out as a small CDFI venture fund covering the one-county region of Jefferson County in Alabama, then expanded to the entire state and into Georgia.

Then came what Wright calls the “2020 reset.”

“Early on [in the pandemic], we recognized that we needed to do more than just provide capital,” Wright said. “We needed to provide a platform of services to help startups, many of whom were firs-time founders who needed advisory services to help ensure their success. We didn’t necessarily want to get into the accelerator business, but we wanted to help support not only the ecosystem, but the companies in our portfolio.”

Bronze Valley connected with gener8tor, the national accelerator operating in about 40 cities, and formed a partnership to launch the Bronze Valley VentureLab, focused on supporting underrepresented founders.

Now with about 30 portfolio companies situated across 12 states, Bronze Valley set its sight on a new location: Delaware.

The mid-Atlantic felt like the right place for expansion partly because Bronze Valley already counts several companies from Philadelphia in its portfolio, Wright said, including Employee Cycle, Stimulus, Grovara and PeopleJoy. And while his personal ties to Delaware held sway, but so did the state’s assets.

“It’s also a place that I think has all the attributes of a startup community: higher education focused on the startup community, every corporation that you can imagine having some connection to Delaware, many financial institutions,” he said. However, “what I have noticed in spending a good amount of time over the last 24 months on the ground in Delaware meeting folks is that it does lack diversity.”

Darren Stephenson, program manager for Bronze Valley Venture Lab

Darren Stephenson, program manager for Bronze Valley VentureLab. (Courtesy photo)

Back around 2021, Delaware neuroergonomic footwear startup Hx Innovations was introduced to Bronze Valley through local CDFI True Access Capital, and got an invite to participate in its VentureLab in Alabama. The experience was beneficial for Hx Innovations, cofounder Von Homer said.

“We were able to meet and connect with other founders that were spread out all over the nation,” he said. “We were able to have real access to other companies that had gone through the process and had an exit who returned to mentor us on the business side. They allowed us the opportunity to take advantage of some of their resources — and those resources were very valuable. We still use those resources today.”

Bronze Valley is bringing that VentureLab to Delaware as it moves to serve the mid-Atlantic region.

Darren Stephenson, the program manager who is running the new VentureLab in Wilmington, said the cohorts are “intimate,” with just five companies each. Over about eight weeks, “we give them all the things that a startup accelerator would offer,” he said, “everything from volunteer mentorship to where should you incorporate your startup. It really is a pre-accelerator. The goal at the end of that process is to get folks to either an equity-based accelerator or they’ve won a round of $50,000 from an institutional investor.”

The VentureLab will be held at Delaware State University’s Riverfront Wilmington campus. The partnership is a clear fit for an organization that has previously focused on Alabama’s 14 HBCUs.

“It seems to me that one of the biggest opportunities that we have in startup ecosystems around the country, especially where HBCUs are, is the human capital talent that may or may not be exposed to venture capital,” Wright said. “Darren, who was not too far out of graduating from the university environment when I met him, has some relevant experience with Big Four consulting firms, as well as accounting firms, and when I learned he’d done a fellowship with HBCU VC and interned at a West Coast based VC, I thought he was a perfect person to lead our effort in Delaware.”

Startup founders in Delaware and the region who are interested in Bronze Valley can contact the org through its website or can email info@bronzevalley.com.

Companies: Hx Innovations / Stimulus / PeopleJoy / Delaware State University / Employee Cycle

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