Since Brock Smith joined Invest Nebraska in June 2015, the company has invested $9.2M in 40 Nebraska-based high-growth startups, as well as funded 18 companies as part of the NMotion accelerator. Those companies have raised an additional $76.3M, an amount that increases every quarter as companies such as Quantified Ag, Virtual Incision, Blue Prairie Brands, D3 Banking and Intellifarm successfully complete follow-on rounds.
Smith’s tenure with Invest Nebraska came to an end in September though, when he accepted a job in Kansas City at GXP Investments, the corporate venture arm of Great Plains Energy (NYSE: GXP).
“It’s amazing how much the startup ecosystem in Nebraska has changed in a few short years,” said Smith. “When I first arrived in Nebraska in 2007, there wasn’t much of a startup scene. Now, we have hundreds of entrepreneurs engaged with the community that are founding potential high growth startups.”
The proof is in the numbers. According to the PwC MoneyTreeTM report, in 2010 and 2011 combined, Nebraska had one venture-backed round of $2M statewide. Five years later, in 2015 and 2016, 24 companies raised $151,081,100.
Invest Nebraska was involved with more than 75% of those deals. Blake Lawrence, CEO and Founder of Opendorse, credits Smith with that growth.
“Brock’s passion for helping founders and his pride in the Silicon Prairie startup scene helped Invest Nebraska strengthen its position as the state’s solution for filling the pre-seed and seed funding gap,” said Lawrence.
Entrepreneurs from outside the community also took note of Smith’s work.
“Ink chose to move to Nebraska after an evening with Brock at the Tavern on the Square in the Haymarket,” said Jon Manzi, CEO and Founder of Ink Labs. “At the time, we had developed a list of organic reasons why a move outside of the Valley made sense. But it was in the meeting with Brock, we came to an epiphany that we’d be choosing Lincoln over Chicago or Venice Beach.”
It wasn’t just Manzi who decided to make the move on Ink’s behalf.
“Our European dev team––literally comprised of some of the worlds’ best engineers––refused to move to Oakland, but couldn’t get enough of Lincoln,” said Manzi. “They liked how authentic people were, they could envision raising their families and being part of the community. We realized how we had discovered the Raikes school at UNL and saw endless tier-1 talent between Omaha and Lincoln.”
Invest Nebraska does more than invest money in companies, it focuses on helping founders find their path before and after investment.
“Brock served as both advisor and devil’s advocate to many entrepreneurs in Nebraska, myself included. He opened many doors for early-stage companies and for the community as a whole” stated Cory Scott, CEO and Co-founder of LiveBy. “He was a fire-starter for LiveBy’s pre-seed and seed rounds and our team always knew we could look to him for guidance during our midwestern fundraising battles. I wish him the best in KC, but there is no doubt Nebraska lost a gem.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Paul Jarrett, CEO and Founder of Bulu Box.
“I’ve worked with a lot of investors, and Brock and Invest Nebraska are part of the few that not only do what they say but add value and go above and beyond,” said Jarrett.
Invest Nebraska has spent the last five years developing relationships and working together with early-stage investors in Nebraska and around the country.
“[Invest Nebraska] has been an invaluable partner to the Nebraska angel investment community, often taking on the heavy burden of evaluating, negotiating, and managing the investment process,” said startup attorney Bart Dillashaw of Dillashaw, LLC and board member of the Nebraska Angels. “The impact on Nebraska’s startups is hard to overstate, as we are generally in a low capital environment when it comes to early-stage investors.”
Smith’s role at GXP Investments will be making Series A and Series B investments in companies within the energy value chain. His focus areas of investment are in blockchain and transitive energy, smart cities, smart grids, microgrids, cybersecurity (OT), energy efficiency, EV charging, and building controls and automation.
“While turnover is always tough, I think Dan’s vision for Invest Nebraska is going to continue to set the state up for more success with high growth companies,” said Smith. “I’m confident that our recent hires, Eric Zeece and Ben Williamson, are capable of helping take the ecosystem to the next level. They are skilled people that get our vision and love the state.”
He may be moving on to Kansas City, but Smith knows what he’s leaving behind.
“There really is no place like Nebraska,” said Smith, “Governor Ricketts and Lt. Governor Foley sent me handwritten notes when they heard I was moving to Missouri. Where else does something like that happen? That’s definitely the hardest part about leaving and why I know I’ll actively be looking for opportunities to come back and visit.”
Brian Lee is the Managing Director of Silicon Prairie News.