With InvestMidwest forced online, startups bring ‘spirit of creativity’ to venture capital forum

For the first time in its 20-year history, the InvestMidwest Venture Capital Forum is going virtual, due to COVID-19.

The annual Midwestern investment conference, which typically takes place in Kansas City or St. Louis, joined forces with Midwest Growth Capital Symposium, an investing conference held each year in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The combined event, called the Midwest Venture Showcase, will provide about 70 startups the opportunity to engage with investors. The conference goes live Tuesday.

Before the event, Missouri Business Alert visited with Phyllis Ellison, InvestMidwest executive director, about the changes that COVID-19 has brought to the conference and what that will mean for the early-stage companies involved.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: With the conference no longer taking place in person, but rather online, what feedback have you heard from the startups and investors involved?

Phyllis Ellison: I would say it’s definitely impacted the companies in a couple of ways. First of all, the companies were incredibly grateful that there was still something happening. So I think they also brought a level of flexibility, knowing that the other option that we all would have faced was nothing. And so they really brought a spirit of creativity and openness to understand what the transition was going to be. So we launch on May 5 — all the videos will go up — and on May 6 and May 7 we will have some opportunities for companies to invite investors to get together and have some live chats. We’re using a platform called Meetaway that allows investors and startups to just rotate through in 10-minute chats. So they can spend 10 minutes in a video chat and be able to have that one-on-one as much as we can possibly get right now, but that eye-to-eye conversation and have a chance to ask questions. So we have tried to create some of those experiences to mimic, if you will, that chat after a pitch or that meeting of the hallway.

Hear more: Phyllis Ellison joins the Speaking Startup podcast to discuss InvestMidwest

MBA: What is the impact of the conference going virtual on startups six months to a year down the road since many look to secure investment during the conference?

PE: That still translates through as investment happening. I think we have a couple situations going on right now. First of all, the companies that are pitching recognize that most venture capital firms and investors are having to double down and support the companies that they’ve already invested in. And so some of the attention, as well as some additional capital, might be deployed into existing investments for those VCs. The flip side is the companies are mainly looking to build a relationship and whether that investment comes in six months or 18 months, they are still looking for the connection and to build a relationship. So if this is an opportunity to catch an investor’s eye and start a relationship, I consider that a success as well. We’d certainly love to see cash changing hands down the road. But it has to start somewhere. It has to start with a conversation, and hopefully that can start here with the 2020 Midwest Venture Showcase.

MBA: What has the transition process been like for InvestMidwest going from an in-person conference to now a virtual one due to COVID-19?

PE: This has been a big step for us after 20 years of holding live events, and then having about 30 days to transition and recognizing that a live event for 300 people just wasn’t going to be happening this year. It’s actually going really well. We’re excited. It’s been an opportunity to look at some some different platforms, some of which we were going to be using anyway this year as part of the the participant experience, even in a live event, and now really trying to expand the the capabilities of these tools to make sure that they fit for a virtual event as well.

Probably the biggest change we’ve had, which has really been exciting, is that we’re partnering with the Midwest Growth Capital Symposium out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. GCS has run for 40 years and was in the same situation. Normally, their live event is held in the middle of May. And so it’s been a great opportunity for us to explore a brand new partnership, and bring both events together into an online platform.

MBA: Do you think virtual pitch events that connect investors to startups in a remote environment will become the new norm?

PE: I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what this looks like. There are several of them that are scheduled this spring. I think people, including ourselves, are trying some new things. So we’re all going to walk away from this with lessons learned of what worked, what didn’t and what we want to do differently next time. I think it’s going to be some very interesting feedback from both the investors and the companies in terms of what their experience was and what the outcomes are both short-term and long-term. We’re already crafting our post-event surveys, because this feedback this year is going to be critical in terms of what we consider for the future.

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