Ferguson Ventures will host the next 757Pitch at the Ferguson Heritage Center on Tuesday, July 16 from 5:30 -8:30 pm. 757Pitch is Hampton Roads’ own bi-monthly, open-to-the-public pitch competition for new, scalable, high-growth business ideas. Five competitors each have seven minutes to deliver their pitch, followed by five minutes of Q&A. The winner is awarded $757 cash, access to the resources of the ODU Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, and a one-year membership to BizConnect.
Ahead of the event, StartWheel executive director Chris Shelton sat down with Blake Luse, director of Ferguson Ventures, to learn more about the organization, their support of the local startup ecosystem and get words of encouragement for anyone thinking about supporting the startup community and programming like 757Pitch.
Shelton: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us about Ferguson Ventures and why it was created?
Luse: Ferguson Ventures is the corporate venture capital and innovation arm of Ferguson Enterprises, the largest plumbing distributor in the U.S. We started by asking the question, “how do we make our customers more successful?” Our customers are currently facing unprecedented challenges with the shortage of skilled trade professionals. They are looking for ways to address the shortage and increase productivity.
On the whole, the construction industry used to be an industry reluctant to embrace technological change. That is no longer the case. The industry accepts that the world is changing more rapidly than ever before, and we don’t expect the pace of change or level of disruption to slow, inside or outside our industry. Tech startups are seeing an opportunity and Ferguson Ventures is committed to supporting them.
Shelton: Why is Ferguson Ventures committed to helping enable the local startup ecosystem?
Luse: We believe that entrepreneurship is a key driver to economic development within Hampton Roads and Richmond. We will support stakeholders that bring value to Virginia entrepreneurs through capital, programs and place. For us, it’s also about building a community of innovation. That’s why Ferguson Ventures is also engaging with the RVA & Hampton Roads Collaborative – in the Innovation Economy sub-committee – to help guide future strategy for both regions.
Shelton: You hosted the innaugural Ferguson Innovation Challenge in collaboration with William & Mary back in April. Can you tell us a bit about that program and why it was important for you?
Luse: Not only do we want to help solve a challenge that our customers face daily, but we also want to expose some of the brightest entrepreneurial minds on William & Mary’s campus to Ferguson, the construction industry and the skilled trade shortage. So, we positioned the challenge of “how might we maximize the amount of time the contractor’s workforce is performing billable work?” Ferguson associates mentored the challenge teams and engaged in a ten-week process that ended with a final pitch for five teams at Ferguson’s HQ campus.
Shelton: How is Ferguson continuing to support the students who competed?
Luse: We brought four of the students from the innovation challenge into the Ferguson Innovation Lab for an internship. We are using service design to truly understand the customer journey and opportunities within to help bring efficiencies. Our goal is to continue gaining customer validation with a prototype and pilot.
Shelton: As you know, ODU is a co-organizer for 757Pitch. And we’ve just talked about your work with William & Mary. With so many universities in the area, how and why is Ferguson Ventures engaging with local higher ed?
Luse: Last summer, we also ran a capstone project with CNU; it is a collaboration with our innovation lab. Ferguson Ventures knows that future startup founders and entrepreneurs are walking the campuses of our Virginia universities and colleges. It’s important for us to engage with universities who are driving entrepreneurship and innovation forward in meaningful ways because they will drive value to our customers and our business in the future.
Shelton: Why is Ferguson Ventures supporting 757Pitch?
Luse: There’s value in providing a place for entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas and sharpen their message amongst likeminded people. Entrepreneurs also need programming and capital. StartWheel and ODU are helping provide both in an environment that’s approachable and based on growth for the founder.
Shelton: What words of advice or encouragement would you give someone, especially other local leaders, who are interested in engaging and supporting the local startup ecosystem?
Luse: Corporate leaders in the area can support organizations that are already doing great work in Hampton Roads. Work alongside these groups and bring subject matter expertise and resources to local founders – in the end, they usually result in rewarding relationships where you get to also connect with innovative thinkers. The benefits are plenty, including talent acquisition and retention, early access to novel technologies and customer solutions, and being recognized as a leader in the regional innovation community.
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StartWheel’s mission is to centralize and mobilize efforts that foster the growth of entrepreneurism in our regional innovation economy. We aim to support and cultivate an entrepreneurial network in HRVA where talent, resources, information and leadership come together.