Responding to COVID-19, NVP Labs Cohort Goes Virtual

When Newark Venture Partners decided that it wanted to host an NVP Labs accelerator class this spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, the VCs knew that they’d have to adjust to the times.

 “We have a big mission ahead of us and we can’t delay it,” said Allison Williams, the director of NVP Labs who leads the pre-seed investment arm of Newark Venture Partners.

NVP Labs offers a 12-week bridge-to-seed accelerator program that successfully brings startups to scale. This cohort reported digitally to NVP Labs on April 20, Williams said, and so far, everything has been operating smoothly. Were there adjustments? Of course.

Williams noted that the NVP Labs program has three main pillars that it offers to new startup participants. The first is in-house execution support; the second, access to more than 500 mentors in the VC’s limited partner (LP) companies; and, lastly, fundraising support.

 “We just turned all three of these into digital solutions,” she said.

For now, what’s missing is NVP Labs mission to introduce new companies to Newark as a place to work and build their startups. That can’t be helped.

“We were really looking forward to being together in Newark, but we know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel here. We will be exposing our founders to Newark when we can safely do that.”

Allison Williams, NVP Labs

 “We were really looking forward to being together in Newark, but we know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel here. We will be exposing our founders to Newark when we can safely do that.”  Four of the startups are already from New Jersey, and they have all said that they plan to grow in Newark, Williams said.

Going digital has created a silver lining for NVP Labs, Williams noted. While historically the founders, in particular, have engaged closely with NVP’s resources, going digital has allowed their broader teams to get involved when it makes sense. Meetings and travel plans have usually created scheduling challenges, but teams now have the time to dedicate attention to NVP’s experts, and they make great strides, she said. Lastly, engagement with LP mentors and investors has actually been up.

Support

To support the startups in its Labs cohort, Newark Venture Partners offers an in-house execution team that’s heavily focused on sales, but also includes experts in products, finance and public relations. This support has always been completely customized to each company and conducted via individual company meetings. This personalized approach, moved to videoconferences, has been seamless, Williams told us.

NVP recently developed a BDR [business development representative] intern program that brings Newark students in from Rutgers, Montclair and NJIT to perform this role. The students are trained by Sean Simons, NVP Labs program manager, and Kevin Petry, director of sales growth, to reach out to the startups’ prospective customers and qualify them.

Each student is attached to a particular Labs startup. The information about qualified customers then goes to a senior member of that startup’s team. Considering COVID-19 and the need to operate remotely, NVP Labs revised the program, training the students online, but still assigning them to an individual startup. This is all being accomplished via Zoom.

The accelerator is also using Slack for community and team communications, as well as WhatsApp.

Mentorship

A harder nut to crack was figuring out how to introduce the members of the cohort to the mentors. Traditionally, the Labs would hold a social function where mentors from the LPs could drop by and get to know the teams and what they needed over hors d’oeuvres and champagne.  Now Labs is introducing the startup teams to LP mentors via email storytelling. The founders are sharing their stories with mentors, and the emails include a Calendly link where they can set up a one-on-one mentorship session via an automatically generated Zoom meeting.

“That works even better than our efforts in the past because a lot of times our LPs are so busy, themselves, they don’t have time to come to our kickoff event and meet our founders. This has been a great way for more of our LPs to get exposure to our founders and to schedule a mentorship meeting more easily. We have seen some very high engagement, and we plan to continue to cultivate these digital introductions indefinitely.”

Williams said that the startups are also matched with the LPs and mentors through a double opt-in process. “We also take a proactive approach to understand the needs of our founders and to match them to the right mentor at the right LP. For obvious business development opportunities, we can connect a healthtech company with the heads of innovation at RWJBarnabas, for example. There are then functional-support connections we can make; for example, connecting a team looking for data science mentorship with the renowned data science team at Audible. We have point people at each of our LPs who direct us to the right person within the org.”

Once there is a meeting between a founder and a mentor, the connection grows from there, Williams said. Each side inspires the other, and something “really beautiful” can develop. But getting to the initial meeting can be tough. However, now with everyone more willing than ever to jump on a Zoom call and have a chat, NVP has seen an exciting uptick in initial connections. 

Fundraising

Fundraising is also a little bit trickier with COVID-19. Normally, NVP Labs would have two fundraising events, one in New York City and one in Newark, the latter held for the last two cohorts at the Audible Innovation Cathedral. “It’s hard to promote an event if you don’t know if it can happen,” Williams noted. “And we do start promoting that a month and a half before. There just wasn’t enough clarity to keep it on the calendar. So, we will be doing a combined Demo Day with NVP Labs 8 and NVP Labs 9 in early 2021.”

The Labs will also do some special programming to help this cohort. “Industries where NVP has really started to focus include supply chain, healthtech and voice. We will be putting on verticalized investor events where investors who are interested in a particular industry can dial in to hear our investors’ take and to hear from our founders.  

“This is an opportunity for us to mix it up. We think it’s going to be easier to get investors on a call when it’s focused around an industry and they’re going to learn something new about an area they care about. And founders always want to pitch to investors that are interested in what they are doing, so it’s a win-win.” In addition, this allows NVP to reach out to relevant investors around the world, as attendance in Newark for Demo Day is no longer a requirement.

All in all, NVP Labs believes that, while this cohort may not have as much opportunity to rub elbows with their fellow startup founders, they will wind up with other advantages. In the meantime, as Williams said, “The show must go on.”

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