Mario M. Casabona aims to create a dozen highly motivated entrepreneurs — and New Jersey will be paying for it.
The 63-year-old Kinnelon businessman, an Italian immigrant who built and then sold his own electronics R&D company before becoming an angel investor, is set to create the state’s first technology start-up accelerator.
His TechLaunch LLC was the winning entry in the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s (EDA) competition to find someone to start its tech accelerator program, with the help of state money.
He and a team of mentors will look for entrepreneurs with good ideas, and lead them through an intense, 12-week workshop on how to start a business and market an idea.
In addition, the lucky entrepreneurs — whose ideas are expected to focus on technology, media or the Internet — will get about $18,000 each in seed capital and exposure to angel investors and venture capitalists.
Casabona wants to imbue the participants with the business savvy and lessons he picked up in his 40 years in the science and technology field.
Graduating with an electrical engineering degree in 1971, Casabona worked for several defense and electronics companies before starting a business providing research and development services for the Department of Defense.
He “reinvented the company three times,” eventually making electronic defense equipment, and then sold it to Honeywell in 2004, using the profits to launch his angel investor business in 2007.
TechLaunch, with a $150,000 annual investment from the EDA, is a private-for-profit business, that – like any other angel investor — hopes to make money from its investments — in this case, the businesses of the boot camp participants.
“We are looking for the cream of the crop,” said Casabona. “But it’s still a very high risk proposition.”
Casabona talked to The Record about the boot camp, what he looks for in an entrepreneur and how he’ll try to help them avoid ruining their family life.
Q. What do you hope this venture will provide?
New Jersey is between New York and Philadelphia. And both of those cities offer accelerators. New Jersey just doesn’t have any. So if a New Jersey entrepreneur is looking to get some seed funding and training, they are going to have to go to New York or to Philadelphia. This really opens up an opportunity for these entrepreneurs to have something nearby, in New Jersey.
Q. What are you looking for in applicants?
We are looking for a team that has a great idea, a great team that’s capable of executing their dream — that they are going to be successful entrepreneurs. But in order to get there, they have got to go through the process — besides the training, the fund raising, the business plan aspects.
Q. Are we talking a guy with an idea on the back of an envelope, or do applicants have to have the company up and running?
It’s an individual that has an idea on the back of the envelope, or on a cocktail napkin, who also indicates that this idea has marketability, and along with his idea he is going to bring along two or three individuals that are going to help him realize this idea.
This is a truly, early stage opportunity.
Q. Sounds like a lot will depend on how you evaluate the applicants. What tells you someone will make a good entrepreneur?
Most investors, whether angel or early stage investors, don’t look at an individual, but at the team. And part of the intent of the accelerator is to build a team, a coherent team.
Q. And what about the people?
We are looking for people that have a conviction that their idea is the best, and that they are willing to put their energy and heart and soul into this venture.
Q. Entrepreneurs are reputedly very bad family people (due to the long hours and stress that come with a new business). Is that part of what you offer, social training to help with that?
(He laughs) It’s a very good point. Because it’s a juggling act between being an entrepreneur and fulfilling family obligations. I personally believe that the most successful entrepreneur is the one that’s able to balance both his business career and his personal life. … If things are not going well in the family, it creates a distraction for the business.
Q. Angel investing sounds like a very risky business.
Yes, it is. You’ve got to have the stomach for it. It’s high risk, but the rewards are tremendous.
Q. You mean financial rewards?
No. The rewards are of being part of an entrepreneurial activity. The rewards are of learning, from my point of view, of the various technologies that are out there.
Q. It almost sounds like a philanthropic act.
Sometimes us angels feel that we are philanthropic. But in the long run it is financially rewarding. What we are always looking for is the next Google. That’s rare. At best, if we can make two, three times return on our investments — on the basket or portfolio of investments — we are delighted.