By Taylor Welsh and David Rogers. November 2, 2017. BOONE, NC — One of the biggest stumbling blocks for would-be business owners — entrepreneurs — often is nothing more than not having the money to get started to jumpstart a new enterprise. In the historically more rural reaches of Appalachia, including the High Country, that challenge has been particularly daunting with few available resources. With Thursday’s launch of the first angel investment fund to serve the High Country region, that could be changing.
COVER IMAGE: Organizers, partners and investors all strike a pose for cameras on Thursday for the launch of High Country Impact Fund. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
High Country Impact Fund may be based in Boone, but according to its organizers it’s looking to nurture high-paying jobs while delivering attractive investment returns to investors by providing early stage capital to entrepreneurs in Watauga, Wilkes, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, and Johnson (TN) counties.
Thursday morning at ECR Software’s New Market campus in Boone, community and business leaders of the High Country gathered to hear about the new angel investment opportunity.
Blowing Rock resident Sam Glover is a principal with Startup High Country and a related initiative, Silicon Hollar, and served as emcee for Thursday’s launch event.
“There are no other investment funds in the area that are directly investing in these companies,” Glover told the crowd of about 40 business and civic leaders, as well as some of the charter investors of he fund, “but there are great entrepreneurs up here that have either grown companies off or on the mountains. They are interested in giving back to the community and working with a new era of entrepreneurs to see job growth and company creation here.”
Glover added that the typical fund investments will range from $35,000 to $100,000.
The audience also heard ceremonial pitches by newer entrepreneurs in the area to investment committee members, including Zach Ammar, a recent Appalachian State graduate student who is founder of Vixster, a “sharing economy” company focused on collecting rural residents’ trash and transporting it to the local landfill, or convenience center.
Other examples of sharing economy companies include Uber, AirBnB, and Lyft.
“When I moved up here,” Ammar recalled, “I lived in a family residence where we have to take our own trash up to the dump and separate the recycling. I soon realized that it was a huge problem up here. How could I solve a major issue so many people in Western North Carolina deal with?
“It’s kind of like the Uber for trash,” he said.
From developing the idea for an intercollegiate pitch competition at the behest of Erich Schlenker, Transportation Insight Center for Entrepreneurship on the Appalachian State campus, to the present, Ammar reported that in two short years Vixster has experienced tremendous growth. He now has 15 team members, a partner and a solid foundation, now serving customers in five counties.
Former computer science professor at Appalachian State, James Wilkes, was introduced as a serial entrepreneur whose most recent business foray is as founder and CEO of HiveTracks, a business started 10 years ago that has grown into a global business, which helps the beekeeping industry run more efficiently.
“HiveTracks is a software company that provides technology solutions to beekeepers throughout the world, helping them to maintain and manage healthy and productive honey bees,” Wilkes said.
As a bee keeper, farmer and professor at Appalachian State University, Wilkes said he was in his farm one day tending to his beehive when he had one of those “ah-ha” moments: the idea of combining technology and beekeeping and the idea for HiveTracks was born.
Having grown organically, HiveTracks now helps over 25,000 users around the world.
“Not everyone knows this, but bees are instrumental in much of the produce we eat and enjoy through the pollination process. HiveTracks helps beekeepers keep a reliable database and monitors the commercially available honey bees to make sure they are healthy,” he said.
A significant partner in the formation of High Country Impact Fund has been the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a regional economic development agency that represents a partnership of federal, state, and local government.
“The High Country Impact Fund will invest local capital directly into the area’s small and emerging businesses,” Earl Gohl, Federal Co-Chairman of ARC explained. “Each new angel fund opening in the region brings added economic opportunity to Appalachia.”
Pete Catoe is the founder, CEO and President of ECR Software, which is now recognized as an award-winning and innovative retail automation company with thousands of POS installations throughout the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. A graduate of Appalachian State, he founded ECRS in 1989.
“The members of the High Country Impact Fund are excited to play a vital role in the continued growth of free enterprise and entrepreneurship in the High Country,” he told the assembled business and civic leaders on hand for the launch of the fund. “We’re also looking forward to adding new investors to our fund and the friendships and sharing of knowledge that will come out of our shared business vision for this wonderful mountain community that we call home.”
“Expanding and fulfilling the potential of the High Country community for entrepreneurs is something that correlates with the quality of life in the Appalachian region,” Glover concluded. “We are dedicated to helping these entrepreneurs and hope their companies find great success here.”
More information about the High Country Impact Fund can be found at www.highcountryimpactfund.com.