By Peyton Ballard
The economic landscape in West Virginia is vastly improving for the 1.8 million residents who currently occupy these mountains. Looking at things closely, I’ve also noticed a changing tide. I’m able to watch from close-up the life-changing work of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority (NRGRDA), the WV Hive Network, and Country Roads Angel Network (CRAN). Daily, we pursue actionable steps to improve the quality of life for entrepreneurs in southern West Virginia and the entire state.
The entrepreneurship ecosystem developed by the NRGRDA in southern West Virginia has generated positive press coverage, academic interest from neighboring institutions, and a host of formative partnerships with other key players in West Virginia’s community and economic development system. Much of the credit for pioneering work in the New River Gorge region lies with the leadership of change-makers at the NRGRDA and WV Hive Network, Executive Directors Jina Belcher and Judy Moore, respectively. But this work doesn’t end there. These two, in collaboration with the Country Roads Angel Network’s leadership team led by Chairman Kevin Combs, has consistently defied odds and produced concrete results for entrepreneurs statewide.
Projects ranging from delivering a proactive site expansion of the Raleigh County Memorial Airport to creating a one-of-a-kind business incubator that has administered more than half a million dollars in technical assistance to its 400 clients served to date, these organizations steered by extraordinary leaders have become standard bearers for economic progress. Their collaboration to form the state’s first and only accredited investment angel network in the Mountain State is another example of their innovative leadership. A network such as this had never been successfully accomplished in the state back in 2019 when NRGRDA was awarded a federal Economic Development Administration Regional Innovation Strategies grant to form the Country Roads Angel Network.
Through 2020 and 2021, CRAN grew its investor membership to over 20 members and has produced a series of investments in West Virginian companies – Iconic Air, Endolumik and Mountain Steer Meat Company. These investments total $450,000 while also assisting these portfolio companies in leveraging $2 million dollars in additional capital for their ventures. Those familiar with private equity fundraising will understandably point out that this figure is small potatoes in the grand scheme of what is needed to fund promising West Virginia-focused projects. That sentiment is valid, but as CRAN’s Chairman Kevin Combs often points out, “We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re about half a million further down the road than we were when CRAN started investing in West Virginia businesses.”
CRAN’s mission and make-up differ significantly from its counterparts offering venture capital. Instead, CRAN’s goal is to support businesses that are not traditional private equity plays. Pre-seed and seed round contributions to capital stacking for a new business is the hardest capital to obtain and few others in the state can make contributions during this stage to businesses not likely to provide 20X returns for investors. This is the differentiator that sparked the creation of CRAN and continues to be the foundational goal CRAN’s investment network prides itself on – the ability to make solid investments in companies that more traditional private equity organizations would pass on.
CRAN believes that to help shape West Virginia’s future, investors must play a role earlier in the process to not only fund but nurture the state’s booming entrepreneurial spirit.
CRAN’s investors are already poised to make several investments in the first quarter of 2022. Some of these investments will be for businesses working in collaboration with sister programs in the New River Gorge. Others will be institutional investments coming from our universities and colleges. All will be focused to ensure West Virginian entrepreneurs’ benefit.
“The sun doesn’t always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do,” quipped President John F. Kennedy on a rainy day at the state’s centennial celebration on June 20, 1963, just five months before his death. That famous quote inspired us, and it still does. President Kennedy knew that the people in our state are our greatest resource—and that they are the foundation of the undeniably bright future emerging on our economic horizon. Our strength comes from within, and even when the sun is not shining in West Virginia, its people, and the businesses we create still do.
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Peyton Ballard, MS, SHRM-CP, is Associate Director of CRAN and Manager of Entrepreneurship Initiatives at NRGRDA. He is a native of southern West Virginia and a graduate of Marshall University. Ballard can be reached at [email protected]
About CRAN: A non-profit corporation based in Beckley and serving all 55 counties of the Mountain State, CRAN offers emerging businesses early stage, seed funding to bring their creations to market. CRAN is administered by the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority’s WV Hive and was made possible through a startup grant from the U.S. Economic Development Authority, with support from the One Foundation, Massey Family Foundation, Dinsmore & Shohl, LLP, and the Charlottesville Angel Network. CRAN has recruited qualified investors to evaluate, invest in, and mentor individual startup businesses and completes the NRGRDA ecosystem of innovation and health, attracting a new economy to a region of boundless natural beauty and possibilities. https://www.wvcran.com/