Sunstone Management, a primary sponsor of the first-ever Irvine Tech Week, opened the five days of activities Wednesday, March 22, by hosting four founders of diverse early-stage startups in a panel talking about their triumphs and travails, especially in light of the recent Silicon Valley Bank collapse.
Before the panel, Sunstone founder John Shen and CEO John Keisler hosted a reception, where Keisler offered a few observations about Sunstone and the synergy found in Irvine.
“In 10 days, it will be a year since I officially joined Sunstone,” he told a group of founders, friends and investors. “In that time, we’ve been the most active early-stage sponsor in Orange County – look it up!
“In the coming year, access to capital is going to be the key issue facing startups. We’re going to be here to help… Just as important, we will be able to offer the technical assistance that makes all the difference. We engage with our government, nonprofit and educational partners to do that. We’ll be here.”
Focus on the Founders
Then activity moved upstairs to the 11th floor at Airport Tower, Sunstone’s home. Vivian Shimoyama, chair of the board for the Long Beach Accelerator and former regional executive director of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses initiative in Long Beach, was here to moderate a panel of four founders connected with Sunstone, accelerators, and the University of California, Irvine.
The panelists were Chris Wagner, PhD – Co-Founder & CTO, Current Surgical; Ethan Glass - CEO & Founder, Ocra; Leanne Linsky - Founder & CEO, Plauzzable; and Bill Beverley - Co-Founder, Co-CEO & CTO, Evolectric.
Current Surgical is working on a smart surgical needle that will deliver technology and/or treatment to specific, hard-to-reach places in the body. Ocra is developing a parking management program capable of centralizing operations on a large scale. Plauzzable is developing a platform where people can find live stand-up comedy fitting their needs and preferences. Evolectric is delivering a system retrofitting trucks and transportation to battery-fueled electric operation.
Silicon Valley Bank Response
All four founders said they had avoided any drama with SVB, holding accounts at larger banks. Leanne noted that sometimes it pays to be a procrastinator.
“I had actually opened an account (with Silicon Valley),” she laughed. “But I hadn’t put any money in yet when the news came out.”
Leanne said she still wants to diversify her resources, while Ethan said he was focusing on finding value-added partners, attracting them with an equity stake. Chris said Current Surgical had recently completed a seed round of funding to support research and development, with money in an institution that had just raised its insurance cap to $3 million.
“We actually see this as an opportunity,” Bill said. “We saw a lot of banks heavily into Crypto that were suddenly looking for alternatives.” Evolectric, which already has raised $1.7 million, is trying to take advantage of the array of energy asset financing currently available as clean and alternative energy is emphasized.
Once the elephant in the room had been addressed, Vivian asked each panelist for a “golden nugget” they had discovered in their founder journey.
“It’s all about humility and focus,” Evolectric’s Bill Beverly said. “Being a founder will make you humble, guaranteed. And focus is the only way to get things done.”
“People are definitely the greatest resource,” Leanne Linsky said of her journey to create Plauzzable. “Whether that’s at the accelerator or hiring the team you need, it’s all about people.”
Dr. Chris Wagner said he relied on mentors to help create his vision and to help him, “get out of my own head.” Ethan Glass mentors others as a way of giving back and is already serving as the chair of the National Parking Association’s Young Leaders Network. “It’s never too soon to give back,” he said.
The crowd sat up and leaned forward when moderator Vivian Shimoyama asked the founders to share their biggest mistake.
“When we started, tech was half of our pitch deck,” Chris responded. “Now it’s one slide. What the investors really focus on is your individual growth.”
Ethan got the line of the afternoon with his answer.
“I don’t remember where I heard this, but it stuck with me,” he said. “You smile at success, and you laugh at failure. You just keep moving forward.”
Both Bill and Chris said waiting for grants to finance their ideas – new medical technology and green energy solutions – was a big mistake.
But Bill said his biggest mistake was tied to his previous job – selling batteries – and prompted him to turn to his startup.
“My daughter had two books she would want me to read when I got home,” he said. “One night she snuck in a third, and I said, ‘Daddy’s too tired.’ She cried herself to sleep, and I realized the great plan I had wasn’t working. Family is everything.”
Before the panel took questions, the session wrapped up with the obligatory one tip. The comedian, Leanne, took the lead.
“Immerse yourself in the people out there doing it,” she said. “Show up for things. You never know when you’re going to meet that one person who will change your life.
“And remember, there’s always time for a laugh.”
A video of the panel discussion will be available soon at sunstoneinvestment.com.