Support Beyond Financing: Local Community for Startups Grows

A rising tide lifts all boats. For Midlands organizations, both startup organizations and entrepreneurs are embracing this notice.

Adriana Cisneros Basulto and her startup, Maxwell, is a prime example.

“A few of us have come together to create Nebraska Founded, a single stop for everything startup in Omaha-Lincoln, Nebraska,” she said. “The best ecosystems are those where current startups help the next wave of startups … we want to make it easy for the entire entrepreneurial stack to engage and provide easy and inclusive access to resources.”

Basulto approaches entrepreneurship developments as a startup co-founder/CEO, and as a supporter of other startups through her business and community involvement.

“Maxwell has a particular focus on health care, but we help employers of all sizes and across industries deliver an employee experience that creates joy and teams that stick around,” she said. “We give [startups] the ability to offer a benefits package that can compete with that of large players, without the big cost or administrative burden.”

As the economy tightens, Basulto noted opportunities for cost-saving, efficiency-creating solutions.

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“Companies are looking to do more with less,” she stated. “That couldn’t be clearer. [Employers] value having us as an extension of their team that streamlines their processes and provides insightful data. So, their internal teams can focus elsewhere.”

In this vein, Basulto referenced the layoffs at many companies locally, but said many employers are still having a hard time finding, and keeping, much-needed talent.

“To use an example, hospitals are in what is currently been dubbed a ‘labordemic’ and, according to Fitch [Ratings], is likely to make or break many hospitals,” she explained.

Hospitals are not the only ones grappling with this issue.

“There are 9.5 million job openings in the U.S., but only 6.5 million unemployed workers,” Basulto said. “They say necessity is the mother of innovation. If that is true, we should see an increase in solutions geared towards closing the labor shortage.”

Superbly Goal-shattering

Molly O’Neil, founder and CEO of Superb, said her company is driven by pain points in health care.

“Conceived in response to the unsustainable pricing of ancillary nursing staff in senior care, it became my unwavering mission to craft technology that champions both senior care facilities and health care professionals,” O’Neill said, likening the company’s model to Uber, by giving health care workers the same “gig economy autonomy.”

Named the AIM Tech Startup of the Year, Superb also clinched $1.3 million in investments in its inaugural year – defying odds in what O’Neil dubbed a “challenging landscape where less than 2% of investment capital finds its way to founders.”

It recently set its sights on Council Bluffs, along with plans to launch in Kansas City.

“By the close of 2024, our aim is to establish a formidable footprint in 10 states, accompanied by the organic growth of the Superb team,” she said.

As of early December, O’Neil noted how the team is at the nexus of a pivotal moment, navigating the intricacies of securing its next round of funding.

“Our endeavors extend beyond the borders of Nebraska, reaching investors situated both within and outside the Midwest,” she added. “The capital we aim to procure holds the key to unlocking substantial growth, propelling our expansion plan into a new realm of possibilities.”

Ultimately, she indicated the funds will mark a significant milestone in Superb’s journey towards revolutionizing the senior care landscape.

Proving Grounds

Superb also represents one of many successes for Proven Ventures’ portfolio companies, which range from apparel to accounting. Evan Luxon’s Centese supports cardiothoracic surgery with “breakout technology” to improve post-surgical outcomes.

“Centese is putting Nebraska on the map,” said Proven Ventures General Partner Erica Wassinger. “[It is] currently being used in flagship medical facilities like Mayo, NYU, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and more.”

A healthy food, good-for-your-gut kombucha made by mixologist Tony Horner, Fermented Felon is living the notion of “drink up and do good,” with Wassinger commending its e-commerce growth and partnerships with Omaha, Lincoln, and Des Moines grocers.

Kelly Mann’s AuditMiner and Little Movements Apparel’s Marissa Whalen round out spotlighted portfolio startups within diverse sectors. Of the former, Wassinger referenced how Mann was named one of AICPA and CPA Practice Advisor’s 2023 Most Powerful Women in Accounting.

“It’s no surprise that [she] built the CPA industry’s hottest tech,” Wassinger said.
“She’s bootstrapped her team to more than 15 people, with a very modest investment from Proven Ventures.”

Of the latter athleisure company, Wassinger said Whalen has grown Little Movements nearly 30% year over year and recently opened a new storefront at Lincoln’s Shots on Prescott.

Startup Support for All

Business Partners Amy Johnson and Nick Nemer characterize 22Eleven as a “resource to truly build a business.”

“The previous way of thinking was that, if you find your capital partners, they will also provide guidance,” Johnson noted. “While this can be true, the model or strategy that comes with the money may not always be what is right for your business.”

The duo focuses on right-sizing plans to grow businesses.

“Funding trends that have caught our eye in the last 12 months would be the focus on AI technology, health care technology, educational technology and sustainability products,” Nemer added. “While these markets seem to be getting some attention, the challenge of raising funds is increasingly getting more complicated across all markets.”

Navigating a fundraise right now, the partners noted, requires resilience and an entrepreneur who thinks beyond that box.

“Health care technology is increasingly more saturated, but there is still room for innovation,” Johnson said.

Largely, the partners referenced how funding is tighter than it was three to five years ago.

“Money is expensive right now, and investors are looking for ‘more’ at this point,” Nemer said. “Today, investors are much more concerned with how you will get in the green as quickly as possible, maintaining responsible growth.”

Now more than ever, they said surrounding one’s self with the right support systems is important, as is understanding areas of immediate need.

CEO Karine Sokpoh referenced how the Midlands African Chamber (MAC) Xcelerator program was amid its second cohort, and the team was embarking on its investors connect event at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to provide “speed dating-type” opportunities to funders to meet their entrepreneurs.

“This equips entrepreneurs with vital training and resources during a nine-week program and, at the end of the program, they each receive $1,000 for startup costs — not to mention if they participate in Pitch Black and win the competition, they can get up to a $15,000 equity free awar,” Sokpoh explained.

She described MAC as a catalyst and accelerant in the ecosystem, particularly for Black and other minority entrepreneurs.

“We connect, champion and empower small businesses in a bid to grow economic equity,” Sokpoh stated. “Since 2020, at the end of this cohort, we will have served 65 small diverse businesses and funded them collectively at $97,000,” she stated.

In all, Sokpoh said MAC provides training, resources, exposure, connections to mentors and networking – potentially inspirational models for others, as she noted state grants and programs to assist entrepreneurs provided significant funding in general but: “Very little went to BIPOC, immigrants or refugee entrepreneurs.”