Rise of the Rest Tour-Buffalo: How Buffalo Is Making Its Own Rise

"Don't look at a startup and think about why it might fail. Look at a startup and think about why it might succeed."
-Steve Case

We spent Wednesday in Buffalo as the third stop of this fall's Rise of the Rest tour, and the 17th stop of the Rise of the Rest Initiative, founded by Steve Case and his firm Revolution. Reflections from Day 1 in Baltimore is here, and from Day 2 in Philadelphia is here.

In Buffalo, we saw the power of a community that believes in a comeback, and the transformative effect a positive attitude can have. We kicked off the day with this video -- that showed the incredible inventions in Buffalo (from Huck Finn to the credit card to jetpacks) and the optimism of the future. In many ways, Buffalo as a community embraced the "Rise of the Rest" spirit more than any of the 17 cities we have visited -- for Buffalo, a city with a million reasons not to pursue a vibrant entrepreneurial culture, the comeback is working.

"Why Buffalo? Why Not Buffalo?"

At the beginning of the day, we toured Bak, an advanced manufacturing plant making tablets, which started 6 months ago and is already providing 30 quality jobs. Steve asked the CEO of Bak, a Danish immigrant, "Why Buffalo?" The founder, JP Bak, responded, "Why not Buffalo!"

All day long we heard notes of optimism: unemployment is at a 30-year low, and for the first time in a generation, more young people came into Buffalo last year than left. We left with more than the stereotypes we had in our head of Buffalo -- cold weather (though it was the first heavy-jacket day of the tour) and chicken wings (though we did visit the Anchor Bar, the home of the buffalo wings).

If you look at the tour stops of this Rise of the Rest tour, we mostly follow the I-95 corridor, but Buffalo is a clear exception. We made the detour to Buffalo because this is a city that has made a concerted effort to be a great place for entrepreneurs -- and it's paying off.

The Buffalo Billion

Part of the Buffalo renaissance is an initiative from Governor Andrew Cuomo, the "Buffalo Billion," a billion-dollar focused initiative on re-growing Buffalo. We see public policy integrating with entrepreneurship best when government makes concentrated bets around a specific thesis -- in entrepreneurship, it's better to be specific and wrong, than vague and right -- and we saw several spillovers from Buffalo.

We saw seed funding (LaunchNY), large-scale jobs (SolarCity's plant, the largest solar manufacturing plant in the northern hemisphere, which will create 3,000 jobs), aggressive recruitment efforts (including 43-North, the world's largest business plan competition, which commits $5 million annually to startups who move to Buffalo for 12 months), and great integration with local assets (the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Center, formerly a real estate and parking company, in the words of its CEO, has started incubators for health and advanced manufacturing).

Communities, rather than hero individuals, build startups, and the flurry of activity gave entrepreneurs hope that they would have the community behind them. As one entrepreneur, who moved to Buffalo because of the 43-North initiative told me, and plans to stay, "it feels like at every social event and every business meeting I go to, the community is rooting for me to succeed."

Made in Buffalo

So -- what's next for Buffalo? We see a few strong industries: advanced manufacturing, due to a great workforce culture and hard technology industries (we saw, for example, SmartWalls, which is making walls that protect cities against floods), and an opportunity to revolutionize the creaking energy infrastructure with a flurry of bold energy bets, including one of the winners of the $100K pitch competition, Energy Intel, which is developing smartgrid-powering software.

The reason I say "one of the winners" is in the judging of the pitch competition -- judged, among others, by local hero Thurman Thomas -- local investors Z80 decided to match Steve Case's $100K investment so the competition could have two winners, getting $100K investment to PopBio, a precision drug delivery technology. This is the first city where we have had a $100K match, and is particularly indicative that for the "Rise of the Rest" spirit to continue, local leaders are the ones who own the future.

Buffalo, more than many cities we've seen, recognizes that its comeback and future is in its own hands, and more than anything, the attitude of making startups work is the most important ingredient to the Rise of the Rest.