Venture capitalist Steve Case invests time and money in Buffalo visit

The bus is nice. Quite nice, really, with soft leather seats, a master suite, flat-screen TV and a Keurig coffee maker on standby. If you were a campaigning politician or a rock band on tour, the accommodations would be pretty plush.

But if you’re a billionaire businessman who can afford mansions and jets and presumably an island, this isn’t luxury. Spending a dozen or more hours a day in a vehicle crammed with a revolving cast of two-dozen visitors? Stopping in Northeastern cities in late September? Committing to drop $100,000 in each city?

It’s not a billionaire-like way to spend a week. But it’s how Steve Case is spending his week.

The AOL founder and venture capitalist brought his week-long Rise of the Rest Tour to Buffalo on Wednesday, visiting a variety of start-up and small businesses and developments, then culminating the day with a pitch competition. The winner of that evening contest was to receive a $100,000 check from Case.

That happened – and then something a little more happened, too.

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Through his investment company Revolution, Case started Rise of the Rest as a way to promote entrepreneurship in cities where investors don’t typically focus. One of his most-cited facts: Seventy-five percent of investment money goes to California, Massachusetts and New York (but overwhelmingly to New York City).

Through Rise of the Rest, Case does week-long tours – this is his fourth in the last two years – and awards $100,000 to a start-up company in each city he visits.

Case’s day in Buffalo was preceded this week by visits to Baltimore and Philadelphia, and will be followed by Manchester, N.H., and Portland, Maine.

He opened the day in Buffalo with a breakfast with local leaders, then followed it with visits to City Dining Cards, the Innovation Center at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Empire Genomics, Bak USA, Larkinville, Solar City, Canalside and the pitch competition at RiverWorks.

Business people doubling as tour guides shuffled on and off his bus throughout the day, and Case was welcomed warmly, often excitedly, at every spot he visited. (Only the fluffy white labradoodle he met at City Dining Cards seemed unfazed by his presence.)

When Case and entourage visited Bak, a manufacturer of PC tablets, co-owner J.P. Bak became demonstrative. Bak moved here from Denmark and wanted to be sure Case knew what a promising business environment Buffalo offers. Bak grabbed the sides of his own jacket and pulled them wide to illustrate his point: Buffalo has a lot of room to grow.

“It’s a big suit with a little man inside,” he said through a thick accent and wide smile.

Case smiled. He enjoys moments like this, and he’s well equipped for them. Case is tall and photogenic, with neatly coiffed gray hair and dark hazel eyes. He dresses simply; his Buffalo uniform consisted of a blue button-down, dark jeans and black slip-on shoes. Embedded in that simplicity, and no doubt bolstered by his status as an Internet pioneer, is a strong presence.

Intimidating? Not that. He casts a commanding demeanor. That’s true when he’s questioning entrepreneurs. (One of his favorites: “What’s your biggest challenge?”)

But at the same time, Case is quite soft-spoken, almost folksy. That side showed when, on the tablet assembly floor at Bak, he slipped into a white jacket and cap, picked up a tweezer-like tool and tried to lay a sticky piece of conductor paper in place.

It curled into itself, prompting Case to say, “This is hard!” One of the workers – a Rwandan woman named Allen – stepped in to help.

“Perfect,” Case said.

Bak chimed in. “I’m proud of you!”

When Case learns the Bak workers can assemble a full tablet in eight minutes, he jokes, “Eight minutes? This would take me eight years.”

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Entrepreneurialism is a long-term, tough commitment, a message Case spread consistently through the day. During a pizza-and-wings lunch at the Anchor Bar, Case doled out business advice such as, “History shows that teams that play offense win,” and a few moments later, “The key is, in your mind, do you start thinking about why it might go wrong, or why it might go right?”

Afterward, he sat with The News on his bus to explain the reasoning behind bringing Rise of the Rest to Buffalo.

“The key thing we’re looking for is a city that’s on the rise and shows a real momentum,” he said. “Therefore, if we go there, there are some things to work with, to leverage and build on. It’s almost like putting kerosene on the fire. The kindling already has to be burning.”

That’s Buffalo? Case thinks it is, but acknowledged that there were some “skeptics” on his staff during the selection process. What won them over was the state’s Buffalo Billion program and the annual 43North business competition, which is in its second year.

“There really is a sense of energy and possibility that’s encouraging,” Case said, “and frankly, it’s more than I suspected. Buffalo seems to be rising. It seems to have hit a tipping point one, two, three years ago, and the momentum seems to be there.”

Then he adds a caveat: “There’s still a lot to work to be done.”

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Jordan Levy thinks so too. The Buffalo-based investor and co-founder of Z80 Labs spent much of the day with Case.

At one point, he turned to his Z80 partner, Ron Schreiber, pointed out Case’s promise to write a $100,000 check to that evening’s pitch competition winner, and said, “Let’s match it.”

“Great idea,” Schreiber said.

Several hours later, eight start-ups took the stage to deliver four-minute pitches and answer two minutes of questions from the judges: Case, RiverWorks co-founder Doug Swift, former Buffalo Bills running back-turned-businessman Thurman Thomas, and Rohini Srihari, chief scientist at SmartFocus.

None of the presenters realized that double awards were to be given.

But after Case and the judging panel tabulated their scores, the choice was simple. Two companies had equal scores: Energy Intelligence, which creates technology that harvests energy from motor traffic, and POP Bio Technologies, which is using nanomedicine to develop a cancer treatment.

“They’re both” dealing with “hard problems, which I actually like,” Case said. “They’re not easy companies.”

They both got $100,000. That’s the “rise” (in their finances). The rest? That’s up to them. And no, it won’t be easy.

“They had big ideas, risky,” Case said, “but with a chance of significant success.”