Setting a course for economic development conjures ideas of luring major manufacturers, creating jobs, and attracting new residents. These are undeniably important pieces and, for Kelly Reeser, it is also essential to think a bit smaller.
Reeser, who joined TechFarms Capital as co-managing director in January, said, “A key element of economic development is to bring in outside companies who do not have a presence in the community. Another piece is growing the existing industry/manufacturing base and the supporting workforce. But an often-overlooked piece is ‘growing your own.’ If communities pay attention to and invest resources into their entrepreneurs, they’ll grow your next big thing.” Entrepreneurs are the key piece in Reeser’s economic career and the main focus of her next chapter, TechFarms Capital – an early-stage angel capital fund based in Panama City Beach, FL. Along with Steve Millaway, an engineer, inventor, and the founder of TechFarms, Reeser aims to change the entrepreneurial landscaping of the Southeast United States.
Growing up, Reeser never envisioned a career at the helm of an early-stage angel fund. An unlikely combination of factors — among them a brief teaching career, a youth pastor husband, a South American internship, and the BP oil spill — revealed one common thread: a passion for connecting people.
Her interests in economics and entrepreneurship were piqued during a college internship at a merchant bank in Argentina. The bank, Knightsbridge Partners in Buenos Aires, dealt with investment banking and asset management worldwide, and Reeser was hooked. After completing her master’s degree in development management and public policy at Georgetown University, she returned home to Pensacola and began her economic development career in earnest at the Greater Pensacola Chamber.
“I found this position in economic development, which shifted into entrepreneurial development, which is when all of this started,” Reeser said. “It’s great, personally in your career, when you can connect a purpose and a passion. What I found I loved was championing other people’s ideas. I found a lot of personal fulfillment in being able to help somebody else make their dream a reality.”
The work was a good fit, and Reeser continued on an upward trajectory, rising to the rank of director of entrepreneurial development, then maintaining that title with the FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance after its formation in 2014.
“Kelly came over with FloridaWest and supported me early on in working with all of our business and industry community on workforce development issues,” said Scott Luth, FloridaWest CEO. “And then when we had the opportunity open up for someone to manage and run our small business incubator program, she had the passion and the interest and had been working with entrepreneurs, so we moved her over into that position.”
That incubator, Co:Lab, allowed Reeser to flourish. During her time there, she watched several local startups mature from an idea into a fully operational, profitable business. Among them: Engineering & Planning Resources, a veteran-owned business now doing extensive traffic engineering work with the Florida Department of Transportation, as well as environmental justice work. Intelligent Retinal Imaging Systems (IRIS), which created a new way to diagnose diabetic retinopathy. Paint U, an events company that hosts “glow rage” parties featuring electronic music and washable, glow-in-the-dark paint.
“IRIS entered the incubator with six employees, and they left when they had 30,” Reeser said. “It was a huge job creator. Getting to see the team they were building and the way they went from a few folks hustling to building an actual company, that was my biggest learning experience from them: How do you put in place systems and processes so you can actually build a business and not just a good product?”
Paint U was a lesson in scalability. At first, “They were limited by ability to get their equipment and their people to a place,” Reeser said. “They could do maybe two or three parties a weekend, and they were looking at, how do we scale this business?” By pre-booking shows, adding a marketing partner, and securing buy-in from university systems, the company quickly exploded onto the collegiate and military scenes.
“They became this smooth logistics operation, shipping paint, sending one or two key people to each event, hiring locally the weekend of the event…” Reeser said. “At the point when they left us, they were doing 67 or 68 simultaneous parties across the country.”
Both within and outside the Co:Lab incubator, Reeser continued to build a network. “That next level of that human-to-human, person-to-person connection came very naturally to me,” she said. “I found that I really loved doing that, ‘Have you met so and so?’ The role really allowed me to be very involved in the community.”
The BP oil spill of April 2010 pushed the region’s focus — Reeser’s included — to a broader scale. As state and federal funds were earmarked for Northwest Florida counties, major economic players in the region began to take a deeper look at their long-term economic development plans.
“So, as those things were taking shape behind the scenes,” Reeser said, “Gulf Power and some other regionally based entities said, ‘Let’s spearhead the development of a strategy so, regardless of whether these dollars come to our region or not, this is the direction we need to go to pursue smart economic development.’”
What began as monthly meetings in Pensacola eventually spread east, solidifying a Panhandle-wide economic and entrepreneurial network — Northwest Florida Forward — that included Millaway and TechFarms. “Steve (Millaway) and I really connected on the shared vision of how supporting entrepreneurs must be a key element of an economic development strategy,” Reeser said.
They also agreed on a critical missing piece: funding. “I’d heard companies saying over and over and over again, ‘If I could just have access to capital,’” Reeser said. “‘I can’t get a bank loan, I don’t have any collateral, I don’t have a Great-Aunt Susie who can loan me $50,000…’ I knew it was an issue.”
TechFarms Capital (TFC), on which Millaway had been working for years, was the missing piece Reeser had been seeking. “As we’re looking at the resources that we need to grow, access to capital has remained at the top of the list,” she said. “Because really, if you can get the financing or the money, entrepreneurs are gonna make the great things happen, and they’re gonna really perpetuate the cycle. It’s a key missing resource, and TFC is well positioned to fill that need.”
And with lengthy backgrounds in the regional entrepreneurial scene, TFC has years of legwork behind it and is ready to hit the ground running. “Probably 60 percent of the investment decision is made on the team,” Reeser said. “No matter what they’re building or what they discover down the road, we trust that the team can figure it out and have the grit to build something out of it. The second point is the market size — the total addressable market (TAM). How many things could they potentially sell? Then third, and this is where Steve really lights up, is evaluating the technology. What are they building? Is it able to be protected?”
Reeser and Millaway will serve as co-managing directors of TechFarms Capital, chiefly responsible for fundraising and the selection of early-stage tech startups that will be funded. They will be assisted by a multi-state advisory board comprising experts in all facets of entrepreneurship, technology, and investments.
“What Kelly brings is one, a passion for the sector, a passion for the types of companies that TechFarms is creating and setting up the fund to support,” said Luth, the FloridaWest CEO. “And I think the second thing Kelly brings to the table is she has an understanding of the needs of the early-stage startup companies — particularly here in Pensacola, but that same understanding applies to those kinds of companies across the region.”
Reeser is also excited to see the region’s entrepreneurs featured on a larger scale. “The business model, it’s a known model — obviously there are funds around the country and the world,” she said. “But I feel like the problem and the pain point for our region is there’s just not enough located here. Our companies aren’t even getting a look or getting interest from these venture capitalists.
“Government entities can support and can drive to some extent, but until those citizens, until the entrepreneurs, until the individuals are willing to give back to a community, that’s when you really start to see the change.”