Giving Businesses Wings: Tri-State Angel Investors

Amanda Gilmore

    An entrepreneur, by definition, is a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money.  When taking such a risk, wouldn’t it be nice to have a guardian angel nearby to help?
    Such earth-bound angels exist, and the Tri-State has its own group of them. The Tri-State Angel Investment Group (TSAIG) has been helping local entrepreneurs get their start since 2014 by investing much needed capital in newly-established enterprises.
    Fourteen local businesses have been “touched by an angel” in the group’s first five years, including three in Boyd and Greenup counties in Kentucky and seven in Lawrence and Scioto counties in Ohio.
    The former and current Ashland Community and Technical College presidents, Dr. Kay Adkins and Dr. Larry Ferguson, were instrumental in the group’s start, as were John Stewart, a regional investor and businessman, and Mick Fosson, owner of a local business consulting firm and the past director of the Northeast Kentucky Innovation Center. With other investors, they raised $1.2 million to help Tri-State businesses grow.
    “We now have 32 accredited investors,” said Fosson, who remains on the group’s executive committee. “There are so many critical contributors to our success that we can’t name them all in this article. Our members are truly outstanding performers and people of the highest integrity.”
    So, what do these angels do? Their private equity fund invests in technology-enabled companies located within 50 miles of Ashland. The new Winchester restaurant in the Delta by Marriott Hotel in Ashland is one of their investments as is the new Marriott across the river in Ironton. Another investment is the PureCycle plastics recycling facility in Hanging Rock.
    “Our goals are No. 1, to be profitable and sustainable; No. 2, to create jobs and wealth in the region; and No. 3, to create new relationships and reinforce old ones across our region, which promotes collaboration and cooperation,” Fosson explained. “We do it by educating and empowering entrepreneurs who create the businesses and jobs.”
    The investment group is led by experienced local business leaders and entrepreneurs who find, fund and mentor private companies with the potential for sustainable, profitable growth while also providing a suitable return for investors.
Nationwide, angel investors poured $228 million into startup businesses in 2019, according to the Angel Capital Association. These angels are the life blood that nourishes start-up businesses across the country, providing nearly 90 percent of early equity capital.
    The Tri-State group is one of eight investment groups under the umbrella of the Appalachian Investors Alliance (AIA), a one-year-old organization funded by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to support angel investment groups and entrepreneurs. The group doesn’t provide money; instead, it provides effort and time as a catalyst and mentor. “We help them be more successful,” explained AIA Chair Don Perry, who also serves as chair of the TSAIG.
    Another important role of the Tri-State Angel Investment Group is encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit in young people. That’s why it is heavily involved in the Glockner Dare to Dream program, a regional high school business pitch competition. In the past four years, more than $90,000 has been awarded to Tri-State students. Boyd County High School will be a first-time participant this spring, joining about 10 other Kentucky schools.
    Steve Moore, a Scioto County business owner, entrepreneur and investor in TSAIG, said Dare to Dream is one of the most enjoyable programs he’s been involved with in his long career. “It’s like "Shark Tank" for high school students. They present their business plans to the judges who decide whether to fund them. It’s really inspiring to hear their ideas and see them so excited about the future.”
    According to national surveys, more than half of Generation Z, the group to which current high schoolers belong, want to own their own business. Having a group of guardian angels looking out for them, mentoring them, and providing funding just might make those dreams come true.