Venture Café: Ten Years of Guiding Entrepreneurs

Chuck Andreas leads a discussion at Venture Cafe.

If you’re thinking of starting a business, or you have a great new concept you want to get in front of potential investors, you might want to head down to Kendall Square next Thursday.

That’s where Venture Café, a non-profit offshoot of the co-working space Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), has hosted weekly seminars for the past 10 years. The topics cover everything from robotics and artificial intelligence to energy and clean technology, according to Janice Dru, senior marketing director at the CIC.

A decade after founding CIC, CEO Timothy Rowe and his team “came up with the concept of building an open door environment for entrepreneurs to connect with each other and for innovators to find great new ideas,” according to Dru.

It was clear to them that CIC was effectively supporting firms that had business plans and some financial backing. But, according to the organization’s website, “Money and a plan are important steps in the entrepreneurial process, but in reality they are more like Step 2 or Step 3. What was missing were Step 0 and Step 1—honing ideas, raising money, mentorship, connection to deep knowledge, and general collaboration opportunities.”

So to fill that void, CIC started the Venture Café program in 2009.

“Venture Café events are open to the public as a resource for all entrepreneurs, innovators, and those interested in entrepreneurship or innovation,” says Dru. She adds that locals and visitors from around the world come to the program’s events, which are held at 1 Broadway in Kendall Square, the first of three CIC locations in Kendall Square.

And these are not your run-of-the-mill networking events, but fun gatherings where people can let loose and spitball their business ideas in a casual setting.

“Participants may spend the entire evening in the networking area, which includes up to three free beverages for each participant, or meander around the space to attend sessions that may be held at different times throughout the evening,” says Dru.

The networking furthers a major part of Venture Café’s mission: to get hopeful business leaders in front of potential investors and mentors who can make their dreams into a reality.

To that end, Venture Café offers 30-minute mentoring sessions—also for free and open to the public—with what Dru calls “volunteer experts.” These sessions can be booked online and begin at 3 p.m. every Thursday and go into the evening.

The weekly events also include “pitch sessions,” during which potential start-up founders can put their ideas in front of people looking to invest in the next big thing.

Venture Café aims to knock down other barriers to entry as well. Take large overhead equipment costs, for example: The Innovation Center has teamed with Cambridge’s LabCentral and Boston’s MassRobotics to create shared laboratory and hi-tech equipment. This way, a new company that works at CIC can simply rent the high-end hardware and space it needs to experiment instead of needing a multi-million dollar investment just to get an idea off the ground.

Venture Café also hopes to shrink gender and racial gaps. The organization has tracked its events’ attendance and participation over the past 10 years, and, according to its latest impact report, the effort has been paying off. The share of white or Caucasian Venture Café participants has decreased from a clear majority to just around half between 2010 and 2018, while the share of attendees identifying as men has gone from 77 to 58 percent in the same time frame. (These statistics are from all Venture Café event locations—while they started in Cambridge, they’ve grown to almost a dozen cities around the world).

Regarding investments turning ideas into real businesses, “There isn’t specific information around how many companies started through interactions at VC and how many investor meetings resulted in funding,” Dru concedes, “although there are anecdotal stories to share and an overwhelming positive response from the entrepreneurs who participate in the events.”

One of the program’s selling points is its location. Housed within Cambridge Innovation Center’s first building, the weekly gatherings take place in the center of the Boston area’s technological and entrepreneurial activity. The co-working space functions as the primary office for everyone from independent consultants lawyers to remote employees of larger firms with over a hundred employees. The proximity to Harvard and MIT doesn’t hurt, either.

The program has proven quite popular, with Dru estimating almost 500 people attending the gatherings each week, and some events attracting crowds up to 800.

Venture Café events run from 3 to 8 p.m. every Thursday at 1 Broadway. For more information about Venture Café: venturecafecambridge.org. For a list of CIC Events: cic.com/events.

This story originally appeared in the Technology & Transportation Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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