Longtime Member Discusses How Startups Can Connect with Investors, How to Learn from a Loss
A JumpStart NJ member since 2006, Mario Casabona served as chairman 2009-2013, and has been on the Board of Trustees since 2013. He has been an active angel investor since 2007. Casabona is the founder and managing director of TechLaunch, a business accelerator program in which early-stage startups receive advance mentoring that guides them toward investors. Casabona started his career in R&D at companies such as ITT Avionics; Kuras-Alterman; and Raytheon before he launched his own startup, Electro-Radiation Inc. (ERI). He morphed from a design engineer to the founder of a high-tech defense electronics company with national as well as international government customers.
Why did you join JumpStart NJ?
After exiting ERI and taking a few months to figure out my career options, I decided to become an angel investor with the goal of helping launch tech startups while contributing to New Jersey’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. I had pitched to JumpStart a few years earlier and was turned down. There I met some really smart and like-minded folks such as Wayne Tamarelli, Greg Olsen and John Martinson. . . so when the opportunity to join presented itself, I ‘jumped’.
Why were you interested in angel investing initially?
After leaving Honeywell and exploring my next career move…between another startup or investing in several startups…I decided to become an investor in early-stage companies…thus my career as a professional angel investor. I’ve probably invested (initial and several follow-on rounds) in over 50 startups plus venture funds. I’ve never looked back. Learned so much from the entrepreneurs I have met and built many terrific relationships with investors and advisors along the way. Most importantly, my thirst for risk and knowledge and an opportunity in supporting the regional entrepreneurs was being satisfied.
Tell us about a noteworthy investment you made through JumpStart NJ.
It’s the nature of the beast (in this business) to suffer more losses than wins, but when you shepherd a successful exit, it’s especially satisfying. Emotionally, I concentrate on both the successes and the busts as learning experiences. An early such experience was with a company called Common Ground Inc., which specialized in tire recycling technology. As a new angel investor, I really wanted to believe in the concept and team. So much so that I took it to the Middle East for a potential sales opportunity and - in the least - an exciting vacation. I thought it had all the ingredients for success. . . alas it was not meant to be. Conversely, and a few short years later, I became very familiar with a hi-tech defense electronics company (RaySat), in an industry with which I was already quite familiar. When the right opportunity came along, I brought it to JumpStart NJ as the lead investor. 18 months later we had a really nice exit. What I have learned is this: the team with the right mixture of experience, commitment, common personal goals, as well as the ability to be agile and persistent, embodies the key virtues common to most successful companies.
What is the most common mistake a founder makes when seeking funding?
The most common mistake is a lack of knowledge or understanding about the investor’s interests, investment goals and strategy. Ideally, they should match the founding company’s own objectives and exit strategy.
Advice for someone about to present to JumpStart or another angel fund?
Get to know some of the angel investors at JumpStart NJ or another angel group. Have your trusted advisors, such as your accountant or law firm, make a referral. Even better, have one of the angel investors sponsor, or recommend, you to present. Somehow get mentored by one of the potential investors. They’ll get to know you and your company while doing so. Most angel investors are successful entrepreneurs who enjoy mentoring and sharing their experiences. As an example, one of the JumpStart members was recently introduced to a founder needing mentoring. The investor took a liking to the founder and got to understand the product. I shortly anticipate that the investor will sponsor the company to present at one of JumpStart’s monthly meetings. Another way is to participate in JumpStart NJ’s Meet-the-Angels events.
How do you spend your free time when not angel investing?
I enjoy traveling whenever practical and spending long weekends and holidays at our Catskills retreat with friends and family. Our all-time favorite travel destination is Italy because of my wife's and my shared heritage and family roots. Spending time mentoring and coaching founders and entrepreneurs ranks high on the list too. I also enjoy participating on boards of directors and advisors for venture-backed startups, universities and community-minded business organizations.
Tell us about TechLaunch and any relationship with JumpStart NJ.
I was fortunate to have already built deep relationships with JumpStart members when I seized upon the opportunity to participate with the NJ Economic Development Authority (EDA) in creating New Jersey’s first tech accelerator, TechLaunch. Its original mission was to foster and support seed-stage tech startups in the tri-state region by training, mentoring, and providing access to capital via a 16-week accelerator program which culminated in a demo day. More recently, TechLaunch has become a business accelerator focused on mentoring and providing access to capital through our partnerships with metropolitan area seed-stage investors. JumpStart NJ Angel Network, SoundBoard Venture Fund, Westchester Angels, and Tech Council Venture Fund are some of our investor partners. The program culminates in the semi-annual BullPen pitch competitions with the winner getting in-kind services from our professional services partners and, most importantly, the opportunity to present at our investment partners’ investment committees.