A look at the venture fund determined to support people of color

NJIT Innovation Venture Fund will make one-time, $75,000 investments in early-stage startups by members of NJIT community

The NJIT Venture Fund will make one-time, $75,000 investments in early-stage startups by members of the New Jersey Institute of Technology community. And by members of the NJIT community, school officials made it clear that they mean members of underserved communities that have been left out of venture funding in the past.

Simon Nynens, CEO of the New Jersey Innovation Institute, said the fund — which is being formally announced Tuesday — is determined to support innovation while creating social impact.

“The world wants to be a more inclusive, more equitable place — and there are policies put in place now to do this — but who’s going to actually execute those policies?” he asked, and then answered. “There are not many universities that can really act on this. We feel it’s very important.”

Nynens said he and the fund’s other leaders, NJII General Manager/Entrepreneurship Will Lutz and Director of Growth/Entrepreneurship Chelsea Samuelson, are on a mission.

“There are very entrepreneurial minds in Newark, but how do you uncover them — and how do we make sure that they don’t see us as a huge wall where they just cannot get through,” he said. “We have to reach out to the community, start building bridges and give them funding make it real.”

Most studies show that Black and brown founders get only 1% to 2% of venture funding, Nynens said.

“That is a shame,” he said. “It’s a missed opportunity. And we have to correct it. How are we going to do that? By programs like these reaching out, making sure that they understand there’s no discrimination. You will be judged on the creativity of your idea. That’s it. Nothing else.

“As a public university focused on diversity and inclusion and economic mobility, that’s what we are here for.”

Lutz said identifying entrepreneurs is just the first step. Making sure they are funded — so they don’t have to get a day job — is the key to helping them grow.

“Often times, in early-stage investing, founders go to family and friends who may be able to invest $50,000 or $100,000,” he said. “That can happen at a lot of the richer private universities. That’s not usually the case for our students.

“That’s not to say that their ideas are any less creative, or less valuable. But, we all know, if you don’t have that money, there’s no way you can get to the next step.”

Lutz said this is where the fund can step in.

“In the same way that an NJIT education is providing on ramps into established careers, we see this as an on ramp into an entrepreneurial startup career path.

“We’re trying to open up those doors. We’ll be the friends and family for them.”