DALLAS – Noel Geren remembers how alone he felt when he started his first company.
"It was 1998 and back then, there was no entrepreneurial community," said the Frisco serial entrepreneur who last year created a smart irrigation system called Sprinkl, with friend Daniel Pruessner. "There were no incubators, no co-working spaces, no nothing."
Today, the Dallas area is a hotbed of entrepreneurial energy. Private investment in startups and young companies has rebounded after a dismal 2012. And last month, Texas became the latest state to allow equity crowdfunding.
"The amount of startup activity in the last three years has exponentially grown," Trey Bowles, co-founder of the year-old Dallas Entrepreneur Center (DEC), said recently after hosting the second annual State of Entrepreneurship in Dallas. "The different segments – universities, investors, entrepreneurs – are becoming more aware of each other and connecting."
Last month, Startup Angels chose Dallas for a national summit instead of its hometown of Washington, D.C., because "we decided to pick a place that's really growing its startup community," said chief executive Leslie Jump. The group partnered with the DEC.
"I worked in Dallas years ago ... it's really a different place today," said Jump, who also is an angel investor.
Here are some of this year's accomplishments, according to the DEC:
–Ideas: Entrepreneurs pitched 320 ideas and apps.
–Universities: Students on 144 university teams participated in business plan competitions and won $161,500 in cash and prizes.
–Corporations: Companies sponsored nine hackathons and started two innovation centers.
–Startup hubs: Four incubators – IdeaWorks in Fort Worth, Addison TreeHouse, DFW Excellerator in Richardson and The Garage in Dallas – opened this year. D-FW now has nine seed accelerator programs, 11 incubators and 137 new startup companies.
OrderMyGear had customers from the start, but founder Kent McKeaigg realized he needed help getting to the next level. Since the 6-year-old Dallas company graduated from Venture-Spur Dallas' accelerator program last fall, it raised $560,000, grew from six to 18 employees and hired a chief executive officer, a chief operating officer and a sales director.
McKeaigg had connections in San Francisco and New York but decided to raise money from Dallas angel investors. "It's not about shopping the deal. It's about growing the company."
–Investments: Texas was one of the nation's most active angel areas in the second quarter, accounting for 12 percent of 206 deals and 9 percent of $594 million raised, according to the Halo Report.
Kevin Vela, a startup lawyer and founder of Dallas Angel Network, thinks increased angel activity will lead to more venture capital investments. Venture capitalists invested $323 million in 32 North Texas companies in the first nine months of 2014.
FundingPost, a Connecticut-based network that matches entrepreneurs and investors, recently held its first Dallas investor forum since 2012. Director Joe Rubin said he plans to hold three events in Dallas next year.
"We've gotten lots of emails from investors about coming back to Dallas," Rubin said. "Some have been there for a while and some are new, that's a sign the market is doing well."
There's no doubt the D-FW area has seen more awareness of and activity among startups, but area startup lawyer Ryan Roberts wonders if fundings and exits – when a startup either goes public or is sold – have increased much.
"We've had a lot of pep rallies, but I don't know if we've had a lot of touchdowns," Roberts said. "I think we need three to seven more years."
ZS Pharma in Coppell raised $107 million in an initial public offering – Texas' first biotech IPO in a decade. It was a Tech Fort Worth incubator company in 2009.
Bowles acknowledged that not every startup company gets funded or has an exit strategy.
"That doesn't happen overnight," he said. "I'm extremely hopeful of what will happen in the next 12 to 18 months."
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