Chris Felipe humbly embraces his role as linchpin, an essential element that guided a local concept into reality with one heck of a bargaining chip.
Having returned to the West Coast with his wife more than two years ago, the seasoned startup investor and entrepreneur hoped to financially back small, potential-packed businesses in the Santa Barbara area.
When Felipe found no such firm catering to that outlet, the Pasadena native searched on until he heard about the Goleta Entrepreneurial Magnet, a partnership of the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, the City of Goleta and UC Santa Barbara to attract and nurture local tech startup businesses.
GEM remained mostly an idea at the time, a notion launched in 2012 but still without a small-business incubator space — or funding — and one that had only recently tapped an executive director in Doug Lynch.
Felipe, 55, decided to lead by example and agreed to fund GEM with $50,000 per year for three years.
The financial commitment allowed Lynch to approach Goleta officials with a similar proposal.
Soon after, the city, UCSB and the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce had pledged the same amount, buying GEM the time necessary to get off the ground and making way for lease of a physical space within the ATK Space Systems building at 600 Pine Ave. in Old Town Goleta.
“I think that was just enough to get them over the finish line,” Felipe told Noozhawk on a recent morning at the downtown Santa Barbara office of his CAF Holdings firm. “What I like about GEM is, in Santa Barbara, there isn’t a strong infrastructure. It’s a great program. Keep these smart, young kids here.”
Felipe is familiar with the stresses of starting one’s own business, an endeavor he took on years ago when he co-founded Sirios Capital Management, a hedge fund in Boston.
He worked for 13 years before that at a Boston mutual fund, and then sold Sirios 10 years ago to morph into a startup investor, commonly called an angel.
“I know how they’re feeling,” Felipe said, noting the stress of being responsible to investors as well as employees. “Angel investing is very, very risky, but quite rewarding if it works out.”
Majoring in economics at UCLA before obtaining a master's degree in business administration, Felipe said it’s easy for him to see “the big picture,” which, in this case, involves getting the word out about GEM to generate more backers.
Tenants are expected to move into the new incubator space in early March, and Felipe has already vowed to help fund a GEM summer accelerator program that would allow entrepreneurs to get a jump-start on starting their businesses right after graduation.
“He was there at the right time,” Lynch said of Felipe. “We used his donation to get everybody else committed. Hopefully, it’ll be a no-brainer that they’ll donate again.”
Regardless of what happens three years from now, it seems Felipe's investment in GEM has already paid off.