This year marks the first time in three years—since 2019—that CED’s Venture Connect will take place in person. When the pandemic first hit, it sparked a sudden conversion of CED’s 2020 conference—scheduled to start on March 17, 2020—into a virtual format. Last year also saw a virtual offering of the annual event due to continued Covid case concerns.
This year will be different. CED will host over 85 companies that will ultimately pitch live onstage at the Cisco System Campus in RTP during the one-day event on April 7. More than 150 companies applied to present, and more than 600 people have already registered to attend.
To return in person was not a decision that was taken lightly, according to CED’s President and CEO Kelly Rowell.
“It was a hard decision,” Rowell said. “At the end of the day, we wanted to serve our companies as best we could. We felt that an in-person format is the best way to do that. You cannot replicate one-to-one, face-to-face meetings.”
So this year’s Venture Connect was planned with Covid in mind while still creating a beneficial environment for the companies looking for different types of resources and support, Rowell said. Instead of a three-day event, this year’s Venture Connect is only one day to minimize the time spent together indoors. They’ve also added an post-event “tailgate party” celebration that will be held outdoors for maximum safety for the expected large crowd.
The tailgate party’s tickets can be purchased separately for just $99 for startup teams and $199 for everyone else. For the full-day pass, startups pay $249 while general tickets are $499. (Online registration closes next Friday, April 1, at 11:59 p.m. ET.)
So far, registration for Venture Connect 2022 has far surpassed last year’s attendance. Rowell said they will likely have to cap registration at 750 to 800 people for safety reasons.
“I think it’s all a testament that people are ready to get back together,” Rowell said. “But we are also seeing that this event attracts a large audience from out of region, and we’re finding that our investor partners are all getting on planes and coming to see us. They miss visiting North Carolina, and they’re excited to come down and meet the companies face-to-face.”
Live startup pitches return
This year’s conference also brings in a switch from the past year’s virtual focus on interactive panels and pre-recorded pitches to now once again emphasizing the companies’ pitches to a live audience. Venture Connect is also taking place in a new location, Cisco’s Global Event Center.
“It’s going to be a unique experience all around,” Rowell said of Venture Connect’s move away from a traditional convention center space. “We are leveraging the change that’s happened in work. With big corporate teams going remote, they now have resources and facilities available on a corporate campus.”
Rowell said based on this, CED is exploring the opportunity of having a corporate partner in the future to leverage amenities on what were, pre-Covid, closed campuses.
The tailgate party, held in Cisco’s parking lot, will bring in a live reggae band, North Carolina barbecue and a variety of local breweries.
“It’s exciting to be able to showcase some of that culture of why North Carolina is a great place to build a business in a different type of setting,” Rowell said.
The original Venture Connect conference started in 1984 as the place for startups to get noticed and be seen. At first, the conference happened several times a year. When the entrepreneurial ecosystem in North Carolina grew larger and gained national recognition, one large, overarching annual event made the most sense, Rowell said.
With the new elements and the larger-scale, post-event celebration this year, Rowell hopes the companies attending can make connections to secure capital and scale. Many companies are also looking for talent and partners to accelerate their growth, Rowell said.
“The fact that we are in a new location with a new experience, with a really big celebration, my hope is that the community comes together to support these companies as they’re growing, and we start to create this momentum behind these companies,” Rowell said.
Venture Connect is also looking for college student volunteers for the event. Any students interested in entrepreneurship or looking to join a startup should reach out on their website.