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Oklahoma University program prepares students to work in state’s thriving venture capital scene

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NORMAN – A University of Oklahoma organization continues to impact the state’s investment scene, which continues to grow despite the worldwide ecosystem experiencing a slump.

Founded in 2006 under former university president David Boren, the Ronnie K. Irani Center for Creation of Economic Wealth brings students, entrepreneurs and mentor alumni together to help move the ideas of entrepreneurs forward. According to the university website, the economic development organization specializes in technology commercialization, software business development, social entrepreneurship and agile product design.

Jeff Moore, executive director of the I-CCEW, said the organization has largely stuck to that premise over the last 15 years, but has grown to approximately 100 students that work on small consulting teams on behalf of businesses, entrepreneurs and nonprofits throughout Oklahoma and beyond. The team works on real-world management, consulting and investment analysis of early-stage ideas that need help moving forward.

The programming is funded by Ronnie K. Irani as the main donor, along with alumni who write intellectual checks to the university to help students get the learning experience. Moore said the university benefits from technology that spins out of the university as well as economic development broadly.

“We’re this small program at the university, And yet, we look at venture funds that are in Oklahoma, Oklahoma Life Science Fund, Cortado, Atento and even Boyd Street Ventures, and some corporate ventures, and we sort of have this disproportionate placement of our alumni talent in venture capital in Oklahoma,” Moore said.

Eight professionals in Oklahoma’s venture capital scene are either graduates or former employees of I-CCEW and represent over $300 million of investment capital.

Susan Moring, a principal at Oklahoma City-based Cortado Ventures, said her exposure to the innovation ecosystem through I-CCEW developed her interest in venture capital and allowed her to expand her network in that space.

“I can’t imagine a better place for a young person who is interested in startups and VC to launch their career,” Moring said in a statement.

Nikiel Kim, investor at Atento Capital, said I-CCEW put him in situations outside his comfort zone such as driving discussions with a subject-matter expert and retooling those insights in support of a plan.

“We’re really developing talent, and we want them to stay in Oklahoma, after seeing the cool and exciting early stage companies and technologies that are coming out of here,” Moore said.

Moore said when he started with the organization 14 years ago, the state lacked a noticeable venture capital presence, but in the last few years, he’s seen an explosion in the presence of professional venture funds that have focused on the local economy. In the next decade, he anticipates more than $300 million of new venture funds here in Oklahoma, along with more OU alums with I-CCEW experience working within the local ecosystem.

“I think we’ll see a substantial outcome of early stage companies that are successful because of the presence of this early stage funding,” Moore said.

The local growth Moore referenced is occurring in the face of a downturn in the space worldwide. Q4 was the worst period for the venture market in six years. According to a report by CB Insights, venture capital funding fell to $248.4 billion in 2023, the lowest since 2017. In the U.S., venture deal volume hit a 10-year low last year in the quarter. U.S. companies raised 2,182 equity deals in that period, down 21% QoQ and the lowest quarterly level since 2013.

Moore said the macro environment of rising interest rates has put significant pressure on investments broadly, high growth companies in particular.

“It’s made it harder to get capital, and therefore it’s lowered valuations of existing companies quite a bit. So the venture capital industry as a whole is under a bit of pressure as a result, but in the midst of that, though, we’re seeing this growth of venture in Oklahoma,” Moore said, attributing Oklahoma’s growth trend to increased funding sources and undervalued valuations for Midwest-based early-stage companies.

With Oklahoma’s venture scene on a counter-cyclical trajectory, Moore said I-CCEW continues to produce generalist problem solvers who are equipped to help lead the way and leave a mark on the growing local industry.

“It’s not just business students, but they learn to appreciate and how to integrate business problems with science problems and have the confidence to act and come to a decision whether or not to invest in things,” Moore said. “I think our program really sets people up for success in these kinds of environments, and has had a direct impact on the talent in our venture capital industry.”

The namesake of the program, Ronnie K. Irani, said the program has many positive implications for Oklahoma.

“Developing talent and leaders in our young but fast growing venture capital industry will have a profound long-term economic impact for our city and state,” Irani said.

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