Sam Sezak ’98 remembers the moment when he first conceived of Red Bear Angels (RBA). He was invited to serve as a judge at an Entrepreneurship at Cornell (eShip) event in 2012. “I gladly accepted, as I love to return to Cornell and stay connected to a place that is very near and dear to my heart,” he says.
Angel investing connects entrepreneurs with “angels”—experienced, successful, and passionate investors who are eager to support them. At the time, angel groups were just taking off at some of Cornell’s peer institutions, and the eShip event included a panel discussion on this topic. “The lightbulb went off,” Sam says. “I was kind of amazed that no one had launched a Cornell angel group yet.”
Today, Red Bear Angels is an active community of 1,000+ Cornell entrepreneurs and about 100 active investors. Over the past nine years, RBA has made 30 investments, including several “unicorns”—the industry term for investments that are now valued at over $1 billion. These include Lyft and Trumid, as well as GrokStyle (acquired by Facebook) and Datalogue (acquired by Nike).
RBA connects Cornell entrepreneurs to a select network of alumni who are looking to invest in startups. RBA members include seasoned executives, investors, and innovators who can offer founders advice, insights, and capital across a breadth of industries. In return, RBA investors gain access to early-stage, high-potential investment opportunities.
Datalogue: startup success story
“When I first met Tim Delisle, I could tell instantly that he was one of Cornell Tech’s rising stars. He founded Datalogue to help large companies make sense of their otherwise unstructured data. Red Bear Angels aggregated capital from several members to invest in Datalogue as the company’s first money in. Tim and his team grew the company into a success, and the company was purchased by Nike in February 2021.”
—RBA member, Meghan Cross ’08
Nine years ago at the Statler
At the 2012 eShip event, Sam approached John Alexander ’74, MBA ’76, founder of the CBORD Group, Inc., a systems integration firm based in Ithaca, NY. John was selected as Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012 and had just accepted his award. “That’s when I introduced myself,” Sam says, “and it was not by chance.”
Sam shared his idea for starting a Cornell-focused angel investment group to connect Cornell entrepreneurs and Cornell derived innovations with an extensive network of alumni investors. His idea was to engage successful Cornellians in funding the next generation of Big Red entrepreneurs. “I determined early in my career that I wanted to work with innovators and creators and people who would follow their dreams,” Sam says.
John acknowledges that he had long had a similar vision. The meeting at the Statler allowed them to connect the dots. “I had always hoped that one day a group of Cornellians would coalesce and begin to support our great startups when they needed angel funding support,” he says. “Red Bear Angels has been one of the more interesting opportunities for ‘adult education’ that I’ve had,” John adds.
The timing was perfect, as RBA would be well positioned to serve the needs of the tech startups that would shortly be sprouting from the Cornell Tech campus.
Biotia: startup success story
“I first met CEO and cofounder Niamh O’hara when she was in the early days of developing Biotia out of the Jacobs-Technion Institute at Cornell Tech, where she was a Runway Startup Postdoc. We sought out the industry expertise of Howard Morgan PhD ’68 and RBA member and biomedical engineer Max Zamkow to collate diligence for our membership. RBA members invested in the earliest round of financing, and Biotia has recently announced a significant development towards the mitigation of COVID-19.”
—RBA member, Meghan Cross ’08
An instant warm connection with alumni
Sam previously worked as portfolio manager for New Vantage Group, a DC-based company specializing in early-stage venture funding, where he co-managed a portfolio of over $35 million and 35 early-stage companies. There, he learned the ins and outs of angel investing, and was well prepared to take on the challenges of founding the Cornell angel group.
Sam spent the first year reaching out to alumni, to float the idea of starting a Cornell angel fund. John helped Sam connect to dozens of alumni, gather their feedback, and build out an informal network before officially launching RBA in 2013.
“John’s help was invaluable because the introductions he made to successful Cornell alumni brought me credibility and an instant warm connection that I wouldn’t otherwise have had,” Sam explains. “Their feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and the help they offered was through the roof,” he adds.
In 2013, RBA officially convened its first board meeting. In addition to Sam and John, the original co-founders and board members included Drew Bagin ’04, Harvey Kinzelberg ’67, Gus Warren ’94, and Thatcher Bell ’97.
Their first investment was the New York Code and Design Academy (NYCDA), a startup with a mission to teach “everyone to code.” This investment opportunity was introduced by Cornell alum and successful entrepreneur Dan Sommer ’97. “Dan described all the reasons why it was a good opportunity,” Sam recalls. “We invested in early 2014, and in less than two years NYCDA sold to Strayer University for a nice return,” he adds.
Over the past seven years, RBA has expanded its advisory board to include alumni entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The expanded board has brought together people with diverse skills sets across many domains, into a growing network of investors.
Urban Umbrella: startup success story
“When Meghan Cross first brought us in to present the opportunity to Red Bear Angels, we shared specs of a design and a vision. RBA members got it and became our first investor. Ever since, we have benefitted from the advisory support of RBA members like John Alexander, Harvey Kinzelberg, Paul Anagnostopoulos, and Jeff Parker, who is now Urban Umbrella’s Chairman.”
—Ben Krall, CEO of Urban Umbrella
No shortage of great opportunities
As the most populous Ivy League school with the largest engineering program, Sam thinks that Cornell is uniquely situated to sustain a strong angel investment ecosystem.
“Cornell has the largest population of alumni in the Ivy League, so its accredited investor base is second to none,” he explains. “It produces the most engineers in the Ivy League, so innovative ideas are never-ending. The Cornell Tech campus is at the heart of a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem of healthcare, financial services, and data science startups in NYC. Red Bear plays a critical role in this ecosystem,” he adds.
RBA relies on the power of the Cornell alumni network to help startups and their founders to grow and succeed. Alumni offer entrepreneurs help with sales, partnerships, fundraising, strategic direction setting, and corporate governance.
Sam acknowledges there can be challenges in managing the ever-growing network of Cornell alumni, RBA’s large portfolio of deals, and the group’s many events. To help with this, RBA works with MBA and undergrad interns and is always looking for motivated interns and advisors to assist with short- and long-term goals.
Member and founding managing director Meghan Cross ’08 shares that although RBA has only invested in 30 companies, they have looked at many thousands more. “For many of these companies, we’ve made helpful introductions to Cornell alumni, who have shared relevant expertise and advisory support,” she says.
Eversound: startup success story
“Red Bear Angels was the launching point for everything we accomplished after Cornell’s eLab. RBA helped us raise over $12.5M in funding and establish a board of directors with the expertise to grow our business into the national leading hearing solution for aging adults that it is today.”
—co-founder and CEO of Eversound, Jake Reisch ’15