College-sponsored venture capital firm invests in regional internet companies

Just a few years ago, the Williamstown/North Adams economy was thought by many people to be dormant, a relic of the post-industrial Northeast. However, under the leadership of a venture capital firm with close ties to Williams College, the region can be legitimately seen as a veritable Silicon Village.

On Dec. 8, the venture capital firm Berkshire Capital Investors (BCI) launched its second capital funding campaign (BCI II) with a target of raising $10 million, but according to Managing Partner George Kennedy ’48, “we already have in excess of $11 million pledged.” Kennedy said that BCI will continue to seek capital, but that this campaign will be limited to a maximum of $15 million.

BCI completed its first round of funding (BCI I) in early 1997, raising $5 million with a $1 million contribution from Williams College. BCI uses the money provided by investors to purchase stakes in businesses that operate in Berkshire County.

Along with Kennedy, managing partners of the fund include Taylor Briggs ’54 and Robert McGill ’54. Since the fund’s inception, Williams has been committed to providing 20 percent of its fundraising target. Williams has already committed $2 million to BCI II and the commitment could increase as other investments continue.

“It’s a win-win for the community, win-win for the college and win-win for individuals who have jobs and careers that didn’t exist before,” said Williams President Carl Vogt ’58.

“The economic landscape of North County is changing in a very direct way as a result of the investments that have come about through BCI I,” said Helen Ouelette, vice president of administration at Williams.

In its first round, BCI invested in 12 companies, including Tripod, eZiba, Streetmail, Berkshire Wireless, Resounding Technologies and Cambridge Intelligence Agency.

According to Matt Harris ’94, managing director of BCI, the companies that BCI has invested in have created at least 250 jobs in the region, which amounts to four percent of the local economy. “By doubling that amount of money and staff, we can further increase that impact,” he added.

“This wouldn’t be here without the College,” Harris said. “And we’re grateful for their continued support. They’re really a key pillar in what we’re trying to build.”

Kennedy explained the origins of BCI in a committee the college established to improve relationships with the community. “The College is forever stepping up trying to help, but ends up on the short end of the PR schtick, so to speak,” he said.

According to Kennedy, former college Vice President David Healy provided the inspiration for BCI by introducing Kennedy to two important concepts.

The first idea was that the College should seek to attract more businesses and jobs to the area in order to increase the local tax base. This would relax pressure on the college to be such a large financial supporter.

Healy’s second insight to Kennedy was that the College was in need of finding second-job opportunities for spouses of professors. “We attract young instructors to join the faculty, but almost inevitably they require a second income. If we can’t offer an opportunity for that, either they don’t come and we pass up the opportunity for real talent or they do come and they have to leave,” Kennedy said.

“I put my head together with Taylor [Briggs] and Robert [McGill] and we came up with the possibility that a fund of money that would sponsor businesses, which would create jobs might be the most constructive thing to do in terms of what David [Healy] had described,” Kennedy said.

According to Kennedy, “We went back to the college and said we could undertake this venture-capital firm, but in order to do that the college is going to have to lead off by making a substantial investment.”

Along with Williams, several other local businesses have invested with BCI including the Berkshire Life Co., First Massachusetts Bank, The Clark Art Institute and the Crane Co.

“There’s more excitement and momentum in Berkshire County than I would have guessed possible two years ago,” Kennedy said. “Between MASS MoCA, Berkshire Connect, the revitalization of Pittsfield Downtown and the reuse of the GE site, there is more reason for optimism than ever.”

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