Invanti Seeks Entrepreneurs to Help Crack America’s Toughest Problems

When Maria Gibbs and Dustin Mix were working on degrees at the University of Notre Dame a few years ago, they noticed a gap in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

They were used to attacking big problems as part of their university research, but they weren’t seeing similar issues being addressed by entrepreneurs, which they felt was a huge missed opportunity. Gibbs and Mix also saw a lack of transparency in startup communities regarding which startup founders and ventures were supported by investors.

“What are people talking about? Jobs, healthcare, and finances,” she points out. “We’re not seeing a lot of new companies tackling these big problems because they’re complicated.”

So the pair decided to create Invanti, a startup generator based in South Bend, IN. Invanti researches the most urgent challenges Americans are facing to find where social entrepreneurship might be deployed for a scalable solution. Then, Invanti looks for people who want to be entrepreneurs—no previous experience necessary—and puts them in a six-month program to brainstorm further and build early-stage companies.

“South Bend is a place trying to boost its entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Gibbs says. “There’s lots of momentum, and you can put funds together and build incubators, but all of that infrastructure only works if there are startups to feed into it. A startup generator like Invanti is the step before a startup incubator—it’s a process to create companies and attract talent.”

Invanti worked with its first cohort in 2017, and the second cohort will begin in July. (Applications for the second cohort will be accepted between March 30 and May 7.) Last year, the cohort’s theme was financial health; this year’s theme is “supporting small businesses of the future.”

Gibbs says Invanti first defines a problem, such as financial health, and then recruits people who would make great entrepreneurs even though they may not have a specific idea for a company. The recruitment process looks at the person’s track record and past experience, receptiveness to the ideas of others, and ability to move forward despite obstacles.

Five people ended up in the inaugural program last year, and the startups they created ranged from alternative financing for home ownership to financial management for people in addiction recovery. Three of the five founders eventually relocated to South Bend permanently.

“We had a thesis, but we didn’t know if it would work,” Gibbs says. “We thought success might be one venture and two people [in the first cohort], but all five are continuing to work on their ventures. The result was very surprising.”

Gibbs says she and her co-founder intentionally chose to locate Invanti in South Bend because the Midwest “is where the problems we want to solve exist. South Bend is big enough to have problems, but small enough to test them quickly.”

Invanti’s first two cohorts have been funded through partnerships with organizations that focus on talent retention and economic development, Gibbs says. “After our first two cohorts are validated, we’ll move toward a longer-term business model,” she adds, with details still being finalized. Invanti provides all cohort members with a small stipend, and considers the fact that they’re quitting their jobs to move to South Bend to be sufficient “skin in the game.”

In 2018, Gibbs says Invanti will focus in part on making sure the first cohort is successful by connecting them to “downstream mentors.” She hopes to recruit six to eight people for the second cohort starting in June.

“We’re also looking ahead to 2019 and what it means to blow this thing up,” Gibbs says. “We’re really excited to be part of a growing national conversation about investing in people and ideas that don’t fit the typical profile.”

Gibbs says the name Invanti is meant to symbolize rebirth and forward progress. Auto manufacturing used to be a dominant industry in South Bend until plants began closing down in the 1960s, resulting in a long downturn. At one time, Studebakers were made in South Bend. The Avanti was Studebaker’s last model made on the factory line. Invanti is a combination of Avanti, which means “to charge ahead” in Italian, and the word “innovation.”

“We believe strongly in investing heavily in women and people of color,” Gibbs says. “It’s an opportunity to access people who might not have a pathway to entrepreneurship. We’re able to get access to a whole new pool of talent, and we’re introducing diversity into the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

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