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Chenoa Farnsworth: Blue Startups partner hopes to grow Hawaii’s entrepreneurial sector

By Maureen O’Connell
Posted December 30, 2016



Three years ago, when the state-run HI Growth Initiative — created to attract private investment to Hawaii’s innovation sector — began to take shape, so did Blue Startups, a Honolulu-based startup support program.

The two are now teaming up to host the third East Meets West Conference, which will assemble scores of entrepreneurs and investors from Hawaii, Asia and North America in Honolulu next month. An opening party slated for Jan. 18 will be open to the public.

“There has never been a better time to start a company in Hawaii than right now because there are so many resources for that early-stage company to get off the ground,” said Chenoa Farnsworth, a managing partner at Blue Startups, which was
founded by Henk Rogers of Blue Planet Software and Tetris video game fame.

Farnsworth first lived in Hawaii as a teenager. After leaving for college on the mainland and a subsequent Washington, D.C.-based career in health policy issues, she moved back to pursue an MBA, and in 1999 — at the height of the dot-com boom — quickly immersed herself in the fledgling local technology sector.

“I got fascinated with the whole thing,” she said of her ongoing work with startup
business strategy and private equity investing.

After weathering the dot-com bust — followed in the islands by a slow-and-steady regrowth led by co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators — Farnsworth is encouraged by Gov. David Ige’s recent push to earmark $10 million in his proposed state budget for HI Growth’s continued support of public-private partnerships. With the initiative’s help, she said, Blue Startups has so far invested in 60 companies that have raised $60 million and created 200 jobs.

Question: You have said that the innovation sector holds the key to our future in Hawaii. How’s that?

Answer: While the tourism sector is strong, it cannot keep up with our growth requirements. We want to create more high-paying “knowledge worker” jobs. Really, the only solution … is innovation and technology. It is very low-impact in terms of the environment and very high-impact in terms of the pay that we can expect from that industry and also the level of interest among young people.

Q: Blue Startups describes itself as a “thriving early-stage entrepreneurial ecosystem.” How does an aspiring entrepreneur gain entrance to your program, or ecosystem? Is a good idea enough?

A: It’s competitive. So, yes, you need a good idea. More importantly, with the companies we work with, you need a good team. Initially, that’s what we look at most. Is this a team that can execute on this business plan? … We get to know the team and understand their strengths and whether they’ve got what it takes.

Our accelerator program is a little bit like an MBA on steroids. It’s 14 weeks of intensive learning. We take them through everything from how to incorporate to how to get funded and market your product. We provide space, services and funding.

Q: Who’s knocking at the entrepreneurial door these days?

A: We’re seeing a diverse group of people coming through Blue Startups. In general, we’re seeing a cultural shift in Hawaii with this new generation of young people. I do think that back in the day, so to speak, there was more reticence to go out on your own. That was not a culturally acceptable path. … You’d want to go work for the government or get a stable job. Now our young people are seeing entrepreneurship as a path. And I think what’s so hopeful about that is entrepreneurs and new companies create new jobs.

Q: If state lawmakers go ahead and allocate $10 million for HI Growth, how would the money be spent?

A: It would really go to a doubling down on efforts already underway. Now is the time to stay the course. … In other cities around the country that have really put an effort into building this type of sector, it takes about 20 years of concerted effort. … If we continue on this path, we will get there. I have no doubt about that.

Q: What are those efforts already in place?

A: There are three. One is supporting early-stage mentorship programs like Blue Startups. There are several of them, and all of those funds are matched by private dollars. … In order to get that money, we have to raise private funding. Then it’s just leveraged by the state funding. Also, some of that HI Growth money goes to match private investor money in early-stage venture capital funds. The third (effort) supports events throughout the community that bring investors and  companies together. The networking activities are key to building an ecosystem. We need all of those parties, so to speak, to bring people together so that they can meet, mix, mingle, start companies, start conversations that end up, hopefully, in deals getting done.

Q: That’s what the East Meets West conference aims to do?

A: Yes. We’re showcasing, basically to the world, that Hawaii has startups, Hawaii can compete. Hawaii can be known for something other than beaches and palm trees. We’re bringing in investors from Asia and the mainland (managing a total of more than $1 billion) and are showing them what we have. Every time we do that — this is our third year — it really opens a lot of eyes.

Q: What do the visiting investors find most eye-opening?

A: The quality of our companies. I think there’s an assumption: “Oh, well, they might have startups out there but they’re probably not competitive.” And that’s not true. So many investors are now coming back because they have found good companies here that they’ve invested in and want to get access to that deal-flow again.

Q: What do you say to the complaint that Hawaii startups with big potential eventually take off for the mainland to tap the vast resources there?

A: That is totally true in a sense. We are a small economy. There’s 1.4 million people here. If we took a company that was based here and said: “You have to stay here,” it’s like tying a hand behind their back. So I think it’s really about re-framing what is happening. And the way I put it is: “Good news our companies are expanding.” Most of them stay here, too. They have offices here, they’re employing people here. But, yes, they are growing and opening offices in San Francisco or Hong Kong. I’m celebrating those successes.

For example, Volta Charging started here. Their electric-car charging stations are at Kahala and Ala Moana malls. They have staff here who service clients (on Oahu and Maui). They also have an office in San Francisco (and charging stations there as well as in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Chicago).

Q: When Blue Startups opened, it focused on internet, software, mobile, gaming and e-commerce. Is that lineup changing?

A: Our first priority is to serve the local market. Whatever our local, smart entrepreneurs are coming up with, that’s what we want to fund. Priority No. 2 is looking at companies outside of our local market that we think we can serve. In other words, we have strategic advantage in helping them — primarily that’s in that East-meets-West thesis. It is companies from Asia that are trying to get into U.S. markets, and U.S. companies wanting to enter Asian markets. We’re looking for that confluence.

The more those two worlds become closer together from a business perspective … it’s important for Hawaii to plant a flag and say: “We’re open for business. We can serve both markets.”

Q: What sorts of new technologies or related industries do you see on the horizon?

A: We’re excited about eSports — competitive video-gaming for money. That’s an industry that’s on a very rapid trajectory. Straight up. … There are teams that are funded and sponsored and go through training just like an NBA team, but it’s to play head-to-head video games in stadiums. The future of that industry is expected to be huge.

We have a couple of companies in that space. One that collects data analytics from the best players and sells it to the novice players.

Q: Looking back on your tenure of nearly two decades in business here, how has the local innovation sector changed over the years?

A: We’re getting smarter about what Hawaii can bring to the party. We’re not going to be the next Silicon Valley. I think it’s really important for us to understand that and stop comparing ourselves and thinking that formula is going to work for us. … We’re unique. We are finding out what works for us now. That vision has to be aligned with who we are and what we believe in as a community.

The Best Advice 11 Inspiring Women In Tech Would Give To Their College Selves

By Natalie Au, Forbes – December 29, 2016

“You’re not even an engineer — why are you so involved in the movement to advance women in tech?” This is a question I’ve been asked multiple times since starting the Hong Kong chapter of the global nonprofit Girls in Tech earlier this year. The answer is simple: I’m not an engineer, true, but what I am is an advocate for gender equality and sustainable development across different issues and industries in the world.

The international lack of women in tech is one of the issues I’ve chosen to dedicate my time to, because it’s a problem both intrinsically and instrumentally: the fact that women aren’t in tech merely because of their gender is a problem in itself, and its negative effects bring another problem as equal opportunities to access and shape technology are essential to further equality in other areas. When solved, its impact also has the potential to snowball into immense benefits to technological innovation, which I believe would in turn advance international development.

As I spoke with more and more people working on this issue, it became increasingly clear that providing mentorship for women in tech is crucial as one of the solutions. However, not everyone will have access to mentorship programs or be able to get in touch with someone they wish to be mentored by, especially people who are just beginning their tech career in college. That’s why I decided to talk with some amazing women in tech whom I look up to — engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists — and to ask them, looking back, what advice would they give to their to their college selves. I hope their answers can provide a little online mentorship and inspire you the way they have inspired me!

“Don’t be held back by stereotypes. If it’s something you’re passionate about and you believe you can do it, go for it. So many times I’ve said to myself, ‘Is this something I can do? I don’t know, just try!’ And every time I try, I realize that anything can be done. It’s a matter of time, effort, and attitude.”

-Advice from Jenny Lee, Managing Partner, GGV Capital to her college self (BS and MS in Engineering at Cornell in 1995, and an MBA at the Kellogg School of Management in 2001)


Photo courtesy of Avni Shah

“Take the time to explore as much possible. You have a unique opportunity to try out different disciplines, activities, and classes to discover interests you didn’t even know you had. Don’t worry so much about what it means for your ‘career’ — this exploration will ultimately open doors, not close them. By knowing what’s possible and what excites you, you’ll be able to forge your own path.”

 – Advice from Avni Shah, VP of Product Management, Google to her college self (BS in Computer Science & Electrical Engineering at MIT in 2003)

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Pham

“Collaborate to learn. Join different organizations that are representative of different industries and obtain positions that will help you learn different skill sets in each. For example, become the editor for your school newspaper but also become a producer for your school musical. This will help you learn much earlier on in life what you are passionate about and what you are good at. Keep an open mind, and have fun all along the way. The friends you make today will become your greatest business collaborates tomorrow, and looking back, you will be grateful for your ongoing relationship built on a history of trust and friendship.”

– Advice from Tiffany Pham, Founder and CEO, Mogul, Inc. to her college self (BA in Economics and International Studies at Yale in 2008 and MBA at Harvard Business School in 2012)

“Force yourself outside of your comfort zone to experience new things and establish relationships with people from many different cultures and backgrounds. The best part of college is the exposure. I did a lot of awesome things: studied abroad in Japan, became active in Stanford athletics, and spent a semester at an Historically Black University. However, my biggest regret was not stretching myself further.”

– Advice from Stephanie Lampkin, Founder and CEO, Blendoor to her college self (BS in Management Science and Engineering at Stanford in 2006 and MBA at MIT Sloan in 2013)


Photo courtesy of Edith Yeung

“Volunteer to work for the best people in the industry you really want to get into. No need to worry about title or pay. Once you get into the company, talk to everyone. Meet as many people as possible and learn as much as you can about how the business works. And remember to always follow up. Do what you said you would do.”

– Advice from Edith Yeung, Partner, 500 Mobile Collective Fund to her college self (BS in Industrial Management at Purdue University in 1998)


Photo courtesy of Chenoa Farnsworth

“Be aggressive. You have all the goods – be confident! Sometimes it may feel that’s not what society expects of women, but just keep going and be bold. In my experience, women tend to be over prepared and under-confident. It’s important to match your competence with your confidence.”

– Advice from Chenoa Farnsworth, Managing Partner, Blue Startups to her college self (BA in Political Science & Government at UC Santa Cruz in 1992 and MBA at the University of Hawaii in 2000)

“Don’t be afraid to take risks. You don’t have to have it all figured before taking the first step toward your dreams. Trust your intuition, believe in your brilliance, and take advantage of the opportunities in front of you.”

– Advice from Brit Fitzpatrick, Founder and CEO, MentorMe to her college self (BA in Journalism at Howard University in 2009 and MA in Digital Media Marketing at the University of Memphis in 2011)


Photo courtesy of Shalini Govil-Pai

“Do not be intimidated by people who have experience, but know that it’s the young that change the world and just speak your mind — because that’s what the world (including the experienced leaders) need and want from you.”

– Advice from Shalini Govil-Pai, Director and Global Head of Partner Product Solutions, YouTube to her college self (BS in Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay in 1990 and MS in Computer Science at Penn State in 1992)


Photo courtesy of Isa Watson

“Take initiative and create your own opportunities. I proactively sought out ways to network with employees of companies I wanted to work for (school events, community events, or other), then learn a bit more about their initiatives and listen for what their gaps were. After that, it was just a matter of proposing to the right team member a project that I could take on to help – even as an unpaid intern during the semester.”

– Advice from Isa Watson, Founder and CEO, Envested to her college self (pursuing a BS in Chemistry at Hampton University in 2008, an MS in Pharmacology at Cornell in 2011, and an MBA at MIT Sloan in 2013)


Photo courtesy of Adriana Gascoigne

“Get to know your professors. They aren’t just people giving you lectures and homework. Think of them as your allies — they’ll be great future resources for you if you give them the chance. College professors became some of my most powerful early career mentors; they wrote reference letters for me; they also offered up their connections when I needed them.”

– Advice from Adriana Gascoigne, Founder and CEO, Girls in Tech to her college self (BA in Sociology and Economics at UC Davis in 2000)


Photo courtesy of Sandhya Sriram

“Be fearless and just do it. If you’re just sitting there and contemplating, things will never move forward. The world is so fast-paced now that there is no time to sit and think for too long. Don’t think about the pros and cons too much – if you have an idea that you can’t get out of your head, just go for it! I’m sure your family and friends will support you too, once they see the spark that your project lights in you. Always try and always ask – because if you don’t, you’ll never know. If you try and it’s a no, then so be it. You won’t lose anything. But if it’s a yes? You’ll open the door to infinite possibilities.”

– Advice from Sandhya Sriram, author; Co-founder, Biotechin.Asia; and Founder and CEO, SciGlo to her college self (BS in Microbiology and MS in Biotechnology at the University of Madras in 2008 and a PhD in Biological Sciences at Nanyang Technological University in 2013)

Hawaii Governor Will Propose $10 Million of State Budget Be Used to Help Build Innovation Sector

By Kathryn Mykleseth, The Honolulu Advertiser – 12/13/2016



Gov. David Ige, source: flickr

Hawaii Gov. David Ige has pledged to propose $10 million of the state budget be used to help build the innovation sector.

Ige said he would request the funds be used for the state-run HI Growth Initiative, which was created to attract private investment to innovation in Hawaii.

“It really is about how we can encourage and invest in our people and our companies,” Ige said Monday as keynote speaker at a Hawaii Venture Capital Association luncheon focusing on a statewide startup collaboration called Startup Paradise.

Ige said he is committed to creating more innovation jobs to build career opportunities that young people want in the state.

“We all know the story of our children going away to college and never coming back,” Ige said. “It’s about stopping that brain drain. … That’s what Startup Paradise means to me.”

Ige said that to build a successful sector, the state needs to improve the quality of public education, and the government has to keep up with the changing community.

Meli James, head of new ventures at Honolulu investment firm Sultan Ventures, said a supportive government is vital to creating more opportunities for companies in the growing industry.

“Government support is crucial to the startup ecosystem,” she said.

Tarik Sultan, managing partner at Sultan Ventures, said the number of startups that are part of Hawaii’s Startup Paradise has grown exponentially. There are now 145 companies in the innovation community, up from 18 in 2012 when the collective effort to build an innovation sector in the state was launched.

“Startup Paradise has really taken off,” Sultan said. “Every year there is exponential growth, exponential momentum.”

Startup Paradise is a coalition of startup boot-camp programs, investment firms and co-working spaces in Hawaii seeking to promote and brand innovation in Hawaii. The coalition includes Blue Startups, Energy Excelerator, Sultan Ventures and the University of Hawaii’s startup program XLR8UH.

Sultan said that according to a survey of four accelerators in the state, startups created more than 1,000 jobs over the last four years and raised more than $251 million across the budding ecosystem.

James said in addition to HI Growth Initiative, investing in the University of Hawaii, Hawaii’s High Technology Development Corp. and the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii also would help the ecosystem thrive.

©2016 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Startup accelerator Blue Startups names companies in latest cohort

Read the original article by Anna Hrushka of Pacific Business News here.

Henk Rogers

Henk Rogers, founder of Blue Startups

Honolulu-based business accelerator Blue Startups has revealed the list of the eight companies accepted into its eighth cohort.

The list includes two fantasy sports platforms, two apps designed to improve communication between property owners and their guests or residents, a subscription-based online yoga resource, an automobile buying and selling platform, a hotel marketplace specializing in suites and a real estate crowdfunding platform.

Blue Startups told Pacific Business News on Wednesday that it received a record 350 applicants for its latest program.

Each business will be given $25,000 up front and have the opportunity to receive a total investment of $100,000 from the startup accelerator. Each can pitch for an additional $25,000 at the end of the cohort and can ask Blue Startups for another $50,000 after the program if the business is able to raise $250,000 separately with a lead investor.

Blue Startups Program Director Jared Kushi said Hawaii makes strategic sense for many of the companies in the program.

“Strategic interest in Hawaii includes access to Asian markets, hospitality industry and gaming interests, leveraging our relationship with Tetris,” Kushi said. Blue Startups co-founder Henk Rogers owns the rights to the iconic video game.

“We are very excited about this cohort coming from all over the world — Tel Aviv (Israel), Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada), San Francisco — and four companies from Hawaii including a company from Maui, as we want to reach out to more Neighbor Island entrepreneurs,” Kushi said.

The public can meet representatives of the new round of startups during an open house on Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. The event will take place at Blue Startups’ headquarters in Downtown Honolulu at 55 Merchant St., Suite 1700.

Here are the eight companies that Blue Startups selected for its eighth cohort:

The Condo App
The Condo App attempts to cut out the paper trail between property owners and their residents through the use of its mobile app. The app allows managers to send push notifications to residents, make important documents available and showcase property or events through videos and photos. The app lets residents reserve recreation areas, register their guests’ vehicles and request maintenance to their units. According to the Hawaii-based company’s website, it already lists Imperial Plaza, 1717 Ala Wai and the Hokua as clients.

Hostfully is another platform designed to make communication easier for property owners. Based in San Francisco, Hostfully targets people who’ve listed their homes on multiple home-sharing platforms and allows them to create guidebooks for their guests. The platform’s home information section gives guests access to step-by-step instructions, photos and videos of a home’s unique features.

Draft Fantasy
Tel Aviv-based Draft Fantasy is a free fantasy sports league for fans of the English Premier League, the U.K.’s top tier soccer league. Users can join existing leagues or create their own public or private leagues.

Virtual Fantasy League
Vancouver-based Virtual Fantasy League combines in-game play with real-world sporting events. On its website, the company says it “has developed a proprietary analytics and scoring system with patent-pending real-world gamification technology.”

Mojo Yoga
Mojo Yoga is a subscription-based online yoga resource based in Maui that gives instructors access to a global audience. Yogis can stream classes as well as receive personalized feedback from teachers by sending in their own videos. Among the company’s goals is to give yoga instructors a chance to build residual income by posting their classes online.

Suite3Sixty is an online travel agency specializing in hotel suites. The platform, co-founded by Associa Hawaii President Doug Hesley, includes local clients such as the Sheraton Waikiki, The Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider.

Also based in Hawaii, RoxyCar is a buying and selling platform that allows users to place bids on vehicles from over 1,000 live wholesale auctions in real time. Users can have cars shipped directly to their doorsteps, complete with a factory warranty and money-back guarantee.

RealtyReturns is a crowdfunding platform where investors can invest in individual properties for relatively little money. Users can sign all legal documents and invest online in under 10 minutes. According to its site, the San Francisco-based platform “allows investors to participate with less capital than most REITs [real estate investment trusts] require.” RealtyReturns aims to cut out the middlemen, therefore reducing overall fees. The site offers minimum investments as low as $1,000.

Blue Startups Expands Asia Strategy



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Partnership with Korean Accelerator

Hebronstar signingMOU Signing Ceremony in Honolulu

Blue Startups has partnered with Korean based accelerator and international consultancy Hebronstar. Hebronstar Strategy Consultants operates in 7 regional offices across 5 countries consisting of South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and China. Together we are developing a joint program for Korean startups – providing programming in Seoul and Hawaii for a handful of selected high-growth Korean technology startups. The program is being run in conjunction with the Korean government’s K-Global Startup Booster program.

Casey Lau Joins Blue Startups

casey blueCasey Lau

With an eye towards doing more business in Asia, Blue Startups recruited Casey Lau, a technology and business development professional that has spent the last 20 years in Hong Kong. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Casey Lau is one of Hong Kong’s tech startup pioneers, having launched one of the first HK-based web design studios; co-founded Hong Kong’s first e-commerce company; a new media development agency and StartupsHK – a community of startups, investors and connectors.

Casey speaks regularly around the world at events and conferences from Japan to China to the U.K. and the U.S. focusing on Asia’s startup scene and is the co-host of the RISE conference – Asia’s largest startup conference. For the past 4 years he has headed up the Asia-Pacific arm of Community for IBM SoftLayer’s Global Entrepreneurship Program.

Casey will serve as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Blue Startups’ 8th cohort starting in October and will transition to Venture Partner after that, continuing to build bridges to Asia for Blue Startups and Hawaii.

East Meets West Pitch-Off

Interested in pitching at East Meets West this year?

We will select 5 Asia based startups and 5 US based startups for our East Meets West All-Stars Pitch-Off in conjunction with East Meets West 2017. Companies need to have won a pitch competition in their region prior to qualify to pitch EMW. Companies should be seed stage having taken in less than $1 million USD in funding. Selected companies will pitch in front of a panel of international investors from both sides of the Pacific. Winning companies will have option to go through the next cohort of Blue Startups, in addition to other prizes. Complete our online form to apply..better yet, get recommended by one of our regional friends: 500 Startups, SoGal, Technode, NEST, Brinc, 0-1 Booster, Creww, Startup Stadium Taiwan, AtWork, and China Accelerator.

EMW pitch

EMW bugs 2017-02


East Meets West is the startup event of the year in Hawaii – bringing together investors and entrepreneurs from Asia, Hawaii and North America. EMW’17 features amazing international speakers, deep-dive learning opportunities, and ample networking in a tropical Startup Paradise. We look forward to seeing you there!

Watch our 2016 Highlights Video!


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©2016 Blue Startups | 55 Merchant Street Suite 1700

Small Business Trends Top 20 Business Accelerator

Blue Startups was named one of the top 20 business accelerators in the US by Small Business Trends, an award-winning online publication for small business owners, entrepreneurs and the people who interact with them, and the premier source of information, breaking news and advice covering issues of key importance to small businesses.

View the whole list here:

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