He writes 'small checks to big ideas'

‘Whit' Whitney helps entrepreneurs build prototypes that can be taken to market

David 'Whit' Whitney, the first entrepreneur in residence at the University of Florida College of Engineering, helps students and faculty start companies around their ideas.

Brad McClenny/Staff
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 at 3:48 p.m.

David "Whit" Whitney came to Gainesville to further his career in real estate investment and ended up drawing on his experience in venture capital to get involved in local technology startup companies as mentor and investor.


David 'Whit' Whitney

Occupation: Entrepreneur in residence, University of Florida College of Engineering; managing director, Energent Ventures
Personal: Single
Pets: None
Dream partners for lunch: "My parents and my sister."
Favorite book: "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand
Favorite movie: "The Big Lebowski"
Favorite listening: The Rolling Stones
Passions: "Doing well by doing good."
Education: Bachelor's, Boston University; MBA, University of San Francisco; master's, University of Florida

Through his Energent Ventures company, he has invested in six technology companies that either started or reside in Gainesville and for the past three years has served as the first entrepreneur in residence at the University of Florida College of Engineering, helping students and faculty start companies around their ideas.

Whitney spent 10 years working for Deloitte's venture capital practice in Silicon Valley, working with companies in technology, software, digital media and online education.

While there, he made connections with investors in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and moved there in May 2008 to invest in real estate and technology, just in time for the global financial crisis to flare up.

"My timing was terrible," he said.

After nine months, he enrolled in UF's master's in real estate program and moved to Gainesville in June 2009.

"I was one of the very few people to move to Florida for a cooler climate," Whitney said.

He graduated from the program, but never invested another dollar in real estate. Instead, he invested in startups such as online music streaming service Grooveshark, video game company Trendy Entertainment and drone systems company Altavian.

Whitney describes himself as a "proof-of-concept" investor, helping companies build prototypes that they can take to the market and try to sell. For example, someone with an idea for a mobile application can use the funding to hire programmers to write the software.

"I write small checks to big ideas," he said.

He said he is encouraged that Gainesville entrepreneurs understand the importance of building something that can be sold, unlike a lot of what he calls "wantrepreneurs" who start a company and start building a product.

"Being a ‘wantrepreneur' doesn't help our economy or it doesn't help create jobs or solve problems with innovative solutions," he said. "It all starts with the sale. Bringing value to somebody who's willing to pay for it is Business 101."

"It's so obvious that people miss it all the time," Whitney said.

Whitney calls himself an exile from corporate America who was finally bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. He grew up in Albany, N.Y., where his father ran a restaurant and his mother was a dress designer.

He worked as a Wall Street trader, chief financial officer and commercial lender. With 30 years in finance, he is still a director of investment banking for Memphis-based Duncan-Williams.

Whitney brings the lessons he learned working with Silicon Valley companies to local engineering entrepreneurs and tech startups.

"Fail early. Fail cheaply. That is Silicon Valley's lesson to the world," he said. "Failure is a harbinger to success ... Learn from your mistakes, build on that learning and try again."

In Gainesville, he said he sees tremendous enthusiasm from smart and ambitious people to start and grow companies, as well as a collaborative environment.

He said Gainesville is also uniquely positioned to attract more large companies such as SumTotal Systems and Mindtree that can work with the small companies that are being created every day to their mutual benefit.

"I think the best is yet to come for Gainesville, but it's not going to last forever, so the opportunity for entrepreneurs, innovators, investors and people who enjoy this entrepreneurial ecosystem, the time is now."

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