A new era has begun under fresh leadership at Dallas accelerator Tech Wildcatters after a management shakeup and a six-month hiatus in new funds and the acceptance of new startups.
Ricky Tejapaibul was named the CEO and managing partner of the organization at a meeting with alumni, investors, mentors, and staff on Wednesday evening. Gabriella Draney Zielke remains a partner in the organization and will serve as an advisory role moving ahead. Tejapaibul, the majority stakeholder, will run the day-to-day operations and strategy moving forward and has already kicked off applications for the fall class of the Gauntlet program.
“I made it very clear I was ready to transition my role,” Draney Zielke said, adding that she’s been looking at transitioning for a few years. “But the big issue was my role and who would play it.”
Draney Zielke, the only other stakeholder in Tech Wildcatters, leaves after leading the organization since 2009. Draney Zielke said she’s explored a number of different options that would allow her to step down, including a sale after she received an offer last year. But instead, the transition of leadership to Tejapaibul ended up being a “great fit.”
Tejapaibul moved to Dallas last year and began investing in Tech Wildcatters alongside other angel investments. He has degrees in finance and engineering and has formerly worked in financial and consulting roles for Motorola and General Motors, during which he worked with legal counsel as the company emerged from bankruptcy. Tejapaibul aimed to startup his own investment fund in Dallas before being presented with the opportunity at Tech Wildcatters.
Tejapaibul said the next chapter of Tech Wildcatters is about ramping the program back up and working toward leveraging previous lessons to create a program that can be expanded to other cities.
“We learned what didn’t work well,” Tejapaibul said. “We have a solid mentorship group—we can improve that more. We want more outreach with the Dallas community in terms of getting investors and family offices involved. As the ecosystem evolves … there [will be] opportunities to … build a stronger Tech Wildcatters community.”
Tejapaibul said the accelerator is actively fundraising, having already signed on enough investors to support the next class. It has not yet closed its latest fund, nor released details about how large that fund will be.
The Gauntlet, which will close applications Aug. 26, will function similar to the pervious version, awarding startups with investments based on milestones. However, unlike before the program won’t have a rolling schedule, rather will be seasonal and adhere to 12 weeks of programming. After the 12 weeks, programming will stop, but startups will still have the opportunity to leverage their new skills and connections to “level up” within the program to earn more investment money. Two 12-week programs will run per year with events running in between, according to current plans. The fall class is expected to have around 10 startups, Tejapaibul said. The program will be led by Tejapaibul with an associate, yet to be appointed, and interns assisting for support.
In regard to Tech Wildcatters naysayers who have attacked the program and its leadership in recent years, Tejapaibul said he’s not concerned. “There’s no reason for anybody to not wish us well,” he said. “There may be people who think otherwise … and they’re free to have their opinion.”
Tech Wildcatters lost three members of its management team last year. It first dissolved the executive director and chief revenue officer positions formerly held by Molly Cain and Clarisa Lindenmeyer, respectively. Then, it laid off Robert Brevelle, who served as chief operating officer. Tech Wildcatters hosted its last Pitch Day event in September before slowing the program to strategize how it would continue in the future. The program and its leaders faced tough scrutiny from an anonymous email that blasted out to its investors and supporters. Draney Zielke has been quietly maintaining the group’s portfolio since then. It’s latest success was the sale of CancerGene Connect, a 2015 graduate of the program, to San Francisco’s Ommdom Inc. in a deal valued at about $6 million.
As for her future, Draney Zielke says she will take this opportunity to step back and pursue other “creative endeavors” that are not business-related. However, she’ll continue to provide aid with portfolio management and curriculum.
“I always want to have a stake in it,” she said. “In some ways, it’s still my baby. I just won’t be the one raising it [now].”