Q & A with RightHill Ventures Founder Thorne Sparkman

Thorne Sparkman, the founder of RightHill Ventures, is the managing director of the Slater Technology Fund, an evergreen, not-for-profit seed fund dedicated to supporting new venture development in Rhode Island. Here he shares his reasons for starting a new private investment fund.

Why did you decide to start a private investment fund?
The Slater Technology Fund has always been, and will always be, focused on supporting entrepreneurs building great companies for Rhode Island and its research institutions.  For years, we did that by investing capital from governments targeted for economic development, and that has worked famously, but we can do more. Investors love dynamic young companies, so we began to create special-purpose vehicles (SPVs) to allow these individuals to invest in them alongside us. As this became great new source of capital, we created RightHill Ventures to help take that tactic to scale.

What does this mean for the Slater Technology Fund? Will it still exist? What is its relationship to RightHill?
The Slater Technology Fund continues to invest eagerly, and following several great liquidity events, it has more resources to invest than ever, so we’re actively making seed and pre-seed investments.  Slater sponsored the creation of RightHill, and invests in every SPV, because by combining with other investors, the larger rounds help fuel Slater portfolio companies’ growth.

What does the name mean?
We all know that founding start-ups can be an uphill battle, figuratively. We understand that and we’re all in. We just want to be sure we have a shared sense of where we’re going and what we’re trying to accomplish when the starting gun goes off. Not everything works out in start-ups, but if you know you’re climbing the “right hill,” taking the right risks, and solving the right problems—that’s all that matters.

Will the state have any stake in RightHill Ventures’ portfolio companies?
Rhode Island has been a great supporter for decades, and when Slater has managed capital from the state, we have managed it in perpetuity – investing and re-investing in evergreen fashion.  Because Slater is a non-profit, it has no members expecting distributions or returns on their invested capital,  so Slater can utilize every dollar of investment return to further Slater’s mission.

The Slater Technology Fund plans to participate in each RightHill Ventures SPV, and those SPVs fund Slater portfolio companies.  All of this activity supports companies built by Rhode Island’s entrepreneurs and its research institutions.

Will RightHill invest only in Rhode Island-based ventures?
RightHill invests in companies that enhance the economy here in Rhode Island. The typical impact is direct employment. Sometimes the initial impact is developing intellectual property into products, or sponsoring the work of a university lab, so the entrepreneurs may be distributed or remote, but our efforts are always in service of developing great companies and economic activity for Rhode Island and its research institutions.

What other universities does RightHill intend to work with?
We’re looking for research, and reach. Professors and their labs work for years to advance new solutions to worthy problems, and that’s key to RightHill Ventures’ strategy. Universities also create large and far-flung networks or alumni who care about their institutions and their impact in the world. That’s a powerful affinity that we think can become a tailwind if we harness it correctly.