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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 19, 2020 2 weeks ago

Net gain: Amid crisis, boutique investment firm lands an ace

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The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t stopped Fifth Avenue Family Office from executing its strategy. That includes hiring a savvy — yet untested — college athlete to run a new angel fund.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Fifth Avenue Family Office, a Naples-based boutique investment firm, picked quite a time — a worldwide pandemic — to start a new angel investment fund. Adding to the unique challenge: It hired a fresh-out-of-college, 20-something to run it. 

But innovation and bucking trends is what the firm’s Tamiami Angel Funds are all about. Collectively, the first three funds have attracted some $15.2 million from 131 investors. The fourth fund, which will be overseen by the newbie, Sofia Blanno, 23, aims to land 45 investors. 

A former tennis standout at Auburn University and Florida Gulf Coast University who started her own clothing company while in college, the entrepreneurial Blanno is off to a flying start. Despite starting work less than a month before the COVID-19 crisis hit, she has already secured 10 investors who are required to buy in with a minimum investment of $100,000 if they’re existing clients or $150,000 for new clients. 

‘I wanted to learn a lot more about venture capital, angel investing, the entrepreneurship space and just kind of connect with people.’ Sophia Blanno, administrator of Tamiami Angel Fund 4 at Fifth Avenue Family Office in Naples

Business success has come quickly for Blanno, but she says that’s partly because failure doesn’t faze her. Aspiring toward a career as a professional tennis player taught her to accept and learn from negative results. 

“You lose 75% of your matches — if you’re lucky,” she says, referring to her early days of competitive tennis, which began at age 12. “There was an entire year when I did nothing but lose. But that builds your character. I can be screamed at, and it just doesn't phase me. I learned to ignore extreme negatives and pull out the positives and turn things into constructive criticism.” 

Tim Cartwright, a partner at Fifth Avenue Family Office and the chairman of Tamiami Angel Funds 1, 2 and 3, says Blanno’s mix of entrepreneurial skills and high-stakes athletic achievement make her experienced beyond her years and a superb fit for the pressure-filled world of startup funding. 

“But I haven't just thrown her into the deep end and expected her to swim,” Cartwright says. Blanno, he explains, has been shadowing Susi Kimball, the Tamiami Angel Funds’ current administrator. “As she gets more and more skills and more and more proficient, she'll end up leading the charge and assuming the role of full-time fund administrator.”

Cartwright also saw Blanno serve up some impressive performances during her time with FGCU’s Runway program, a business accelerator for student entrepreneurs. Blanno joined the program in 2017 and received nearly $30,000 in investment for Best Dressed, her subscription-based fashion startup that went on to generate $38,000 in sales in its first year. She was also part of FGCU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship and enrolled in a venture-capital class Cartwright taught. 

Blanno and Cartwright began discussing the possibility of her joining Fifth Avenue Family Office in January, when she sought more capital for her company. She has since put Best Dressed on the back burner while she helps other startups. 

“We still operate, but we’ve slowed down,” she says. “I've just become really interested in this position here. I wanted to learn a lot more about venture capital, angel investing, the entrepreneurship space and just kind of connect with people.” 

A key connection Blanno and Fifth Avenue Family Office have made is with Vital Vio, a Troy, N.Y.-based startup that’s created bacteria-fighting lights. Following a successful pilot project aboard a 757 aircraft, the company reached a deal with Delta Airlines that will see its antimicrobial lights installed in the carrier’s entire fleet. Vital Vio also has ties to the Tampa Bay area, partnering with Bayfront Health St. Petersburg on a study of how the lights could reduce microbial contamination in a hospital trauma room. 

Given how the COVID-19 crisis has upended life as we know it — and will for the foreseeable future — it couldn’t be a better time to throw support to firms like Vital Vio. The company’s technology doesn’t kill viruses, outright, “but it kills bacteria, which is the environment where viruses grow,” Cartwright says. 

Fifth Avenue Family Office’s Tamiami Angel Fund 3 has invested $724,705 in Vital Vio. The initial investment was $400,000 in October 2017, followed up by an additional $324,705 in March 2019. 

“Like Vital Vio, we have some portfolio companies that are doing great,” Blanno says. “But we have some that are struggling” because of COVID-19. Blanno says she, Kimball and Cartwright have been reviewing the Tamiami Angel Funds’ portfolio to see if additional funding could help struggling firms “lengthen their runway” as the coronavirus pandemic continues to batter the economy. 

“What's important to us is that they can continue to operate,” Blanno says. “We’re not walking away from anybody.” 

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