Nicholas Coughlin is the angel network manager for Innovate Mississippi, a nonprofit organization dedicated to growing and strengthening the state’s technology culture.
Coughlin’s job is recruiting and managing high net worth individuals who are interested in entrepreneurship and new technology businesses here.
He calls it “a high-end dating service.”
Coughlin himself was recruited from the Mississippi Development Authority by Innovate Mississippi, formerly the Mississippi Technology Alliance. He previously worked for several years as a project manager with Overtime Sports. That was followed by a short stint what he called “a fun little thing in television.”
It all started with Donald Trump, his childhood idol. Coughlin was in the fourth or fifth grade when he bought a book about the legendary businessman. “As a kid I always wanted to work for him,” he said.
He almost made it.
In 2010, Coughlin took a friend’s suggestion and went to an open casting call in Atlanta for the 10th season of Trump’s television show “The Apprentice.” He’d done some modeling in print and in commercials but had never done any reality television.
About 29,000 people turned out to audition. After narrowing down the field, the show’s producers picked 40 men and 40 women and flew them to Los Angeles for a week’s worth of final interviews.
“I actually made it to the top 10 finalists before I was fired by Donald Trump,” he said.
“They only picked seven guys to be on the show. Three of us were sent home on the last night. I had the opportunity to at least meet (Trump) and spend a couple of days interviewing with him.”
The Trump audition led to another reality show. “Through that experience I was able to meet Mark Burnett, the executive producer of ‘Survivor’ and other shows.” About six months later, Burnett’s team contacted Coughlin to ask him to join a new high adventure racing reality show called “Expedition Impossible.”
The 10-episode show pitted 13 three-member teams during a month-long trek by foot through Morocco, about 600 miles. “It was a blast, absolutely unbelievable,” Coughlin said. “But it definitely was rough.” He fractured both feet during the trek.
Coughlin captained his team which consisted of a cousin and a school classmate. “We made it about 80 percent but got eliminated at the end of the seventh episode,” he said.
The challenge, as difficult as it was, appealed to Coughlin because, as he said, “Fitness is a huge thing to me.” He was overweight as a kid but once he was in high school, he dedicated himself to staying in shape. While he attended Mississippi College, he worked for a year as a certified fitness trainer.
His business administration major with an emphasis on marketing set Coughlin on a career path in business development and strategy.
At Innovate Mississippi, which he joined in 2012, Coughlin holds regional meetings where innovative entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas to angel investors in the hopes of getting funding. It’s like the television show Shark Tank but without the rudeness, he said.
There are about 100 accredited investors working with Innovate Mississippi, both individuals and those representing institutions inside and outside of the state.
Innovate Mississippi offers entrepreneurs and business developers a free program that prepares them for getting their companies off the ground.
Innovate Mississippi also goes to college campuses throughout the state looking for innovative entrepreneurs and not just in the business department. “We’ve had people in psychology and communications come up with an idea we love,” he said.
Coughlin said good ideas aren’t restricted to college students, either. “As long as the product or service is innovative, then we are very interested,” he said.
Among Innovate Mississippi’s success stories are Ridgeland-based Bomgar Technology, a successful tech company that started out a decade ago, and SmartSynch in Jackson which was acquired last spring for $100 million.
Coughlin said of the six companies in the network now, five have received funding during the last two quarters.
“Sometimes people see Mississippi as a state that is not very innovative or ahead of trends, but we’re proving time and time again that’s not the case. Every day individuals have phenomenal ideas and we have individuals who can fund them. It’s important for us to put them together. That’s what makes my job so cool,” he said.
Coughlin said one of his favorite quotes is from Zig Ziglar: “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.”
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