Building our pocket communities of high-tech and digital entrepreneurs, social-impact businesses, and grassroots civic engineers…
In 2011, AOL co-founder Steve Case created the Startup America Partnership, a Washington DC nonprofit with a mission to jumpstart entrepreneurship. Last year, that organization joined forces with another like-minded group, Startup Weekend, to boost startup activity in regions outside of technology hubs. Funded by the Case Foundation, Google, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, this new organization, UP Global, arose through Startup America and Startup Weekend’s shared mission of growing entrepreneurship, kickstarting startup sectors and creating jobs. And this mission has been successful, as recent studies confirm new businesses are creating more jobs than older, more established firms.
Startup Weekend has organized hundreds of 54-hour entrepreneur experiences, including Peoria Startup Weekend, hosted by Startup Peoria and Bradley University last November. This hands-on immersion event invites entrepreneurs, designers, software developers, engineers, product managers and others to come together and share their ideas for new ventures.
Likewise, Startup America has gathered budding entrepreneurs in diverse regions of the country to discuss what they need to get their startups off the ground. Entrepreneurs have called for improvements to immigration policies, deferments in student loan payments, expanded access to mentoring, and reduced costs for hiring practices within startups. Streamlining the process of the Small Business Innovation Research grant program and an acceleration of technology transfer and efficient patent processing were also recommended, along with the easier sale or licensing process of uncommercialized patents.
With regard to funding, entrepreneurs seek expansions of incentives through tax policies for investors, the unlocking of lending for startups and young companies, stimulation of early-stage venture funding and the enablement of alternate platforms for investment. These initiatives are already being worked on, and they are impactful. According to a recent study by Babson and Baruch colleges, twice as many U.S. entrepreneurs say they struggle with financing when compared to other innovation-driven economies—with a median level of $15,000 required to start their business.
Activating the Community
Last October, Jake Hamann, Startup America’s Regional Champion for Illinois, and I attended the Startup America Conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to learn how Startup Peoria could apply its findings to grow entrepreneurs here in central Illinois. The two-day conference focused on imparting knowledge to community activators who are impacting growing entrepreneurial ecosystems. With pocket communities of high-tech and digital entrepreneurs, social-impact businesses, and grassroots civic engineers, these ecosystems are emerging in areas like Memphis, Cedar Rapids, Tampa, Shreveport, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Together, Startup America estimates these businesses have generated total annual revenues of $6 billion and created more than 110,000 jobs.
The challenge to these ecosystems is to grow our regional connections (so there were lots of opportunities to make connections, discoveries and plans) and drive shared initiatives and active learning down into our communities. Initiatives such as code schools, collaborations with higher learning institutions, nurturing STEAMIE (science, technology, engineering, the arts, mathematics, innovation and entrepreneurship) learning, growing active women in technology and startups, and building entrepreneurial opportunities took center stage during breakout sessions.
Attending this conference felt like hitting the mother lode of community activators—those who are down in the trenches, doing the hard work and bringing their best game every day. It was the perfect set of people from which to gather actionable ideas, absorb the secrets that have driven their successes, and learn what caused their failures. And everyone was very open about sharing both sides of their undertakings.
“Attending this summit provided us [Startup Peoria] an opportunity to learn what has worked and what hasn’t worked in other startup communities across the United States,” says Hamann. “Even in our early stages of development, I feel the decisions we’re making… are right in line with why we set out to establish Startup Peoria in the first place. Most importantly, we built some incredible relationships with like-minded individuals who have already proved willing to help guide and mentor us along the way.”
Lesa Mitchell, vice president of innovation at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurship research group and key sponsor of Startup America, says networking and collaboration can be more important than capital for early-stage ventures in more remote areas. “If you can scale your business without capital, you’re actually ‘cooler’” than startups in Silicon Valley, she says. “But to do that, you need a strong network of local entrepreneurs and mentors, a mix of startups from elsewhere with fresh ideas, and the skills to develop innovative technology.”
Bringing It Back Home
Over the next six months, Startup Peoria will be rolling out initiatives based on the insights and knowledge shared in Cedar Rapids. From collaborations with ICC’s College for Kids to the introduction of a “Learn to Code” program across age ranges, Startup Peoria is actively working with our regional assets to enhance STEM learning with the integration of innovation, the arts, and entrepreneurship.
Engaging tech entrepreneurs through action, Startup Peoria will soon launch The Nest, a co-working space in the Warehouse District, as well as Project | Rocket Science, a 21st-century learning lab focused on skill-building, leveraging creativity, technology and collaboration. Acting as a nucleus for the Startup Peoria initiative, NEST and Project | Rocket Science will become a first stop for people with entrepreneurial ideas. Long-term plans are to grow these initiatives into other locations throughout central Illinois.
After the success of the first Startup Weekend, during which 72 entrepreneurs immersed themselves in the process of launching a company, Midstate College has stepped forward to host our region’s second Startup Weekend this spring. Meanwhile, at least four startup companies have continued to pursue the ideas they launched during the first Startup Weekend last fall.
In 2013, Startup Peoria also brought the Kauffman Foundation’s One Million Cups (1millioncups.com) and St Louis’ Openly Disruptive Diner programs (openlydisruptive.org) to central Illinois, growing our region’s outward connections and deepening our local technological and entrepreneurial insight. 2014 will bring more programs like these, as well as initiatives grown from the knowledge shared at the conference, include a revamped “Women in Entrepreneurship” program, and stronger connections with our entrepreneurial “sister cities”: Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Columbia, Missouri; and the Quad Cities.
One of the larger messages shared by one of Cedar Rapids’ team leaders was this: “Success is not an accident. It is created by the hard work of many.” Startup Peoria is honored to be part of the many working to create sustaining successful change in central Illinois. iBi
For more information, visit startuppeoria.com.