Pipeline’s Joni Cobb: Continue to nurture innovation at home

02/24/2012 12:00 AM

02/24/2012 9:46 AM

Entrepreneurship is one of the biggest buzz words around the country, extolled by those who believe our high potential entrepreneurs provide an answer to economic recovery for our nation. This claim is backed up by data that demonstrates that the lion’s share of net new jobs are created by startups, or companies less than five years old.

So the question for our region is, “What are we doing to discover, train, accelerate and keep these important business innovators right here in our backyard?”

I am happy to report that our region is doing quite a bit. From garages to university labs to large companies with research departments — we have tremendous innovation to offer the marketplace; real innovation solving real problems. This is inspiring to say the least.

The next step is finding leaders to take these innovations into a business that can actually create economic impact. If you look around this region there are a number of programs, incubators and accelerators that are providing support to entrepreneurial companies to help them increase their odds of success. Programs like the Wichita Technology Corporation, Fast Track and many others across the region are working every day to help startup entrepreneurs take innovation to the marketplace.

Sounds good so far. But once a company has navigated initial startup phase, it enters into the challenges and opportunities of high growth or “scale.” Scale for an entrepreneurial company is where the magic happens in terms of creating true economic punch.

As a region, we should care about the ability of entrepreneurs to scale here at home. If not, the work we did to nurture the early-stage company is most likely harvested someplace else — someplace with the networks and capital to help it achieve its aggressive goals. Someplace that requires a plane ticket.

This time of “high growth” or scale has been the Pipeline focus since our inception in 2007. After five years of working with the region’s highest potential “scalable” entrepreneurs, it has become clear that this group of entrepreneurs want to stay at home as they grow. They want to keep their children in the same school. They want to drive down the streets of their own hometowns feeling they’ve added to the community.

When we ask each one of them what it takes to keep them here, their answer is simple — connection to peers, a robust national network (sometimes global) and capital to fuel their growth.

Pipeline has been working for years to develop strong peer relationships and a powerful national network for our local entrepreneurs. In fact, it is one of the most cherished aspects of our program — both by the alumni and the network around the program.

While our national network may initially be attracted to the region because of Pipeline entrepreneurs, they then meet the many investors, mentors and organizational allies in our region while they work with us. Our local Pipeline allies are then able to bring the power of this network to bear for hundreds more entrepreneurs surrounding the program. That is the ripple effect of this work.

But inevitably these dynamic entrepreneurs will need growth capital to ramp up their businesses to have major impact. At this point, the issue of access to capital becomes the overriding focus for these companies.

The good news is that our network of investors is growing, as well. Our region has the benefit of formal, engaged angel networks that are reaching out to others in neighboring states to work together to fund regional companies. National venture firms are becoming more familiar with our region, opening offices in strategic areas and looking at deals much more readily than five years ago. But certainly we have a long way to go in developing a reliable and systematic method to access growth capital.

It is hard work to encourage and propel high growth firms — and according to the most recent States New Economy Index (I.T.I.F, 2010) our region has a long way to go. However, we have planted the seeds for this growth and have passionate leaders working to see results from this effort.

It is imperative that more of our citizens engage in this effort. Whether you are a potential investor, mentor, entrepreneur, connector or advocate — we need all of our smart, passionate believers in entrepreneurs to work together to support our engines of growth and innovation.

It’s a critical time for growth. We have partners and programs working together in collaboration, and we have talented entrepreneurs becoming trained and connected.

But we can’t stop now. We’re only part of the way home.

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