Business

Wichita’s tech start-up scene starting to emerge

Daniel Mruk is an honest-to-God elevator-pitching, 100-hour-a-week working tech entrepreneur, and he’s trying to make it in Wichita.

He and his colleagues built “Campaign Trails: the Race for the Presidency,” a game that is a free single-player app on Android phones and a free online multiplayer game. Few other endeavors in recent years are so celebrated as the heroic tech start-up entrepreneur. And they’re no longer found just in Silicon Valley.

There are large tech scenes in New York; Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colo.; Dallas; Seattle and Boston, where Mruk went to college. Many cities, such as Chicago, are moving strongly to develop their scene.

There are even growing tech scenes in Omaha, Kansas City and Des Moines, among other Midwest cities.

But Mruk’s story offers some uncomfortable lessons about Wichita’s ability to play in this high-growth phenomenon.

Raised in Wichita, he went off to Boston College, where he met some ambitious and tech-savvy friends. After graduating they spent months in Boston building an idea into a product, and then building that product into a business.

They spent part of a year at Mass Challenge, a whole floor of a downtown office building given over to start-ups. It was the kind of place where the walls were painted to allow scribbling, and hundreds of entrepreneurs were scattered across tables and chairs, programming and designing their products. Many slept and ate there.

As so often happens at the bleeding edge, Mruk’s business blew up. Their application tied together Twitter and Google Maps, but Twitter changed its technology and their product was instantly obsolete. Oh well, he also had this cool idea for a campaign game.

To conserve money, he moved from Boston back to Wichita to work on it full time.

Suddenly, everything slowed down.

“I moved to Wichita and, oh, man, the start-up scene here is dead,” he said.

Pieces

What Boston has is called a tech start-up ecosystem. Wichita may not have a functioning ecosystem, yet, but it does have most of the pieces.

There are smart, technically trained young people. There is an organized network of angel investors. There are lawyers and accountants who understand start-ups. There are big companies with large numbers of tech-savvy staff, such as NetApp and Koch Industries. There are active entrepreneurship and computer science programs at Wichita State University and elsewhere.

There are things that are close to a tech scene. Wichita State University has an incubator in the basement of Devlin Hall; there aspiring start-ups can work for 18 months to get their business off the ground. That’s where Mruk is based now – but not all the start-ups are technology-based.

There is the Wichita Technology Corp., a local public/private group that fosters a number of tech companies, and Pipeline, a now private group in the Kansas City area; it also aids start-ups.

There are even tech start-ups here and there in Wichita, such as Boxcar, which founder Jonathan George recently sold.

So while there isn’t a true, vibrant private tech scene, it’s coming.

“We’re starting to see it emerge,” said Tim Pett, director of the center for Entrepreneurship at Wichita State University.

Omaha

Omaha was in a similar situation when Dusty Davidson and Jeff Slobotski founded Silicon Prairie News there five years ago.

They saw a need to spark a fire to life, so they turned a bunch of tech companies into a tech community by developing a website and blog, letting tech people scattered around the region know about one another.

“Our intention was to tell the stories in the region – who is doing these great things – and, in effect, build this grassroots community and connectivity,” Davidson said. “We wanted to create a new mindset. Maybe there is a lot of activity in Omaha, maybe not, but we wanted to act like there was to the point where there was. Perception is what matters. If people think there is a tech scene here, this gives people permission to be part of it.”

The 10-person Silicon Prairie News makes money by putting on conferences, but it is also supported by the Omaha chamber of commerce and the Kauffman Foundation.

Their project took a leap forward when a private developer renovated the Mastercraft, a 140,000-square-foot former furniture factory in north downtown Omaha, into a space specifically for creative and tech businesses. Silicon Prairie News, along with more than 25 other businesses, is now based there. Now there is both virtual and physical interaction.

“The strength of Silicon Valley is almost 100 percent in the networks,” Davidson said. “If you need funding, you don’t go to this big building, you go to this guy, who tells you to talk to this other guy, who tells you to talk to this other guy. These are connectivity problems, awareness problems.”

Wichita

In Wichita, tentative efforts to form networks seem to be everywhere.

Labor Party owner Todd Ramsey said they hope to host a “Start-up Weekend” later this year, which will bring people interested in tech and design together and run them through exercises to spur new businesses.

Bringing the pieces together and creating a community can’t be done by city government or the chamber of commerce, said Mark Hasebroock, of Dundee Venture Capital in Omaha.

Those organizations can play a supporting role, but they’re too cumbersome and risk-averse to make it happen on their own.

“They’re inauthentic, slow moving; they hire the wrong people, career manager or planners,” Hasebroock said.

He said Wichita needs a single key person with a track record in tech development, enthusiasm, a sense of mission and a lot of patience to lead the effort.

“There are people in each community who have passion about where they’re from, who believe in their communities,” Hasebroock said.

One of Wichita’s successful tech entrepreneurs, Jonathan George, said he is very encouraged by what he has seen and heard. He thinks it’s just a matter of a couple of years before Wichita develops its own tech scene.

“We’re getting there,” he said.

As for Mruk, he said he and his colleagues are largely done with the campaign game and are looking at their next project, but given the difficulties of operating in Wichita, it might not be here.

“If it’s still slow a couple months from now, and it looks like it’s picking up in Boston, I might go back there,” he said.

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