Wyoming is going through a competitive streak.
It started 16 years ago with the John P. Ellbogen $10K Competition.
Each year, a handful of University of Wyoming students would pitch their ideas for businesses. Semi-finalists received personal mentorship from business experts. The winners would split the cash prize, which was used to try and take the startup to initial sales and beyond.
“In addition to an academic exercise for the students, we treated it as a pipeline for client companies,” said John Dick, director for the Sheridan area Wyoming Technology Business Center incubator.
Startups aren’t for the timid. Most ideas failed. Some, like FireWise Forest Management (now TigerTree Land Management), Rave Nation and 7200 Ft. Productions have found a niche. Other startups, like Glycobac, are nurturing their firms in the Wyoming Technology Business Center’s incubator system. The Technology Business Center is a partner of the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency.
A few, like Table Mountain Vineyards and Bright Agrotech, have become the poster children of the entrepreneurial environment the Wyoming business community wants to create.
Those successes have spurred new startup competitions around Wyoming. Last year marked the inaugural Fisher Innovation Challenge, a seed fund boasting $100,000 waiting to be tapped. The competition is geared toward University of Wyoming students and professors.
The Technology Business Center runs the Fisher Challenge. It also rolled out two new competitions open to any entrepreneur. The Casper Startup Challenge is entering its second year, and a sister contest called the Sheridan Startup Challenge is in its inaugural season. Both events offer finalists the chance at a $50,000 seed fund, a free year in the business incubator and mentorship from business experts.
“What we discovered in Casper is we met a ton of new people; people who didn’t have bankers, attorneys or CPAs who might have referred them to us. What they had was an idea.” Dick said.
In life, though, an idea can be set aside. Work, school, family, volunteering can all take priority over advancing an idea. People are deadline-motivated, Dick explained, and a competition provides a start and end date. Entrepreneur contests can push ideas into a tangible business plan that becomes harder to ignore.
“Ideas can take years to progress,” Dick said. “With these competitions, we’ve been helping turn ideas into businesses in months.”
Last year, the Fisher and Casper events were the catalyst for 12 new startups, Dick said. He hopes Sheridan’s new event can push three more people into the world of entrepreneurship. So far, 20 have applied and more may join before the deadline.
Meanwhile, participation in longtime competitions like the Ellbogen is spiking. A record 76 teams applied this year, up from the prior record of 50 teams last year.
University of Wyoming College of Business officials are parlaying the rising popularity into an attempt to draw from a larger swath of the public through new events like the UW Entrepreneurship Summit on April 20.
Participants will hear from Gov. Matt Mead, UW President Laurie Nichols, Wyoming Business Council Chief Executive Officer Shawn Reese, panels featuring successful startup founders and a keynote speech from Anat Baron, a serial entrepreneur and former marketing executive for Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
Along the way, the public will hear the Ellbogen finalists pitch their ideas to judges.
A live feed will stream the entire event online. Guests are encouraged to use texting and online platforms to vote for their favorite student team pitches and ask questions throughout the day.
“This is going to be a great venue to hear about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, the keys to innovation and to network with other entrepreneurs and potential investors,” said Steve Russell, marketing director for the UW College of Business.
Startups rev Wyoming’s economy
Fostering homegrown talent is critical to creating jobs less dependent on Wyoming’s temperamental minerals industry. Change is slow, but various studies shed light on some of the state’s progress.
Between 2010 and 2013, jobs in the 50 advanced industries comprising the technology sector grew 2.1 percent in Wyoming, according to D.C. research firm the Brookings Institution. In all, 17,700 people worked in Wyoming’s tech sector in 2013.
Those industries pay nearly double the average wages in the state and contribute $8.2 billion to the economy.
In Wyoming, many of those technology sector workers are employed by small, local companies. Nearly 80 percent of the state’s 34,000 businesses employ fewer than 10 people.
Ben Hauser is on his way to being one of those employers.
Hauser started Advanced Geotechnical Services after he realized he could help construction companies save money and time with better analysis.
“We limit the expense of construction by understanding the soil and rock where a building is going to go,” Hauser said. “If you don’t have quality geotechnical engineering, your costs can go way up.”
The Casper Startup Challenge presented an opportunity for Hauser to improve his fledgling business. He joined the Casper incubator despite not advancing as a finalist in the competition. The services he receives at the incubator made it an easy decision.
“Any startup needs capital, but the real advantage is in the coaching the staff gives, the resources the center has as far as the office space, conference rooms, mail room and receptionists. Those amenities really help,” Hauser said. “Folks at the incubator help you understand other people have done this, this is doable. It gives you the confidence you need and lets you know the reservations you feel are completely normal. It lets you feel like you can jump right in.”
Business Technology Center staff helped Hauser with marketing materials, website design and other work outside his expertise. That let him focus on getting his business running.
Since its founding in May 2016, Advanced Geotechnical Services has worked on 10 projects and is expected to be profitable within the year, ahead of schedule.
Hauser is already talking about adding employees this year. His advice to people considering starting their own business, or those competing in startup competitions, is simple.
“Don’t hesitate if you think you have a great idea,” Hauser said. “Don’t get discouraged if you aren’t a finalist because, again, the startup capital is great, but ultimately the real value is in the coaching and the other resources in the incubator.”
In Sheridan, Dick has noticed people with business ideas flocking to the incubator model.
He pointed to the promising turnout for the Sheridan incubator’s January kickoff event for the new Sheridan Startup Challenge. More than 60 people from backgrounds as varied as software design and clothing apparel came to learn how to apply.
Nonprofits across the state are also latching onto the idea. The Powell Makerspace is about halfway through its first Innovention startup course, a nine-month program to help aspiring entrepreneurs convert a great idea into a viable product. Meanwhile, Silicon Couloir hosts its own annual entrepreneurship competition, called Pitch Day, and operates the Start Up Institute in partnership with Central Wyoming College in Riverton. Executive Director Scott Fitzgerald likens the class to earning an MBA in 10 weeks. Companies like DMOS Collective have benefited from both programs.
In the opposite corner of the state, Eastern Wyoming College offers an Entrepreneurship Certificate program to get people started toward business ownership. The class helped one man open The Bread Doctor, a Torrington bakery.
Wyoming ranked third for the rate of startups per 1,000 firms in the 2016 Kauffman Index. The spate of new competitions and entrepreneurship education flourishing statewide will only help improve that ranking, which the Business Council hopes to improve to No. 1 in the nation in the coming decade.