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Casting A Wider Net With Community Colleges

Jonathan Robinson

Jonathan RobinsonInnovation Fund America (IFA), our program delivering high-impact education, coaching and pre-seed funding to scalable, technology-based startups via community colleges around the country, has quietly been having a big couple of months. It's a complicated and demanding program to launch and it's taken nearly a year and a half to get to this point, but we're excited that IFA is now open for business in two communities--and we're really just getting started.

I previewed some of these developments for IFA in November when I interviewed IFA Executive Director Paul Corson for the Top of Mind web series. We discussed some of the reasons why Kauffman and Lorain County Community College (LCCC) partnered to improve and replicate Lorain's Innovation Fund program at community colleges around the country. We predicted then that we'd have our first cohort of IF North Carolina companies before Christmas 2013, and that Innovation Fund SoCal would be launching early this year. Both predictions, I'm pleased to say, have proved accurate.

Innovation Fund North Carolina (IFNC) held its first awards ceremony in December, announcing the seven companies sharing $300,000 in grants and no-recourse loans. I was pleased to attend with Thom Ruhe, Kauffman's VP of entrepreneurship, and we both enjoyed getting to know this group of talented entrepreneurs growing a remarkably diverse set of ventures. No photo-sharing apps here, nor any of the other chaff you see at so many Silicon demo days. One of the reasons I'm so excited about this program is that, in addition to democratizing the process of founding and growing scalable, technology-based ventures, we really are supporting companies that matter. To illustrate my point, here's a quick look at the inaugural class of IFNC:

  • 10 for Humanity, founded by a female Marine Corps veteran and self-described survivor of sexual assault, is developing wearable tech that will prevent sexual assault, domestic violence and bullying. The team hopes that, by developing 10 such technologies over the next few years, to reduce these incidents by 10 percent in 10 years.
  • AccuFlow Imaging is developing a device to provide heart bypass surgeons with hi-def images to assess the physiology of blood flow before, during and after surgery. The company is headquartered and will manufacture the devices in North Carolina.
  • Advanced Hydrogen Power Technologies has a new type of hardened chisel for use in demolition and excavation, with durability and performance that far exceeds existing tools.
  • VX Aerospace is developing a new lightweight aircraft with significantly better fuel efficiency, increased payload and more spacious interior for use in both the light aircraft market and for commercial and civil drone applications.
  • Another veteran-owned startup, White Stagg, is manufacturing a modular weather warning device for home and business use, akin to a smoke or carbon monoxide detector. The product integrates with existing emergency alert systems to improve preparedness for tornados and other catastrophic weather incidents.
  • Intellego Systems, which, again, has a veteran co-founder, has developed a hand-held biometric wireless device that collects voice, fingerprint and face prints for law enforcement, security and military use.
  • Creisoft is developing software to connect commercial real estate brokers and investors, offering them materials, transaction documents, and analysis tools in a product not unlike a Bloomberg terminal.
  • GO2 has a wellness product that increases circulation with minimal effort and without significantly changing the body’s vital signs. The company's target users are the aged, the obese, and the sedentary that are unable walk for exercise.

These are, in my opinion, companies that matter not only because they very possibly can meet the criteria for that moniker established by my Kauffman colleague, Paul Kedrosky, last year (“companies that matter” must be scalable, quickly reaching $100 million or more in revenues; they must be able to generate jobs quickly and broadly; they must be disproportionate creators of wealth, both directly through profits and salaries and indirectly through equity). They are also companies that matter because they are doing the greatest thing for which we can count on entrepreneurs: bringing to market important, world-improving products. This is the profile of the Innovation Fund America portfolio company.

It’s important to point out, too, that most of these ventures are not located in North Carolina’s much-ballyhooed Research Triangle – the area around Raleigh and Durham that, in NC and beyond, dominates the conversation about innovation and technology in that state (and sometimes including, to be fair, at Kauffman). It’s an aphorism that those of us working on IFA should probably have tattooed somewhere on our bodies: innovation happens everywhere. But we all have to be willing to go out and find it and support it where it is now, not have the hubris to expect the entrepreneurs to come to us.

Not surprisingly, this was a major theme at an event earlier this month that Kauffman co-hosted with Long Beach City College (LBCC). At innovate!SoCal we sought to shine a light on the intersection of the innovation economy and the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Southern California – deal flow performance, sector strengths, entrepreneurship education resources – and in particular to address inclusiveness in the entrepreneurial experience.  Many on stage and in the audience were eager to talk about how to improve access to capital and talent, how to look beyond tech hubs and university campuses for innovative startups and ideas, and how to improve participation rates of those who are not the archetypal affluent, male, white, young, well-educated founder. We talked about “casting a wider net” and making better resources for innovation-led startups more available. This was gratifying because these are very much part of Kauffman’s vision for community colleges, and why we are in Long Beach at all.

We saw the conference as an opportunity to showcase the Foundation’s ongoing work with LBCC to make the community college a front-door to scalable entrepreneurship by democratizing access to the highest caliber entrepreneurship support resources. Though a leader in workforce development and an invaluable resource for students seeking two-year degrees and transfer opportunity, LBCC isn’t yet a destination for technology-based, scalable startups; but through events like innovate!SoCal and programs like IFA, we believe that’s about to change. IFSoCal Executive Director Sheneui Weber announced that the application window for the IFSoCal’s first cohort would open on February 21, and that the program will announce its first cohort in May. I look forward to chronicling their progress on this blog, so stay tuned.

And should you be reading this from somewhere in the LA Basin or in North Carolina, and are right now taking a break from building your tech startup, click through now to the IFA site. The next application window in NC closes on Feb 7, and the first application window in Long Beach opens Feb 21.

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