For a fledgling startup, the opportunity to have access to mentors, capital, and even a dedicated workspace is considered highly valuable -- and, as a result, is only given to a select few. There are a number of roads a startup can take to market. Some bootstrap their way; others find a willing angel. But for the others, incubators and accelerators are an extremely viable option. In fact, regions of the United States, especially major cities where innovation has proven to be rampant, are realizing the power of startup communities and their impact on economic growth.
According to Brookings, an analysis on the current state of entrepreneurship and innovation-driven communities, while regions such as San Francisco-Silicon Valley, Boston-Cambridge, and New York are where the most funded activity takes place, data shows that more and more cities across the nation are investing in their entrepreneurial communities.
What is different, however, about the tech-savvy, over-caffeinated startup world and the longstanding ecosystem of small businesses is the amount of collaboration that occurs in the former. Startups in the modern world are volatile by nature, and places like Silicon Valley have become iconic for not only the companies they have birthed, but also the level of collaboration and openness between founders, developers, and creative directors. Brad Stone, author of The Upstarts, painted this picture perfectly in journalistically capturing the beginnings of Uber and Airbnb. Two of this generation's most wildly successful startups began with founders mingling and sharing feedback over friendly whiteboarding sessions and casual dinners.
Because of this, cities and regional development leaders are beginning to realize that there are many moving pieces that make an innovation ecosystem what it is. It's not just about a handful of successful companies being present; it's about the whole chain: investors, first-time and serial entrepreneurs, mentors, collaborative workspaces, and even established businesses and universities that are willing to take part in providing helpful resources.
Startup accelerators have begun rising in popularity at the center of this perfect storm of opportunity, their creators believing that when enough of the right variables are deliberately put together, serendipity can be engineered, so to speak.
A perfect example is what's happening in St. Louis, a major city (not far from the booming entrepreneurial scene in Chicago) that knows the value of investing in its startup communities to join the ranks of other leading regions. Ameren Accelerator is a new accelerator model powered by a partnership between the Ameren Corp., the University of Missouri System, UMSL Accelerate, and Capital Innovators. This tri-partnership is focused on enhancing the existing corporate accelerator model -- traditionally a partnership between a corporate sponsor and a proven accelerator -- by interjecting the benefit of faculty backing and engagement that comes from a major university partner. The accelerator is looking to attract companies working in energy technologies with $100,000 in funding promised to the five to seven companies selected for the program. Common accelerator resources such as technical development, sales, marketing, operations, talent development, and office space in the local innovation district will be provided, but the university inclusion brings with it resources that are often left out of the corporate model.
Startups will have access to faculty subject matter experts and university research, but students will benefit, too. Dan Lauer, founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate, understands that today's students "don't want to sit in class and listen to a talking head -- they want to do." Yet we know that campus programs are failing to do this across the board. A seasoned entrepreneur, Dan had to learn lessons the hard way and is hoping his students won't have to. "As I transition to building an entrepreneurial center, my dream is to provide both transformative in-class experiences and real-world startup experiences for students," he says.
Innovating both the corporate and university approaches to acceleration in this way will have a significant impact for all partners. As Brian Dixon, COO of Capital Innovators, points out, "Both corporations and universities struggle with innovation; however, it's a necessity that both types of organizations strive to create solutions in order to remain relevant and competitive into the future."
Honestly, it's this piece on corporations and universities that struggle with innovation that speaks to the larger economical issue -- and one that Clayton Christensen explained so well in his book "The Innovator's Dilemma." Startups are small but nimble. They can move and make decisions to pursue innovation that longer-standing, more rigid big businesses cannot. There are pros and cons to both, but the startup scene is proving to be exceedingly disruptive.
By combining the tried-and-true with the new, regions of entrepreneurial ecosystems will only continue to get stronger, leading to healthier innovation for all parties.