Prospective entrepreneurs in southeastern Wyoming have a new incentive to start up. The Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC), the University of Wyoming’s business incubation program, is launching a new regional startup challenge for Albany and Laramie counties.
The Southeast Wyoming Innovation Launchpad (SEWYIL) will be based on UW’s very successful Fisher Innovation Launchpad model, but relies on partnerships with Forward Greater Cheyenne and Laramie County Community College.
“The Fisher has helped us fund 17 companies, but we’ve launched 24 in Laramie over the past three years with just $375,000 of private funding,” says WTBC-Laramie Director Dave Bohling. “We can attribute nearly 100 jobs created to our efforts in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan to our startup challenge model, and our companies haven’t yet grown to maturity.”
Similar efforts in Casper and Sheridan have been made over the past three years, with both startup challenges currently accepting applications.
“Last year, we had five finalists pitch in Casper. We only funded three of them but, within five weeks of Pitch Day last fall, all five were working on their new companies full time,” says WTBC-Casper Director Jerad Stack. “This year, we’re once again seeing a lot of interest, and we’re on pace to have more applicants by the time the application window closes Sept. 12.”
“Startup challenges like SEWYIL help make sure that entrepreneurs have a similar level of access to seed funds; match startups with the education and coaching they need; and act as a strong component of the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem build-out,” says Wyoming Business Council Entrepreneurial Services Coordinator Vivian Georgalas.
The council, in an effort to bolster its refreshed Kickstart Wyoming program, is looking to help regional efforts such as SEWYIL with a matching sponsorship up to $25,000.
“The sponsorship can help support costs such as marketing or venue fees, and also business counseling or even internship costs for winners,” Georgalas says.
“For SEWYIL, we’re looking to develop funds for each county represented in the challenge strictly from private sources,” says WTBC Assistant Director Fred Schmechel. “So far, we are getting tremendous support from the banks in the southeast region of the state.”
The Fisher has seen individual company awards set between $4,000 and $31,000 over the past three years.
“We know that you can have a lot of impact on the success of a Wyoming startup with as little as $20,000 to $25,000,” Schmechel adds. “The Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City entrepreneurship-focused research organization, says it takes around $35,000 to do it, but we’re a little scrappier here in the Cowboy State.”
The funded companies must use the funds for actual startup costs, and the award will vary for each company. The pool of funding will be held by the UW Foundation in a special account until the January Pitch Day event happens.
“This isn’t having your first staff meeting in Honolulu,” Schmechel says. “The judges, made up from the local community, make an investment decision, and there are often milestones that they require the companies to pass before the funds are handed out.”
“It’s not really about having a great idea for a company but, rather, identifying a problem that other people are experiencing that an entrepreneur cares about solving. Our starting place is actually a very low bar, and we kind of promote cheating,” Schmechel says with a laugh. “We strongly encourage prospective applicants to reach out to us either before or after they submit their applications. We want them to have as strong of a concept as possible as we move forward. Edits and pivoting are actually the sign of a concept being more likely valid than not.”