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McNair Center Startup Ecosystems

Gateway to Entrepreneurship: St. Louis

You probably know St. Louis as the Gateway to the West, but the city is emerging as a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem. For decades, St. Louis followed the economic development model of attracting and keeping large out-of-town companies with generous tax breaks and subsidies. In the 1990’s, political and business leaders became frustrated with the slow economic growth under these policies and began implementing entrepreneur-friendly policies.

While the city has not abandoned tax breaks and other subsidies to attract big companies, it has adopted an entrepreneurship model driven by state and private efforts. This model appears to be working. Data from the Census Bureau show 9.7 percent of businesses in St. Louis are startups less than three years old. St. Louis can now boast the second best rate of startup growth in the country.

Venture Capital

St.LouisFirstRounds
Author’s calculations based on data from SDC Platinum VentureXpert

It is widely believed that an ecosystem should be producing 30 to 35 deals per year to beconsidered stable. St. Louis saw three consecutive years of 30 or more first-round deals from 2013 to 2015. While 2016 reflects a poor year for St. Louis VC investment and first rounds, this decline reflects a nationwide trend.

StLouisVC
Author’s calculations based on data from SDC Platinum VentureXpert

 

 

St. Louis boasts sizable venture capital investment. Like many ecosystems, St. Louis suffered from the dot-com bust in the early 2000’s, but a strong pattern of VC investment seems to be emerging. How has St. Louis achieved venture capital growth?

History

The first entrepreneurship-focused programs established in St. Louis were the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and Skandalaris Entrepreneurship Program.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center provides support for plant scientists who work directly with the agriculture technology startups. The Danforth Plant Science Center cofounded the Ag Innovation Showcase, the premier agricultural technology and innovation showcase in the nation.

The Skandalaris Entrepreneurship Program began in 2001 at Washington University, but expanded in 2003 to the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The Skandalaris Center provides entrepreneurial training, networking opportunities and a mentoring program.

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, St. Louis suffered. The “corporate jewel” Anheuser-Busch laid off hundreds at their St. Louis headquarters. St. Louis’ per capita personal income shrunk by 5 percent. The metro unemployment rate reached over 10 percent. Despite Danforth Plant Science Center and Skandalaris Entrepreneurship Program, there still was not much positive entrepreneurial output. Researchers and politicians blamed the national economy and the greater time required to establish agriculture-focused startups.

The St. Louis entrepreneurial ecosystem remained largely unsupported until 2012 when the nonprofit Information Technology Entrepreneurs Network (ITEN) began to catalyze the ecosystem. Jim Brasunas, a former telecommunications manager turned entrepreneur, founded ITEN by utilizing the public-private investment fund, Missouri Technology Corporation (MTC).

While ITEN was founded in 2008, many of the programs were not active until two or three years after its founding. Many entrepreneurs credit the development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem to Brasunas and ITEN.

Resources

St. Louis has the requisite components of a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem; highly ranked universities, research-focused centers, accelerators, incubators and venture capital funds. However, the strong private-public partnerships and women-focused accelerators make SSt_Louis_nightt. Louis’ ecosystem unique.

In 2012, MTC put a significant amount of seed money into a new economic development model, Arch Grants. Arch Grants runs a global competition to identify potential entrepreneurs from almost any industry sector. Arch Grants then provides entrepreneurs with $50,000 equity-free grants and pro bono support services if they agree to build their businesses in St. Louis. Over 100 startups have been awarded Arch Grants including RoverTown, which was named the fastest growing tech startup in St. Louis.

Accelerators

Accelerators are key components of any healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem, and St. Louis has a plethora of accelerators. Capital Innovators is a 12 week accelerator program that provides $50,000 in seed funding to startups. The accelerator focuses on IT and consumer product startups, such as LockerDome, Bonfyre and Fluent.

Another notable accelerator is BioSTL. The investment arm of BioSTL, BioGenerator, has worked to grow bioscience startups in the region since 2001. MediBeacon, BacterioScan and Galera Therapeutics are among the startups that have gone through BioGenerator.

SixThirty is St. Louis’ largest and most famous accelerator with corporate partners like State Farm and the St. Louis Regional Chamber. The accelerator provides up to $100,000 in funding and sponsors two cohorts per year. SixThirty’s expertise is venture capital and revenue acceleration for startups that are at the late-seed stage.

St. Louis’ agricultural-technology industry is back, and Yield Lab, opened in 2014, focuses on accelerating this industry. Its nine month AgTech program provides early-stage companies with $100,000 in funding and looks to add value to companies that from a nonfinancial standpoint. The Yield Lab opened a second accelerator in St. Louis’ sister city, Galway, Ireland in January of 2017. Graduates of the Yield Lab include S4, Arvengenix and Holganix.

In 2012, St. Louis ranked a disappointing 25th in a national survey of women’s entrepreneurship. Prosper Women Entrepreneurs (PWE) was born when community leaders realized that the region could significantly improve its economy and entrepreneurial ecosystem if women reached their entrepreneurial potential.

Women now own a higher share of startups in Missouri than in any other state. PWE offers support to a woman-owned company focusing on technology, health care IT and consumer startups. Graduates of PWE include Appticles, Bandura System and SixPlus.

Co-Working Spaces

In addition to accelerators, St. Louis has a significant number of co-working spaces such as Exit 11 Workspace and Hive44.

Founded in 1999, CIC St. Louis is the most famous of the St. Louis co-working space. CIC focuses on biotechnology and bioscience startups. $2.1 billion in VC has been raised by companies originally based at CIC and more than 800 companies call CIC home.

Venture Capitalists

St. Louis has a significant number of venture capitalist firms. While venture capitalist firms invest around the country and world, it is important to have firms in ecosystems as they often provide VC stability. Advantage Capital Partners, BioGenerator and RiverVest Ventures appear to serve as long term midsize anchor funds for St. Louis. Cultivation Capital raised its first fund in 2012. Lewis and Clark Ventures emerged in 2014 and are a midsize fund.

Looking to the Future

St. Louis is emerging as a stable and strong startup ecosystem in the Midwest. Efforts to increase private and public support for resources, as well as funding and tax credits for research, will facilitate St. Louis’ continued growth.

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McNair Center Rice Entrepreneurs Startup Ecosystems

How to Make Texas More Startup-friendly

profileOver the last decade, Blake Commager (@commagere) has raised over $12 million in venture capital funding, started seven companies and sold fiveincluding the first version of Facebook Causes and some of the most popular apps on Facebook, such as Zombies and Vampires. Born and raised in Midland, Texas, Commager graduated from Rice in 1999 and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2003.

Commagere is the CEO of MediaSpike and an angel investor, advising several startups in the Bay Area. His varied experience in the tech startup space, from founder to investor and mentor, gives him a comprehensive perspective on the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem. As Commagere worked at a startup and tried to start a company in Austin before moving out to Silicon Valley, I was interested in learning why he chose to move out to the Bay Area and what Texas could do to better support startups.

Iris Huang: What brought you to the Silicon Valley?

Blake Commagere: I had always been interested in solving the problem of address book updating. In 2003, a friend of mine and I were working on our own company in Austin, and while doing competitive analysis, we found out Plaxo, a startup in Mountain View, California, was trying to solve the same problem. I liked their solution and they already had funding so I moved here to join the company.

I also felt the pressure to move to the Bay Area. By virtue of having a high concentration of tech talent, the Bay Area created a gravitational pull for even more tech talent. You see that with a lot of industries—they blow up largely in a few cities and as the ecosystem develops around them, the momentum increases, which makes it harder for other cities to compete. The more talent it has, the more successful the industry becomes in the region, the more new talent comes. The concentration of talent creates a virtuous cycle—in the Bay Area, the former successful startup founders become the next generation angel investors and venture capitalists, who fund and help more startups succeed.

The concentration of talent in the Bay Area has two main advantages:

The sheer concentration of talent and ecosystem make the process of building a startup easier, not a lot easier, but even if it’s just 2 percent easier, that makes all the difference. Given how hard it is to build a company, anything that makes it a little easier can be incredibly important. The high concentration of talent in the Bay Area makes it easier for startups to hire good employees. Startups will also have an easier time meeting people who can provide advice and introduce them to investors.

The large tech community in the Bay Area also provides a lot of emotional support, which turns out to be extremely important for startup founders. What’s unique about entrepreneurship is the combination of the high level of stress and lack of experience and resources. It’s very intimidating as an entrepreneur when you have a dozen things you have to do today but you have no idea how to do any of them. No business school teaches you what you need at a startup day to day. Sometimes other founders can’t help you either, but at least, you can commiserate with them. For example, after you pitch to a dozen VCs and no one wants to invest, you can talk to your community—they’ve all been through the pain so they understand how you feel. The therapeutic value of the commiseration is really important. You won’t feel so lonely, which, in addition to the hardship of building a company, could be overwhelming.

IH: How can Texas cities become more friendly to founders?

BC: A good ecosystem for startups cannot be developed overnight. It takes several entrepreneur/venture capital cycles—maybe over 20 years.

Someone should have a laser focus on building the tech community so entrepreneurs no longer feel alone in their journey. What entrepreneurs are trying to do is just too overwhelming to do on their own. They will leave for somewhere that has a supportive community if they can’t find the mentorship and network locally. In Austin, most of the time meetings happen by chance. Serendipity is unreliable—someone needs to build a tight knit community and make sure the support network is well-organized.

Someone has to bring capital there. No matter how great the idea is, you need to have money to fund it and make it happen. The number of VC firms and the amount of VC funding in Texas are limited (Note: total VC funding in Austin is $834 million, as compared to $25 billion in Silicon Valley according to the MoneyTree Report from PricewaterhouseCoopers). In Silicon Valley, there are so many funds; a startup can be rejected by a dozen of the top VC firms and still be able to raise funds from hundreds of other VCs. However, in Austin, if you pitch to Austin Ventures and they say no, your fundraising is over.

Also, with a small number of VCs, their time is limited so they can only invest in a small number of companies. Imagine if there are 100 great startups that deserve to be funded but there are only six general partners in your region. Simply for lack of VCs, some of these companies won’t get what they need to survive.

IH: Why is it necessary to raise VC funds locally?

BC: Silicon Valley VCs are unlikely to invest in startups in Texas. VCs have strong motivation to invest in nearby companies because the nature of venture capital investing—95 percent of startups fail—forces them to use their time wisely. VCs usually take board seats at the startups they invest in. Every board seat they take is an opportunity cost, preventing them from taking others. When VCs invest in startups in other cities, they have to travel for board meetings. So the time they spend on that board seat is longer and the opportunity cost for that investment is higher. That’s why you can’t expect Bay Area VCs to invest in Texas startups and when they do, the bar might be three times higher for Texas startups than Bay Area startups.

Funding is not the only value VCs provide for startups; their professional network plays an important role in helping startups succeed as well. However, VCs’ network is geographically dependent. If the startups are far away, they will not be able to benefit from VCs’ powerful network. This lowers their chance of success. This also discourages VCs from investing outside their primary cities.

Raising a fund to start a VC firm in Austin or Houston could be challenging—the new VCs will have to take the extra step to convince potential limited partners that “there is a reason and opportunity to invest here,” instead simply joining all the other VCs are in the Bay Area. However, this is what has to happen. Ideally, the new VCs have built their career and network in Texas for many years, which gives them the motivation and ability to raise a fund locally.

IH: How can Texas cities retain local talent?

BC: It all comes back to the availability of VC funding. Frequently I see announcements that a city is hoping to make the city more attractive to startups with programs for office space or professional services. None of that is a big expense compared to your employee costs. Some people argue that since everything is more expensive in the Bay Area, it makes sense to stay in Austin or Houston. For example, with $1 million funding, you might be able to hire 10 employees in Houston, but in the Bay Area, you can only hire 5 employees with similar credentials. However, this is an unrealistic comparison. In Houston, you are more likely to get $0 funding so really you can’t hire anyone while in the Bay Area, you might be able to get $1 million and hire 5 employees.

Each entrepreneur has their own timeline—when they need to raise funding, if there’s no funding available in Austin or Houston, they either have to shut down their startups or move to the Bay Area and raise money here. Right now everyone just follows the gravity and moves to the Bay Area because that’s the easiest. Texas is losing the tech talents and startups that create so many jobs to the Bay Area. It is very important to break the cycle. Step one is to stop the talent drain with VC funding and keep startups here. As the ecosystem matures, the long-term goal is to make it as easy to raise funding in major Texas cities as in the Bay Area.

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McNair Center Startup Ecosystems

A Tale of Untapped Potential: Cincinnati

When you think of an emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem, you probably think of Austin, Texas or Boulder, Colorado, not a moderately sized city deep in the heart of the Midwest. But Cincinnati’s entrepreneurship ecosystem is positioning itself as a good place to start a high-growth, high-technology startup firm.

Picture of Cincinnati Skyline, Creative Commons

The Fortunate 500 companies that call Cincinnati home, such as Kroger, P&G and Macy’s, have been investing in their local ecosystem through a nonprofit organization. The resulting increase in resources and capital in Cincinnati’s entrepreneurship scene has led industry commentators, including TechInsurance and Entrepreneur.com to enthusiastically expound the city’s positive trajectory. In this blog post, I explore the driving forces behind Cincinnati’s transformation and ask whether it is real.

History of Entrepreneurship

Local and state governments have historically helped maintain the Cincinnati ecosystem. Individual grant programs provided the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Regional Chamber with funding for high-tech projects. However, until recently, the Fortune 500 companies have been largely absent from Cincinnati’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, and there was no depth to the ecosystem’s support and service organizations. For example, less than a decade ago, there was not a single startup accelerator anywhere in the region.

Accelerators in Cincinnati

The past few years have seen an emergence of a spate of entrepreneurial resources available in and around Cincinnati. Accelerators  – 12 to 16 week entrepreneurship boot-camp programs for startups that typically end with a pitch day – now span the tristate area of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

Cincinnati now boasts The Brandery, UpTech, OCEAN, First Batch, Founder Institute, a minority business accelerator housed in the Cincinnati chamber of commerce, and two university affiliated accelerators. There are also several incubators in the local area.

The Brandery

The Brandery, located in Cincinnati and founded in 2010, was inspired by successful accelerators such as Austin’s Capital Factory and Boulder’s TechStars. The Brandery offers a three-month program for seed-stage companies that use Cincinnati’s existing strengths: branding, marketing and design. Companies receive $50,000 in seed funding, office space, branding identity, legal support and more in return for 6% equity stake in the startup.

The Brandery has a portfolio of twenty-nine startups. Notably, the Brandery accelerated FlightCar, “a marketplace that allows owners flying out of an airport to rent out their cars to arriving travelers” that was acquired by Mercedes Benz and Skip, “a mobile checkout solution that allows you to scan items as you go through the store and skip the checkout line.” The Brandery has been ranked a top-ten U.S. accelerator.

UpTech and Ocean Accelerator

Launched in 2012, UpTech is a Greater Cincinnati tech accelerator program for data-driven startups. Located across the river from Cincinnati in Covington, Kentucky, UpTech was established as an effort by Northern Kentucky University College of Informatics and the Greater Cincinnati community. Up to ten startups per cohort participate in a six-month accelerator program and receive up to $50,000. UpTech differs from traditional accelerators in that it draws its hundreds of support staff from community volunteers and interns from Northern Kentucky University. Successful UpTech startups include online walking-tourism planning platform, Touritz, and software and data management company, Liquid.

The third and newest accelerator in Cincinnati is three-year-old, faith-based OCEAN Accelerator. Ocean runs a five-month program that provides mentorship, monetary support in the form of a $50,000 note, branding and legal advice. OCEAN claims to be the the only faith-based accelerator in the nation, and its curriculum features weekly bible studies. Alumni of Ocean include Casamatic, a real estate technology company that increases buyer engagement, and Cerkl, a startup that provides personalized email campaigns.

University Resources

The University of Cincinnati and Xavier University both have academic accelerator programs. The University of Cincinnati’s Technology Accelerator for Commercialization provides full-time faculty and staff with the opportunity to develop intellectual property at the University of Cincinnati. In order to be eligible for the TAC program, the technology must be developed at the University of Cincinnati and have a focus on commercialization. Start-up companies are not eligible for the TAC program.

Xavier University offers a business program aimed to boost the Greater Cincinnati economy. Called X-LAB (short for Xavier Launch A Business), the seven-year old competition provides want-to-be entrepreneurs – particularly including students – opportunities to launch a business. The Williams College of Business supports the winners by providing the business expertise of its professors, executive mentors and MBA students.

Seed-Stage Funding

Cincinnati has had stable seed-stage investors for some time. These include CincyTech and Queen City Angels, as well as some early stage venture capitalists and some nonprofits that provide grants to startups. In recent years, CincyTech and Queen City Angels appear to have had some successes and grown considerably, which bodes well for the future of the ecosystem.

CincyTech

1074px-Over-the-rhine-mapCincyTech, a public-private partnership focused on seed stage investments, was the first effort by the local government to jump-start entrepreneurship. Established in 2001, CincyTech’s mission has been to strengthen the regional economy through the creation and expansion of technology companies in Southwest Ohio. CincyTech is now investing out of its fourth and largest fund, a $30.75 million seed-stage fund, which is bigger than its first three funds combined.

CincyTech garnered considerable national attention after providing Lisnr, a company that has invented an ultrasonic technology for transmitting data through sound, with Stage A capital. Lisnr came to fruition aboard the 2012 StartupBus, a competition where participants launch a company in 72 hours on a bus headed to Austin for the South by Southwest Festival. Since Lisnr’s establishment, they have received $10 million in Series B funding from Intel Capital and garnered accolades from CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list, Cannes Lions International Festival for Creativity and Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Awards.

Queen’s City Angels

Likewise, Queen City Angels is the region’s longest running angel group and is currently investing out of its largest fund of $10 million. Queen City Angels provided the initial stage funding for Assurex Health. Now ten years old, Assurex grew out of research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic. Its singular product is the GeneSight Test, which analyzes twelve genes that influence mental health and psychoactive drugs that treat a spectrum of mental health disorders. Myriad Genetics purchased Assurex Health in April 2016 for $225 million with another $185 million to come when performance stipulations are met.

Coordinating the Ecosystem

Two organizations provide the glue for Cincinnati’s entrepreneurship scene. StartupCincy is a grassroots organizations that first registered its domain name in 2010. Cintrifuse is an example of a successful municipal government intervention in an entrepreneurship ecosystem.

StartupCincy

StartupCincy  describes itself as “the driving force behind [Cincinnati’s] new economy…a rallying cry.” In addition to maintaining a long list of upcoming network, education, accelerator and developer events in the city, Startup Cincy connects venture capitalists and angel investors to startups. StartupCincy is credited by the Cincinnati Business Courier as “one of the most influential groups leading the renaissance of Cincinnati’s startup community.”

Cintrifuse

However, the most important element of Cincinnati’s ecosystem is probably Cintrifuse. Established in 2011 with the goal of creating a sustainable technology driven economy for the Cincinnati metropolitan area, Centrifuse primary manages a fund of funds. This fund of fund has created a network of venture capital funds, including Allos Ventures, Mercury Fund and Sigma Prime Ventures, that invest in Cincinnati startups.

For big companies, like Kroger, USBank, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and Duke Energy, investment in Centrifuse isn’t just about financial returns. Corporate investors get access to new companies and new ideas, while the startups receive mentorship and connections that help them access potential partners and customers.

Cintrifuse also provides co-working space in Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood of Cincinnati, and entrepreneur-focused educational programs. More than four hundred companies have gone through Cintrifuse’s programs, and both CincyTech and the Brandery are located in Over-the-Rhine just feet away, providing unique collaboration opportunities.

Cincinnati’s Venture Capital Woes

CincinnatiFirstRound
Author’s calculations based on data from SDC Platinum VentureXpert

Despite all of its great resources, Cincinnati is still not producing enough successful startups to be considered a mature and effective ecosystem. Although there is no consensus among experts, ecosystems that close around thirty to thirty-five deals a year are markedly more stable. Cincinnati falls far below this. While the number of first rounds has been increasing, it appears that the city’s ecosystem may be leveling out at an average of just five first rounds per year.

CincinnatiVC
Author’s calculations based on data from SDC Platinum VentureXpert

The largest barrier to Cincinnati’s emergence as an entrepreneurial ecosystem is probably the quality of its deal flow. Despite the recent increase in startup activity, Cincinnati’s venture capital investment peaked in 2002 at $343 million. The recent maximum was $235 million in 2014, with 2016 reverting to pre-2010 levels. Since the turn of the millennium, the venture capital investment has averaged just $139 million per year. Mature ecosystems, like Austin or Denver, are much bigger.

Untapped Potential

Cincinnati’s entrepreneurship ecosystem is small but does genuinely seem to be growing in an exciting way. From 2000 to 2009, Cincinnati saw an average of around two new venture capital deals each year. From 2010, when the Brandery opened its doors, to the present, the number of Cincinnati based startups receiving venture capital for the first time has more than doubled to almost five each year.

There have been many factors at play: more venture capital, more seed stage investment, more mentorship and engagement with established firms, the arrival of accelerators, a co-working space, and specialist training and professionalization programs, and, just possibly, that the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood has achieved a critical mass of startups in close proximity. These factors appear to be working together to reinforce each other and grow the region’s startup ecosystem and the local economy. Cincinnati is surely a startup city to watch!

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McNair Center Startup Ecosystems

Austin’s Venture Capital

Austin, Texas
Austin, Texas

In my previous blog post, I discussed Austin, Texas’ strong history of entrepreneurship and the many resources in the ecosystem. Supportive Austin policies have resulted in the creation of the Entrepreneur Center of Austin, and resources like Capital Factory and Tech Ranch Austin have emerged. Austin’s entrepreneurial ecosystem appeared to be healthy.

A recent PitchBook Report discussing venture capital in Austin shows the ecosystem to not be as healthy as previously thought. In 2014, Austin saw 286 deals closed at a value of $1.4 billion. Similarly, in 2015, 296 deals closed or $1.3 billion. 2016 saw a substantial decrease in the number and value of deals closed with 199 deals closed at a value of $978 million.

Austin’s ecosystem reflects a nationwide trend in declining deals. According to PitchBook, the number of deals closed nationwide had been rising steadily since 2009, peaking in 2014 with 10,501 deals closed. 2015 and 2016 both saw decreases in the number of deals closed; 10,293 and 8,136 respectively. The 8,136 deals closed in 2016 is the lowest number of deals closed since 2012.

An insufficient supply of startups and an increased perception of risk are decreasing VC investment in the Austin ecosystem. Investors likely fear that the oversupply of capital that has been invested in the system in 2014 and 2015 has led to slumping returns, so they are pulling back their investments. Once VC investment balances out, it is likely that Austin will see investment increase again.

Outside investment in Austin-based companies soared in 2014 and 2015, as respectively, 396 and 370 investors from outside the Austin metropolitan statistical area invested in Austin-based ventures. In 2015, Austin had the most venture capital invested in its first financings with $324 million. However, venture capital activity in the United States overall has declined. Austin’s most prominent VC fund, Austin Ventures, closed in 2015. After the two-year boom period from 2014 to 2015, the rate of VC investing in Austin startups has slid considerably over the 2016 period.

Austin’s diverse ecosystem is an asset to the stability of VC investment in the area. While the majority of VC activity occurs in the software industry, the pharmaceutical and biotech industry also attract significant VC investment. In 2015, 12 deals were closed in health care devices and services, and in 2016, 11 deals. The opening of the Dell Seton Medical Center and Capital City Innovation, which will work to connect entrepreneurs with healthcare research, will likely contribute to increases in VC for health care devices and services.

According to a McNair Center Report, VC investment in Texas is falling. Yet Austin’s relatively low costs and the boom of angel/seed investment have given Austin a reputation as a thriving startup ecosystem in a state where VC investment is dropping. Despite decreases in a 2016 VC investment in the region, it is likely that Austin will see investment in crease again after VC investment balances out.

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McNair Center Startup Ecosystems

Keep Austin Entrepreneurial

Ranked number one for startup activity in the last two years by the Kauffman Foundation, Austin, Texas is one of the strongest emerging entrepreneurship ecosystems in the United States. Austin’s history of entrepreneurship and supportive government has facilitated Austin’s emergence as an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Austin’s History of Entrepreneurship

During the 1970s and 1980s, Austin’s entrepreneurial ecosystem focused on computer and semiconductor manufacturing. Efforts by the Austin Chamber of Commerce, such as low mortgage rates for relocating staff and tax incentives, fueled the move of several major companies to Austin: IBM in 1967, Texas Instruments in 1969 and Motorola in 1974. A doubling in student attendance at the University of Texas in the early 1970s increased the educated workforce in the region.

The selection of Austin as the home of the Microelectronic Computer Corporation (MCC) in 1982 accelerated this concentration of high-tech companies. Facing fierce competition from Japan’s Fifth Generation Project, major U.S. companies banded together and created MCC, one of the largest computer research companies at the time. MCC chose Austin instead of Silicon Valley and Route 128 because the University of Texas offered MCC a subsidized lease and the Chamber of Commerce facilitated low-cost loans and reduced mortgage rates for staff moving to Austin.

Austin, Texas
Austin, Texas

Initially, the Austin ecosystem was primarily large businesses, such as IBM and Texas Instruments. This focus changed after the oil slump and savings and loan crises of the late 1980s and early 1990s crippled the Texas economy. Austin was not spared. It had one of the highest commercial real estate vacancy rates in the country and companies laid off large numbers of employees.

In response, the University of Texas formed the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) in 1989 to jumpstart the local economy through high-tech startups with high-growth potential. In 1989, Greg Kozmetsky, the brain behind ATI, founded Austin’s first angel network, the Capital Network. These initiatives provided a foundation for growth during the 1990s dot-com boom. Austin companies such as Garden.com, an online gardening shop that raised $50 million in venture capital, and DrKoop.com, an “Internet-based consumer health-care network,” that was worth more than $1 billion, found success in Austin.

In 2000, thirty Austin venture capitalists invested over $2 billion in entrepreneurship ventures. The subsequent burst of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s hurt Austin. After the 2001-2003 economic downturn, the region experienced major industrial restructuring and a renewal of entrepreneurship.

In 2003, the business community raised $11 million for Opportunity Austin, an economic development program. Opportunity Austin focused on recruiting new businesses, marketing Austin effectively and stimulating entrepreneurship and emerging technology sectors.

Less than five years after the last economic downturn, the Great Recession of 2008 set back many new Austin businesses. While venture capital and small business creation are not at the level they were during the dot-com boom, the rate of startup growth is currently 81.23 percent.

Entrepreneurship in Austin Now

Austin is experiencing yet another entrepreneurship boom. Austin now has the supportive policy structure, mentors and sector diversification required to finally establish a lasting ecosystem.

Austin’s cultural support of local businesses and responsive state and local government policies are fueling its start-up growth. The absence of state income tax incentivizes young professionals to work and settle in Texas. The local Austin government provides services for people considering starting a business such as BizAid Business Orientation and Small Business Program. The Entrepreneur Center of Austin and the Indus Entrepreneurs of Austin specifically provide support for start-ups. The University of Texas’ Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, Growth and Renewal connects Austin entrepreneurs with resources.

As a result of Austin’s strong history of entrepreneurship, mentorship opportunities for nascent entrepreneurs are readily available. Austin companies, such as Dell, offer mentorship and accelerator programs. Entrepreneurial hubs, such as Tech Ranch Austin and Capital Factory, serve as an intersection between Austin incubators, accelerators, coworking spaces and also offer mentorship programs for entrepreneurs.

While known as “Silicon Hills,” Austin’s entrepreneurship economy is much more diversified than the computer chip and semiconductor industry that first enabled its growth. According to a 2015 Austin Technology Council report, approximately 14 percent of the $22.3 billion value of Austin’s tech companies came from semiconductors. Computer and peripheral equipment contributed 31 percent. Both Austin-born and transplanted companies focus on the bioscience, energy, clean-technology, water and IT/wireless industries. Austin has an extremely strong tech-focused entrepreneurship industry, but it also has successful media, education and social and craft/lifestyle ventures.

Venture Capital in Texas and Austin

Texas’ venture capital investment has decreased by 19 percent over the past ten years. To maintain a healthy entrepreneurship ecosystem, it is imperative that venture capital investment increases in the coming years.

Austin’s ecosystem lacks capital. In 2014, Austin saw 99 venture capital deals worth $739 million. In contrast, Silicon Valley saw 1,333 deals worth more than $27 billion. While there is no shortage of capital in Texas, there is a lack of capital access, information and government support. The majority of Texas capital is invested in oil, gas and real estate. These are considered by many to be less risky than entrepreneurship ventures. However, as oil prices fall, Texans should consider trying to raise growth and investing in entrepreneurial ventures.

Austin’s most prominent venture capital fund, Austin Ventures, closed in 2015. Phil Siegel and David Lack left to form Tritium Partners to provide capital for startups in Austin. Its first fund of $309 million is a fraction of the $900 million Austin Ventures raised at its peak. Silverton Partners and S3 Ventures have tried to fill the void left by Austin Ventures. However, none of these Austin venture capital funds have the capital or assets that Austin Ventures had.

Entrepreneurial Resources in Austin

Austin has a plethora of resources for entrepreneurs. The annual South by Southwest Festival provides networking opportunities. Companies are taking advantage of the 100,000 college students that graduate each year in the greater Austin area. The University of Texas at Austin boasts the Austin Technology Incubator under the IC² Institute, which has raised almost $700 million in investor capital to achieve this goal. Additionally, the Central Texas Angel Network provides capital and mentorship support for entrepreneurs in the Central Texas region.

What Starts in Austin, Changes the World

Austin’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is moving towards national recognition. Favor, a food delivery app, is an alumni of ATI and backed by Austin’s S3 Ventures and Silverton Partners. HomeAway, an Austin based online rental marketplace, was established in 2005 and acquired by Expedia for $3.9 billion in 2015. In the upcoming years, it is critical that capital investment continues to support new ventures such as Favor and HomeAway. Austin’s ecosystem has the policy, talent and mentorship to be successful, but private and public efforts must continue to ensure its success.