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A Statewide Hub for Businesses

January 24, 2022
woman with a dog
Dr. Angie O’Hearn, who runs The Visiting Vet in Casper, consulted with the Wyoming Small Business Development Center Network. (Courtesy photo)

The new Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation serves as the front door for business creation and growth. 

By Micaela Myers 

Whether you own an existing business you want to grow, have an idea for a new business or product, or are a student wanting to study entrepreneurship, Wyoming offers many resources. However, in the past, these resources were scattered like puzzle pieces across the state. Bringing them all together and filling in the missing pieces is the mission of the new Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI), led by the University of Wyoming and enabled through the efforts of the Wyoming Innovation Partnership.

“The Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation will serve as the hub for entrepreneurship education and practice, supporting the teaching of entrepreneurial skills across all disciplines; providing experiential programs for students; and engaging in statewide outreach,” says UW President Ed Seidel. “Specifically, it will make training in entrepreneurship available to all students at UW and to the community colleges that wish to participate. It also will coordinate business incubators, lab spaces and innovation learning hubs across the state to create a stronger innovation ecosystem for Wyoming.”

 

Resources for Businesses and Entrepreneurs

Through the Wyoming Business Resource Network, the UW Office of Research and Economic Development and the Wyoming Business Council collaborate with other partners to assist state businesses through a variety of existing programs, including the Wyoming Procurement Technical Assistance Center to help businesses grow through government contracting; Manufacturing Works to provide broad technical assistance; the Market Research Center to answer market questions regarding topics such as customers and competitors; the Wyoming Technology Transfer and Research Products Center to assist with intellectual property; the Wyoming SBIR/STTR Initiative to aid access to funding from the Small Business Innovative Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Programs; the Wyoming Small Business Development Center with offices throughout the state to provide basic business education; and IMPACT 307, a growing statewide business incubator program that focuses on high-growth-oriented companies. IMPACT 307 currently has facilities in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan but will be expanding to all community college cities (adding Cheyenne, Gillette, Powell, Riverton, Rock Springs, Torrington) as well as Evanston and Rawlins under the Wyoming Innovation Partnership.

CEI leverages these existing investments and aims to grow them and other needed programs in a coordinated fashion with state entities and community colleges to provide ease of access for residents. “I see CEI as the front door, the gateway, so an individual knows where to go to and what that resource landscape looks like,” says UW Associate Vice President of Economic Development Steven Farkas. “The Wyoming Innovation Partnership enables these collaborative activities. It provides the governance and structure to ensure these programs are done in a coordinated way with the community colleges.”

three people looking at office equipment
Students at Laramie County Community College learn to use equipment in the college’s new Entrepreneurial Center Lab on the Cheyenne campus. Courtesy photo.

The aim is to enable and sustain new business creation from start through ongoing growth.

Laramie County Community College President Joe Schaffer is excited about bringing IMPACT 307 offerings to Cheyenne via Laramie County Community College.

“Entrepreneurship has become increasingly important in Laramie County and statewide, because we’re going to continue to struggle to recruit our way to economic diversification,” Schaffer says. “Our path is likely to have a strong focus on helping the people here start businesses and grow small business.”

The Forward Greater Cheyenne initiative showed the need for business and entrepreneurship support. Laramie County Community College added entrepreneurship and business planning coursework and then broadened offerings out into the community via the 2022 Southeast Wyoming Innovation Launchpad in partnership with IMPACT 307 and other local partners. This startup challenge focuses on Albany and Laramie counties and is one of many offered throughout the state. The launchpads give entrepreneurs the early funding needed to move their ideas forward and provide guidance via a process called Lean Launchpad.

Schaffer looks forward to bringing more IMPACT 307 programming to Laramie County because businesses and entrepreneurs need mentoring and support. “My biggest hope is that it continues to build out this entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cheyenne,” he says. “It takes this idea of a Center of Entrepreneurship and Innovation away from it being a UW Laramie center to it being a Wyoming center with sites and resources across the state.”

The Wyoming Innovation Partnership is a recognition that if we all share a vision and a common goal, we can come together to share resources, Schaffer says. “We have very hard-working independent folks in Wyoming, many of whom have great ideas. What we hope is that as we start building upon that and growing companies that are Wyoming-based, we will start diversifying our economic mix from a grassroots perspective.”

One missing piece in the entrepreneurship landscape of Wyoming is access to capital beyond the seed funding startup challenges provide, both Farkas and Schaffer emphasize.

“The CEI should become an activator or conduit to provide access to capital networks—from angel to venture,” Farkas says. For example, UW is also exploring opportunities to build a venture fund that will support faculty and student initiatives. Seeing the university has “skin in the game” may inspire outside investment, he explains.

In addition to entrepreneurship, the CEI wants to aid businesses of all sizes, including those struggling with innovation. Projects in this area could involve faculty and students as well as UW’s makerspaces.

“In addition to student internships, these activities also become an opportunity for enhancing faculty-sponsored research,” he says. “That’s another value added for the company.”

The key to all these efforts is to be coordinated, efficient and easy to engage, Farkas says. They plan to develop a corporate engagement office that will help centralize and coordinate statewide corporate engagement.

UW College of Business Interim Dean Rob Godby describes CEI as a comprehensive structure to support economic development in the state. “It takes assets and coordinates them in a way that’s more effective and strengthens UW’s land-grant commitment to the state.”

 

people working on technological equipment outside
UW alumnus Gene Humphrey created 9H Research Foundation, a solar energy research facility in Laramie that will donate its energy proceeds to the university while also creating research and curriculum opportunities. Pictured here: student Pat Sheehan with Senior Engineer Victor Bershinsky.

Entrepreneurship Education

While the College of Business offers an interdisciplinary entrepreneurship minor, Godby hopes to see all students gain exposure to entrepreneurship education.

“Somewhere in your life, you’ll be involved in something that has entrepreneurial aspects,” he says, describing a music major who perhaps offers private lessons or opens a music store. “It’s really something that everyone can benefit from.”

Bringing students and outside businesses together is also key—from internships to sponsored projects and applied research. For example, 9H Research Foundation recently challenged student engineering teams to help design solar facilities near Laramie.

“Students will work in incubators and alongside businesses,” Farkas says. “The idea is for this to be an interdisciplinary destination. So, whether you’re in health sciences or engineering or the arts, there is a place for you and your passions and how that translates into activating a business. Through student engagement and education, I hope it translates into activating businesses in Wyoming. A lot of our students want to stay. They need to understand the resource opportunities and how those fit their needs. CEI will advance those conversations and ways of thinking.”

Again, UW is working hand-in-hand with community colleges on these efforts. For example, this past spring, UW partnered with Central Wyoming College to offer a hybrid online and in-person six-week Entrepreneur Essentials (e2) course. It’s based on the highly successful Start-Up Intensive, a 10-week program hosted in Jackson, which has trained more than 140 Wyoming entrepreneurs over the last six years. Some 77 percent of graduates are still operating their businesses after three years, and 20 percent of those graduates have raised significant private investment capital.

Central Wyoming College President Brad Tyndall saw this partnership as a way to reach beyond the college’s service area and work with UW to serve the state. “The important thing is that we need to serve the public, help diversify the economy and create more opportunities for people,” he says. “We really have to hit hard this business startup concept with all hands on deck. If you want to accomplish big things, you partner. We have to start businesses and create more opportunities for people to stay local and work local.”

Tyndall recognizes the need statewide for the entrepreneurship training and says the coursework will be offered on an ongoing basis. It’s directed at those trying to launch a business or product. Similar to IMPACT 307 programs, the coursework digs deep into the heart of what the person is trying to accomplish. “When you connect that project with a person’s core values and meaning, they do so much better,” he says. From that basis, you can connect them with all the other resources they need.

“We’re a small town with big roads,” Tyndall says of the efforts to partner statewide through the Wyoming Innovation Partnership and CEI. “We have to leverage our experts statewide. This is happening, and it’s exciting, because we need each other. The time has come.”


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