Pueblo accelerator aims to launch new businesses

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Despite high rates of property crime in some neighborhoods, Pueblo officials say the city is safe.

Diana Hall, founder and owner of ActivArmor, knew she had a good idea for a new product — a 3D-printed, open-weave cast that would be more durable, cleaner and easier to manage than a traditional cast.

What she didn’t know was how much more she needed to know about being a startup entrepreneur.

“I had some help with the stepping stones I needed to get started in business,” Hall said, “but there were so many gaps. You’re running an entire company with one person — you need to know R&D, accounting, management, all the regulatory things and much more. You have to become an expert in all those things, and get funding, while you’re trying to bring your product to market. It is really overwhelming, and a lot of people don’t make it.”

That’s why Hall signed on as a mentor with the new Pueblo Accelerator Program, which will provide education, guidance, feedback, technical help and support for fledgling entrepreneurs. Participants will also have access to capital resources, including the opportunity to pitch their businesses to venture capitalists at the SoCo Entrepreneurship Competition.

“Entrepreneurs will be able to get comprehensive assistance in a one-stop shop situation,” said Southern Colorado Small Business Development Center Executive Director Caroline Trani.

The program kicks off Feb. 1 with a 10-week course that will meet for three hours each Thursday at the Pueblo Community College-SBDC Downtown Studio at 121 W. City Center Drive.

Potential participants will get a taste of the program at an Inventor’s Bootcamp from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Downtown Studio. Sponsored by the SBDC and The Inventors Roundtable, the bootcamp will focus on protection of assets and crowdfunding.

Growing the entrepreneurial pipeline

Trani originated the accelerator program along with Kurt Madic, co-founder of Startup Pueblo, an informal meetup group; Mike Wakefield, management professor at the Hasan School of Business, Colorado State University-Pueblo, who helps organize the entrepreneurship competition; and entrepreneurs Taylor Voss and Royce Gomez.

“I started Startup Pueblo because we were seeing a shrinking pipeline of entrants to the entrepreneurship competition,” Madic said. “A lot of the companies that were entering weren’t quite ready for venture capital. We thought the accelerator would get these new companies on a better trajectory for growth in order to get funding.”

Over the past year, Madic and Trani hosted informal meetings to get feedback from community groups, individuals and the city and county. What was needed, they determined, was a new opportunity for entrepreneurs and inventors to take a great startup idea or new business to the next level.

“The power of the accelerator will be exposure to experts, hands-on support, funding and the resources we have available to help them quickly grow their business,” Madic said.

It often takes years for startups to get on their feet, so part of the focus of the accelerator program will be to assist participants in lean startup and lean prototyping.

“You can work out at home and get pretty good results, but at the gym you’re likely to get to your goals a lot quicker,” Madic said. “That’s what the accelerator is for — to get people around you to help you get to your goals more quickly.”

Priming the pump 

Of course, no business can get off the ground without adequate capitalization. One source of funding is the SoCo Entrepreneurship Competition, an annual contest for student and adult entrepreneurs hosted by the Thomas V. Healy Center for Business and Economic Research at CSU-Pueblo.

Now in its fifth year, the contest is Pueblo’s version of the television show “Shark Tank.” Entrepreneurs who have developed prototypes present their vision to venture capitalists, who either bid to be partners or bow out.

Both the student business plan competition and adult venture capitalist competition are extremely competitive.

Hall is one of the competition’s success stories. She entered in 2014, its first year.

“Diana was the strongest competitor that year,” Wakefield said, adding the judges were impressed with her invention, then called Amphibian Skin, and its potential for sales success in the medical and sports fields.

She was awarded $5,000 in rent reimbursement for space in the Pueblo Economic Development Corp.’s small business incubator at the Business and Technology Center. That start enabled her to patent her process and establish proof of concept in order to get federal approval for her product as a Class 1 immobilization device.

Hall’s rebranded product, ActivArmor, now is being prescribed by physicians in clinical case studies and she recently was awarded a $250,000 grant from the Colorado Advanced Industries Accelerator Program, which will help her reach her goals of developing complementary technologies, creating advanced manufacturing and bioscience jobs in Pueblo and commercializing ActivArmor nationwide.

The accelerator program participants won’t finish the course before this year’s competition, which takes place April 6-7 on the CSU-Pueblo campus and requires contestants to submit finished business plans by March 1.

When they complete the program, however, the accelerator participants will be well positioned to enter next year or to seek venture capital from other sources, including community loans, traditional lenders, state and federal grants, and crowdfunding.

Strengthening the ecosystem

The 10-week course is just the beginning of what Wakefield, Trani and Madic envision for the accelerator program. As it gains traction, services for entrepreneurs will be expanded and extended.

For Madic, “it’s about growing our community and jobs with local startups and preventing the continued brain drain of our young people. Hopefully, we’re going to have good success with high-growth startups and growing jobs in our community. Ultimately, I believe we’ll be able to pull startups from the entire state of Colorado and surrounding states.

“Although our accelerator is focused on veterans, women and minorities, it’s inclusive of everyone,” he added. “Many accelerators around the country have left out these important groups, and we are ensuring they are not left behind in the new economy.”

While Pueblo is well positioned to create a favorable climate for startups, its entrepreneurial ecosystem lags a bit behind other Front Range communities, Wakefield said.

“This is our attempt to develop a stronger ecosystem,” he said. “We’re trying to take the lead on this and eventually bring in government and business support.”

Another goal is to win support of the community and demonstrate the importance of entrepreneurs.

“This is a platform to make sure our entrepreneurs are successful — a first in our community,” Trani said. “We want to make a difference, measured by the amount of jobs created and the businesses we’re able to sustain.”

Editor’s note: Royce Gomez is a former employee of Colorado Publishing House and the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

Applying for the accelerator program

Inventors and entrepreneurs who want to participate in the first accelerator course must apply by Tuesday, Jan. 23.

Applications can be requested in person at the SBDC office, 121 W. City Center Drive, by phone at 719-549-3224, or printed out from the SBDC website, southerncoloradosbdc.org.

Applicants will be interviewed and six to eight entrepreneurs will be selected to participate.

Payment of $285 is due upon acceptance. Additional partners may attend for a fee of $25 each. Scholarship assistance may be available; contact the SBDC for details.

For more information about the Inventors Bootcamp, contact the SBDC.

For more information about the SoCo Entrepreneur Competition, visit sococomp.org.

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