In partnership with Think Big Partners, the Innovation Exchange offers Kansas Citians context and behind-the-scenes details on newsmakers in the area entrepreneurial ecosystem.
This month, area leaders — including the Techstars Kansas city managing director Lesa Mitchell — discussed the impact that accelerators have on the metro’s entrepreneurial community. If you missed the event, you can listen to the podcast below.
Since 2014, the Kansas City-based Sprint Accelerator was powered by Techstars, a global accelerator and investment firm. But starting in 2017, these two powerhouses will divide and conquer. Techstars announced its decision to launch an independent organization in Kansas City, and Sprint Accelerator announced a new approach to focus on corporate innovation with both Dairy Farmers of America and Virgin Mobile.
Techstars Kansas City
World traveler and entrepreneurial advocate Lesa Mitchell began in January as Techstars KC’s managing director. Mitchell is a Kansas City native but plans to use her network — cultivated via a variety of organizations, including the Kauffman Foundation — from all over the world to put local entrepreneurs on the map.
“Half of my mentors are not from here,” Mitchell said. “And that reason is because I need serial entrepreneurs and I need investors. I am calling in massive favors from people that I have helped over the years.”
Mitchell said that it has been easy to engage people thus far, thanks to the attractiveness of Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. She added that the connections made through Techstars will create a ripple effect in the city. But, she warned that we shouldn’t just meet up to meet up — we have to meet up with a purpose.
“It’s not just the process, it’s also making the process stick,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell worked for Marion Laboratories at age 23 and worked with legendary Kansas City entrepreneur Ewing Marion Kauffman. She hopes to instill some of the lessons learned from him into the accelerator.
“(Kauffman) was super fun, massively tough and a bit stingy,” Mitchell said. “He treated his salespeople like gold and realized that they are your key revenue generators, no matter what business you’re in.”
Mitchell is particularly interested in recruiting companies that disintermediate a market. She is also looking for diverse founders and those who believe in social impact.
Mitchell has been an advocate for immigration reform for many years and expressed her desire to make immigrant entrepreneurs feel welcome.
“We need to be welcoming and amazing in Kansas City to those kinds of entrepreneurs,” Mitchell said. “They will grow our economy.”
Applications are now open and entrepreneurs are encouraged to apply.
Sprint Accelerator and Dairy Farmers of America
When the Dairy Farmers of America decided to come on board as a partner with the Sprint Accelerator, the large corporation — which produces one-third of all milk products in the United States — wasn’t sure what to expect.
“It was the right time for DFA,” said Kevin Strathman, vice president of finance at DFA. “We really just want to learn and see what’s out there.”
Strathman added that the firm wanted to drive new innovations in DFA’s logistics chain and learn how to better use data. The firm hopes to learn a thing or two from the entrepreneurs who are selected to the Sprint Accelerator 2017 cohort.
Sprint Accelerator manager Doug Dresslaer said that before the firms begin the 90-day program, they will establish three goals that they want to accomplish. Dresslaer hopes that each company will establish a working relationship with a corporate partner by the end of the program. Unlike the Sprint Accelerator in years past, the 2017 program will not make a financial investment in participating startups. The startups, however, will still receive many resources.
One of the main goals of the Sprint Accelerator is to encourage corporations to get more involved in the local startup scene. Dresslaer is thankful that Sprint has given them the opportunity to impact entrepreneurship in the city.
“Sprint has given us the opportunity to try and fail — just like all entrepreneurs do,” Dresslaer said.
The Lean Lab
The Lean Lab is an education innovation incubator that just had its third birthday and is gearing up for an even more rigorous 2017.
Co-founder Katie Boody said that chances are, the state of Missouri won’t fund public education to the extent that teachers and students need. This is just one of the reasons why Boody wants to buckle down and create even more of an impact this year.
A former teacher and Teach for America alum, Boody realized that teachers do not have the tools needed to prepare students for the modern world. She’s particularly excited to see the incubator improve local education.
“How can we use the education system and the community to prepare our future?” Boody said of the originating question that brought about the Lean Lab.
“We’ve been working a lot with the funding community, the local schools and community to reduce barriers to entry for the startups we work with.”
The Lean Lab invested $100,000 in five teams last year, thanks to KC Social Innovation, Village Capital and the City of Kansas City, Mo. 2016 was the first year that the incubator recruited nationally and Boody said the Lean Lab will continue that in 2017.