Startland News’ Startup Road Trip series explores innovative and uncommon ideas finding success in rural America and Midwestern startup hubs outside the Kansas City metro. This series is possible thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which leads a collaborative, nationwide effort to identify and remove large and small barriers to new business creation.
Silicon Valley eyes don’t immediately see a glamorous Midwest startup hub when they look at Topeka, said Katrin Bridges.
But step foot within the capital city’s limits and that perception quickly dissolves, mused the city leader driving its emergent era of innovation.
“I think people are very excited. The mindset is very entrepreneurial, people are on the move. They want to make things happen. They want to participate in making the community better,” said Bridges, senior vice president of innovation at the Greater Topeka Partnership, describing a growing energy in Topeka and the promise of new opportunities for entrepreneurs who call Shawnee County home.
“There’s a lot of entrepreneurs in our ecosystem that are just as tenacious as anybody in Silicon Valley,” she said, offering a beat on Topeka’s innovation scene — which has caught the attention of the vaunted tech epicenter. Sunnyvale, California-based Plug and Play Accelerator is soon set to launch an animal health and ag-tech accelerator in the city.
“The Plug and Play program, that comes with a lot of activity and an opportunity — but we also need to balance that with supporting our local entrepreneurial ecosystem, our local small businesses and local entrepreneurs that may not be in animal health or agtech,” she said of a fine line between embracing the momentum and creating equal opportunity for all of the area’s innovators.
Click here to read more about plans for Plug and Play, set to debut virtually this fall and backed by founding partner Cargill.
To match the tenacious energy of its entrepreneurs, challenging work remains, she said, recalling countless meetings with local and state government officials, corporate leaders, educators, and entrepreneurs themselves — each conversation designed to help her further absorb the needs of her community.
“To support the ecosystem, we need programming, we need places and we need people,” she said of findings expected to elevate ecosystem building efforts in Topeka — a key expectation of Bridges’ role at the Greater Topeka Partnership, designed just for her in 2018.
A proposed and hotly anticipated innovation district is expected to help the city provide all three Ps, she said.
“It’s all a very organic process — just as entrepreneurs solve problems wherever they show up. The best products and services are often developed by combining seemingly unrelated ideas or experiences,” Bridges continued, noting a mix of Topeka’s finest resources will be housed within the city’s downtown innovation center.
“It [will be] the hub of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, meaning it’s going to house incubator programs, resources and service providers like our women and minority program, it’s going to house my office — innovation and entrepreneurship — but also the small business development center,” she said.
Slowed by COVID-19, progress on the Topeka innovation district project briefly stalled but gained new traction in May when site candidacy was announced. Click here to read more about proposed sites.
Law offices, local universities, accounting firms, and industry focused nonprofit groups are also expected to establish a presence in the city’s innovation district once its realized.
“Because of Plug and Play and because of the momentum, we have been able to attract nationally renowned developers to work with us on that and they’re ready to move forward — depending on who we choose,” she said, noting the selection process could come before the end of the year.
“My job is to create options, to provide enough data, to make the right decisions and then execute. … It’s not just attracting startups,” Bridges added. “It’s also providing futures for our kids. We need talent. We need to retain talent. How do we retain talent? Not by paying people to stay here. We retain talent by creating dreams and visions and opportunities.”
She compared the building of the innovation district to revitalization efforts that transformed Topeka’s downtown over much of the past decade with new restaurants and entertainment options.
“I get excited when I work with really smart people and that can change the world,” Bridges said, eager to see the fruits of her and the city’s labor and excited to further develop widespread access to entrepreneurship. “I think bringing Plug and Play to Topeka and into the region is going to change our future and I get excited when that vision is shared with the whole community.”
“The sky’s the limit,” she added. “And in Topeka or in Kansas — where things are a little smaller and a little slower than on the coast — you can make a huge impact.”
The region offers many assets that too often go unspoken and unpromoted, Bridges said, but raising Topeka’s profile could change the broader innovation community’s view of Kansas.
“It’s amazing what’s possible and that dreaming big and convincing people that this is a huge opportunity to propel us forward, that’s what excites me everyday,” she said.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.