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.
Plug and Play Topeka is back, Lindsay Lebahn said, announcing the accelerator program’s second cohort of startups — including a surging Kansas City company — and revealing ways the effort has redefined the definition of entrepreneurship in the Sunflower State’s epicenter.
“Realistic expectations of Topeka have changed,” explained Lebahn, program manager and a key player in bringing the San Francisco-based accelerator’s presence to Topeka two years ago.
“Topeka is really starting to believe in Topeka. … I think a lot of that [has to do with the] revitalization of downtown. We’ve had a lot of things happen throughout the years, but they would happen in pockets,” she continued, highlighting the efforts of GO Topeka to establish an innovation hub and center near and along Kansas Avenue — and a massive opportunity for connectivity in Shawnee County that comes with it.
“Things were happening, but not necessarily in a centralized location. Unless you lived in that area or visited that area, you didn’t really notice it and didn’t really feel it … but this revitalization of downtown has really helped the momentum of Topeka and I think Topekans are now starting to realize that there’s stuff to do here, there’s opportunities.”
Having successfully launched its first cohort virtually earlier this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Plug and Play welcomed 10 new startups into its animal health program last month. Among them, Kansas City-based Kenzen — a biometric platform and maker of a workplace safety, smart patch that monitors heat, fatigue and over exertion on the job.
Click here to learn more about Kenzen in a Startland News special report, broadcast in partnership with Bank of America.
Additional participants, chosen by founding partners of the Plug and Play Topeka program Cargill, Evergy, and Hills Pet Nutrition, include: Aegis Packaging, Singapore; Birdstop, San Francisco, California; ISO Thrive, Manassas, VA; Lumin, Charlottesville, Virginia; Maven, Portugal; Nanox, Newton, Massachusetts; Pepperai, New York, New York; Sniffypet; Calgary, Alberta; and Tarot Analytics, Paris, France.
“It’s more than just animal health,” Lebahn said of the cohort and the problems they’re working to solve.
“We’ve seen a lot more [companies tackling] sustainability [and] workforce issues with COVID changing everything. Our partners are really looking to make sure that they are doing everything they can for their company and to make sure that they’re the top of the line, they’ve got the newest, latest, greatest technology.”
Less than a month into the program, current cohort companies have already received interest from venture firms who’ve participated in the program — just one result of Plug and Play’s intentional, cross-vertical programming and events, which see frequent collaboration with its North Dakota-based agtech accelerator and its Silicon Valley-based food-focused program.
Nine nondisclosure agreements have been signed between startups and corporations involved in the first program, Lebahn added, indicating there’s power in the program and its setup.
Click here for a full description of each startup or here to learn more about the Plug and Play Topeka program and past participants.
Plug and Play Topeka has also welcomed new faces to its team for round two, Lebahn said. Eric Buda, senior corporate partnership manager; Bhawna Thairani, ventures associate; and Abbigail McCory, program intern.
The success of the Plug and Play program is no surprise to Katrin Bridges, senior vice president of innovation at GO Topeka and the driving force behind the city’s ecosystem building efforts, she said.
“When I first started a little over three years ago, we developed a strategic framework for what it would take to put Topeka on the map in the animal health corridor and also enhance the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Bridges recalled, noting GO Topeka ultimately realized it would take three things: programming, places, and people.
With the city’s $13.5 million ASTRA Innovation District now a ground break away from reality, innovation has officially taken hold in “Top City” — and there’s no turning back, she said.
“If you want to generate more activity and attract startups, then you actually have to have a compelling place that is appropriate for an entrepreneur that wants to grow. They need the right resources and to be surrounded by support and [so they can get] connected to potential clients,” Bridges said, referencing the significance the Plug and Play presence has had in elevating Topeka in the startup space.
“We’re very proud of the partnership that we have built with Plug and Play over the last two-and-a-half years now and seeing this come to fruition. [We now have a] constant flow of startups that become aware of what we’re building and aware of our ecosystem.”
While there’s no official timeline for the debut of ASTRA, Bridges told Startland News it could begin to welcome startups and entrepreneurs by the end of 2022.
Click here to read more about the site expected to house the innovation district and center.
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.