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TOPEKA — Collaboration is the catalyst behind Topeka’s swelling entrepreneurial ecosystem, shared Lindsay Lebahn, and it’s attracting innovation from across the globe.
“Plug and Play Topeka sees a lot of success because of a willingness for everyone to think differently, but work collaboratively,” explained Lebhan, senior program manager for the capital city accelerator and innovation platform that’s part of a global Plug and Play network.
“Innovation is this gray term. It’s everything and nothing at the same time. It looks differently for every company,” she continued. “Collaboration is the color to the grayness of innovation, and that’s what makes this special.”
Plug and Play Topeka wrapped its fifth Animal Health accelerator program cohort June 15 with an Animal Health and AgTech Expo — hosted in collaboration with GO Topeka and Plug and Play’s North Dakota-based AgTech program. The expo included companies from the global accelerator’s seventh AgTech cohort.
Of the 15 participating companies at the event, several expressed interest in spending more time in Topeka, Lebahn reported; whether that means planting permanent roots or exploring partnerships and other collaborative opportunities with area companies, startup resources, or Plug and Play partners. Such moves could spell a variety of major wins for the City of Topeka, which annually works to recruit new residents through its Choose Topeka program.
Click here to read more about Plug and Play Topeka or its previous cohorts and their impact
“They could really see the willingness of everyone wanting to work together and build this ecosystem to support startups,” explained Stephanie Moran, senior vice president of innovation for GO Topeka, adding companies at the expo were impressed by the strong sense of collaboration within the city, which has intentionally worked to create a network of interconnected resources that spans university systems, corporations, government agencies, and resource partners.
“We have the animal health corridor and a strong agtech presence here,” she added. “That’s a strong pull for them and they’re wanting to have discussions about what their own presence could look like here in the area.”
Silicon Valley-based (and lauded) Plug and Play first announced plans to enter the Topeka market with an animal health and agtech focused program in fall 2019. Since then, the three-month program has accelerated 65 animal health startups, resulting in 45 NDAs.
“We’re really trying to showcase Topeka as a hub of innovation,” Moran said. “Having this accelerator program here helps to highlight the resources we have available and the willingness of the community to partner and work with these startups.”
The 2023 cohorts included startups from Israel, Argentina, and London, among other far-flung locales, Lebahn noted. They also reflect innovation within the spaces occupied by the program’s founding sponsors — Cargill, Evergy, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and Bimini Pet Health.
“The cohort showcases the broad aspect of what animal health and agtech truly are,” she said, adding that when people think of work being done in the animal health sector specifically, their minds often only conceive of dog treats or toys — overlooking or all-together-missing innovations focused on such as concerns as sustainability, advanced manufacturing, alternative proteins, and artificial intelligence.
Through the expo, its 176 attendees were exposed to all of these areas, the organizers said. 30 speakers took the stage to share insights from across industries.
“You saw every piece of our ecosystem present, which really made for a lot of fruitful conversations for everyone involved,” Lebahn said.
Startup resources from venture capital investors, experts, and mentors (and from across the region) helped connect founders through panels and program success stories — including the tale of Bond Pet Foods, a recent collaborator of Hill’s Pet.
“One of the things that we’ve been working really hard on is — not only showcasing Topeka and Shawnee County — but also our partners in Manhattan and Lawrence and surrounding areas that are providing those support resources as well,” Moran said.