Missoula’s Innovation Initiative: shortening the entrepreneurial curve

The distance between drawing board and groundbreaking product or service has never been short, nor has the line been straight. It’s vital that as an entrepreneur you do your homework, understand your market, secure the necessary capital and get it all right. However, in a business environment ruled by TechCrunch, mashup competitions and frenzied venture capital pitches, you have to accomplish that due diligence quickly, lest a competitor beat you to market.

Innovative Initiative: Woman drawing arrow graphEnter Innovation-based Economic Development programs. These community efforts pair entrepreneurs who have innovative ideas with the resources, insight and expertise they need to turn those ideas into real, life-and-blood companies.

And at long last, Missoula has its very own IBED program.

Innovation Initiative is a cooperative effort between Missoula Economic Partnership, The University of Montana Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program (12-2013 note: now UM-managed  te Montana Technology Enterprise Center) and Hellgate Venture Network.

Brigitta Miranda-Freer of the Missoula Economic Partnership describes the initiative as a “launching pad” for new innovations and believes it has the power to create new companies and new jobs in Missoula. “Our strategic goals include increasing innovation and encouraging entrepreneurship. Specifically, we’re working to encourage 25 new startups with truly innovative or tech-related concepts,” says Miranda-Freer. “Innovation Initiative is step one.”

The program centers on helping entrepreneurs make the connections they need. Those connections vary, but often include capital, marketing, business planning, financial management, supply chain research, legal advice, manufacturing assistance and human resources management.

Toward this end, the initiative offers seminars, brown bag lunch events and round-table discussions directed at common areas of need for innovative startups. In addition, it creates direct opportunities for participants to connect with seasoned entrepreneurs and venture fund managers. In fact, members of the Hellgate Venture Network, including co-founders Paul Gladen and Dawn McGee, will host the initiative’s workspace weekly.

Gladen is an entrepreneur and former partner at Arthur Andersen, where he established the firm’s research and innovation center. McGee heads up Goodworks Ventures, a private venture fund that invests in paradigm-changing early- and mid-stage companies. Both are excellent resources for vetting business plans, tuning up venture capital presentations and connecting with other Missoula professionals in a variety of disciplines.

“As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to think that it’s you and your idea against the world,” Gladen says. “Innovation Initiative’s greatest strength is that it proves just the opposite. It helps entrepreneurs connect and share ideas with people who are very much like themselves, very much asking the same sorts of questions, all while linking them to professionals who’ve built successful companies.”

Innovation Initiative facilitates networking through its programs and through its physical location — a collaborative workspace at MonTEC on East Broadway. This space offers an open work area with free Wi-Fi. In addition, Innovation Initiative is in the process of creating a website with a calendar of events, tech and innovation blog, and an “ask an expert” forum. All with the goal of incubating connection among Missoula’s innovative startups.

Studies show that connection and networking can be vital to the long-term success of startup ventures, and benefit communities too. Entrepreneurs who participate in programs like Innovation Initiative get their companies off the ground faster, find capital more easily and launch with a greater measure of certainty. From a community perspective, helping these entrepreneurs is smart.

“Entrepreneurs supported by programs like Innovation Initiative tend to stay in their communities, pay excellent wages and grow quickly once they’re up and running,” explains Miranda-Freer.

That has job and economic implications, yes, but it also brings other major benefits. Programs like Innovation Initiative keep intellectual capital in the community, attract new business from outside the market and create a hub of entrepreneurial activity that builds on itself exponentially.

“These programs are perpetual entrepreneur machines,” Gladen adds. “As they mature, they develop the next generation of entrepreneurs who then develop the next generation, and so on. Each larger, more diverse and more prepared to address the demands of starting a business than the last.”

Involvement in Innovation Initiative is open to all entrepreneurs and is free, including the use of the workspace at MonTEC. The group only asks that you complete and submit a profile of your business and needs, in order to better connect you with support resources.

The day you start an innovative business is the day the clock begins ticking on your entrepreneurial growth curve. Innovation Initiative is a powerful resource that can help you shorten that curve by finding professional services, tapping into venture capital, making invaluable contacts and learning from the entrepreneurs who walked the walk before you.

You have a vision. Missoula’s Innovation Initiative has resources to help you realize it.

OPEN HOURS:  Wednesdays from 5 to 9 p.m.; Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

LOCATION:  MonTEC building, 1121 East Broadway

HOSTS:  Members of the Hellgate Venture Network

CONTACT:  Carol Hedges, Missoula Economic Partnership, 406.541.6461

COST:  Free

Join us for the official opening of Innovation Initiative on April 11 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at MonTEC, 1121 East Broadway.

Missoula Economic Partnership | 500 N. Higgins Ave. | Suite 300 | Missoula, Montana 59802 | P: 406.541.6461 | F: 406.541.6464