City scores low for aid to startups

October 19th, 2017

By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

The key to supporting entrepreneurs comes down to asking one question: What can I do to help?

Ask it consistently without worrying about what's in it for you, consultant Chris Heivly said Wednesday morning.

And don't neglect to follow through with help promised to budding business owners, he added.

Heivly was in town to present Techstars' report on the community's support system for startups. About 70 local movers and shakers attended the event at Sweetwater Sound.

Heivly, who lives in Durham, North Carolina, is entrepreneur-in-residence at Techstars and co-founder of MapQuest. Techstars bills itself as a worldwide entrepreneur network based in Boulder, Colorado.

Fort Wayne is one of five communities Techstars is working with this year in a pilot program. Others include Cleveland and Lima, Peru.

Using the consulting firm's metrics, Heivly rated Fort Wayne a 1 on a 1-to-7 scale for entrepreneurial ecosystems. A 7 on the scale is the most advanced or mature environment.

Among his recommendations were an increased focus on the roles of Electric Works, the development underway on the former General Electric campus, and Start Fort Wayne, a nonprofit created two years ago to offer mentoring and space to those who want to become entrepreneurs.

Heivly also suggested that more events bring people together to network, giving them an opportunity to support each other's efforts.

Rhonda Ladig, Start Fort Wayne's executive director, said she was amazed how often her nonprofit was mentioned in the recommendations.

“I feel like I have a large task list now,” she said after the presentation. “These are all things that we, as an organization, have on our short- and long-term strategy list.”

Heivly described Fort Wayne's low score as an environment for entrepreneurs as a positive, saying the community didn't have a lot of bad habits to unlearn.

But, he added, some things in place aren't working well.

Some groups are “using a lot of the entrepreneurial oxygen in Fort Wayne,” he said. “Competing and fighting and silos don't work in community building.”

Heivly offered rather harsh words specifically for the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, which is located near IPFW and Ivy Tech Community College Northeast.

“I've got to call the NIIC out. They're operating under the old model,” Heivly said, referring to fees that entrepreneurs pay for office space and various support services.

“I heard from many entrepreneurs that the NIIC and other resources here are not the place for them,” he added.

Karl LaPan, the Innovation Center's president and CEO, couldn't attend Heivly's presentation. Reached Wednesday afternoon by phone, LaPan said his continually evolving program has helped numerous entrepreneurs. He believes the community needs to embrace various efforts to help startups rather than discarding programs that work in favor of newer efforts.

“I don't see it as an either/or,” he said.

John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, agreed with LaPan that there's a place for the Innovation Center among multiple efforts.

“Nobody has to take it on the chin about this,” Sampson said in a phone interview.

LaPan acknowledged his organization can improve. Getting better, he said, will come from implementing methods proven elsewhere. It's an ongoing process.

“(Heivly) obviously doesn't understand our programs and services,” LaPan said. “They have evolved over 17 years.”

LaPan was troubled by the fact that the Electric Works project was so strongly endorsed in the report, which was paid for, in part, by RTM Ventures, the group developing Electric Works.

“I think if I paid $75,000 that I could get the answer I wanted, too,” he said.

Sampson confirmed the $75,000 price tag, which was split between RTM Ventures, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and Elevate Northeast Indiana. Sampson is on Elevate's board.

After his formal remarks, Heivly said the firms paying for the study didn't influence the results. In fact, he said, he didn't know who had commissioned the report when he visited Fort Wayne for two weeks in July and interviewed 31 people to gather information.

“The only thing I think about in my equation is what's best for entrepreneurs,” he said, adding that he's seen the positive influence the American Tobacco Campus has had on Durham's entrepreneurs. “That's why I'm supportive of Electric Works.”

Earlier in the day, also at Sweetwater Sound, Thomas Eggleston of M25 Group in Chicago spoke at a gathering of local entrepreneurs. He talked about an assessment the firm made of the Fort Wayne market, which ranked 29th of 54 Midwestern cities.

“Many cities like Fort Wayne have resources but lack collaboration,” Eggleston said.

Fort Wayne also fell short in startup history and resources, he said. But it ranked second overall in economics and demographics.