By Shelbi LeMeilleur
By definition, an ecosystem is a system of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment. In order to have a successful ecosystem, each part of the whole needs to contribute and provide support for the rest. There are many different types of ecosystems and Bryan/College Station has a very unique one. The two cities provide the perfect environment for startup companies and entrepreneurs.
Starting a business can be tough, and at times, risky. There are many things needed for a business to get its feet off of the ground. Luckily, B/CS provides an endless amount of resources to make it possible. Accelerators, incubators, co-working spaces, and angel investors are a few of the organisms in this ecosystem that work cohesively to create the best businesses possible, along with a community and university that provide an unmatched support system.
For businesses that are just starting out, an incubator or an accelerator is the best place to begin. Both are designed to accelerate the growth of a business through the resources and support they are able to provide. While both have the same end goal in mind – creating a successful business – they differ in the speed of growth.
An incubator aims to nurture the business and grow over time, whereas an accelerator speeds up the process in a few months, rather than a year or so. Some startups have simpler needs, so a co-working, or maker space, is the best place to grow their business.
B/CS has several incubators and accelerators, including Startup Aggieland, Innovation Underground, and Seed Sumo. Each provides different resources and mentors who will help new businesses and entrepreneurs thrive, yet each is unique in its own way.
Startup Aggieland is an accelerator at Texas A&M University focused on helping students leverage state and community resources, and the Aggie Network, to create new businesses while enrolled at Texas A&M, according to Shelly Brenckman, marketing coordinator and one of the co-founders of Startup Aggieland.
The program provides 24/7 access to resources, such as co-working spaces, professional mentors, training, and networking opportunities. “One of the main resources that we have here is free co-working and office space,” says Brenckman. “It’s sort of like a watering hole that all of the students can come to and bounce ideas off of each other, bounce ideas off of mentors, [and] access mentors’ networks in an
informal atmosphere.” Other popular resources the program offers include free legal services and free web hosting.
Javier Cepeda, a graduate of Startup Aggieland and the president of Good Bull Parking, says the resources and environment of Startup Aggieland foster the entrepreneurial spirit. “It is a blessing to be in an atmosphere that encourages you to take risks, that promotes ‘weird and crazy’ ideas, and ultimately a place where students can find a commonality and commodity with like-minded peers.”
Many of these resources can be found at other incubators or accelerators, but Brenckman stresses that Startup Aggieland isn’t just about growing a successful business.
“We’re about educating the students on entrepreneurship,” says Brenckman. “Whether that’s exploring entrepreneurship or actively launching a startup, we make it possible for any student at any level to get involved. But we do it in such a way that people want to be together; it’s not about making money so much as it is about learning.”
Acoustic Shield is one of the current startup companies enrolled in the Startup Aggieland Program. Operations Manager Virginia Neese also believes Startup Aggieland has a mentality focused on learning. “At Startup Aggieland, there’s a huge focus on the process,” Neese explains. “Your first idea may not be what’s the most successful, but if you learn how to go through those steps and make those connections, then in the future when you launch into something else, then you’ve already gone through that…They want to teach their students so that they can be successful later on.”
Seed Sumo is an accelerator that picks eight to 10 startup companies a year, funds them with $50,000, and runs a boot-camp during the summer for three months to launch the companies. As the companies emerge, Seed Sumo will actually provide addition funding – up to $500,000. Many of the resources they provide are similar to those at Startup Aggieland, like the mentor program and office space.
Each of the four co-founders of Seed Sumo had background as entrepreneurs, but didn’t have help when they started their own companies, says Managing Director and Co-founder of Seed Sumo Bryan Bulte. “We didn’t come from money and didn’t have these resources to help us, so once we had finally made it…we wanted to help others make it,” says Bulte. “We saw all these people with really good ideas, but they would never do it or they would never make it. We were like, ‘Well we know why, because you don’t know these things,’ so we just wanted to help them.”
As with any ecosystem, Seed Sumo couldn’t be successful without the help of the other parts in play. Bulte expresses how instrumental the community has been in the company’s success, especially being so close to a university that supports startups and constantly provides new talent. In the future, Seed Sumo hopes to expand with the communities help. “We want to create an entrepreneurial playground that has office space, makers space, [and] co-working space,” says Bulte. “We want it to be one place, that if you’re an entrepreneur, you can come to, and basically take it from beginning to end, helping you grow your company, but we need everyone in town to help with that.”
Co-working spaces – like The Hub, The Garage, and BinarySpace, offer office space for rent, while fostering an environment that allows businesses to help each other grow.
James M. Benham, owner of BinarySpace, says his company provides offices by the desk, shared conference space, event space and a full-service MakerSpace, including 3D Printing, wood working, welding and more. BinarySpace provides much needed resources in the startup ecosystem that aren’t found anywhere else in B/CS.
“We’re the only co-working space with a combined MakerSpace, audio and video lab, and much, much more,” Benham explains. “We also provide a broad array of technical resources, including very high speed broadband, that only could come with our background and experience in the needs of high-tech companies and creative professionals.”
B/CS may have all the elements needed in an ecosystem, but what really sets it apart is the support system the community provides.
“In the larger towns, you’re going to have a lot of competition for [startup companies],” says Brenckman. “Here, it’s still so new, that people are…not jaded. They’re willing to help you. It’s just a great time to be here…It’s electric. Things are happening. The university is on board with entrepreneurship. The community understands it now, and they see it as an economic development.”
Benham resonates why B/CS truly is the best place for startup companies and entrepreneurs: “We have it all, from student startup classes, to Startup Aggieland, Seed Sumo, co-working [spaces], great broadband internet, fantastic data centers and most importantly, a great community of entrepreneurs who want to see our cities become the next great economic powerhouse of Texas.”
Aggie Angel Network
Across the country there are hundreds of Angel Networks. Angel Networks are matchmakers between investors and emerging technology companies that need money, according to Chris Scotti, consultant – company coaching and vetting for Aggie Angel Network.
Aggie Angel Network is a university-associated network, created by Texas A&M University and the Research Valley Partnership, with the intent to fund technologies that spin out of Texas A&M. However, the Aggie Angel Network accepts a diverse set of companies. Investors and companies do not have to be Aggies, but most of them are.
Investing in these companies can be risky business, so Scotti says they look for certain criteria before matching companies with investors. “We look for companies, typically, that have some kind of intellectual property or have demonstrated market traction,” explains Scotti. “They may have a prototype that they have started to sell, or gotten letters of intent from companies. These are organizations that are beyond the idea stage. Maybe they’ve done some development work or gotten lawyers to talk to them, but they haven’t gone to market, typically, yet.”
Investors typically fund 10-15 companies at a time. There are individual accredited investors and group fund investors. Scotti says investors choose to fund several companies at one time, knowing that only 10 to 20 percent of them will succeed in a big way. The ultimate goal is to have a return of at least 10X or more for the investor in three years.
For more information on the Aggie Angel Network, visit aggieangelnetwork.com.