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Turning Innovation Into Enterprise

TCWV in the News

Entrepreneurship is Key to Economic Growth

The State Journal, Feb. 12, 2016

Anne Barth is executive director of TechConnect West Virginia, a nonprofit organization working to advance innovation-based economic development and growth in West Virginia.

Just as a modern transportation system requires roads, bridges, ramps, signage and more, a healthy entrepreneurial environment requires a complete system of interconnected infrastructure to move ahead.

Training in business and finance, technical assistance, the availability of many forms of capital investment and opportunity must all come together in the right sequence to support the men and women who are starting businesses and creating jobs in the Mountain State.

In West Virginia and throughout Appalachia, the network of support for entrepreneurs is stronger than ever before, and remaining gaps continue to be filled so people who want to start a business can find the help they need.

Tough times can bring out the best and the unexpected, and it can happen right here in West Virginia.

Of particular note and interest is that 100 of the firms listed in the 2015 “Inc. 5000” list are located in Appalachia, including Allegheny Science & Technology in Bridgeport. Things that seemed unthinkable even a few years ago are well underway, like Bit Source, a start up in Pikeville, Kentucky, that taught former coal miners how to write computer code.

What we have to do is make sure there is access to a healthy entrepreneurial network. TechConnect West Virginia helps to tell the story and connect people with resources in our quest to strengthen the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. You may be born an entrepreneur, but you likely still need specialized assistance to achieve your dreams. Universities, agencies, investors, service providers and nonprofit firms are working together to weave a strong foundation for individuals who are turning their talents and skills into enterprise.

The West Virginia Small Business Development Center has undergone a total transformation over the past few years, with business coaches delivering one-on-one consultations that lead to business growth. Through innovative public-private partnerships, more coaches are working across the state, helping individuals fulfill their dreams of operating their own businesses.

Regional entities such as the Charleston Area Alliance, the Eastern Panhandle Technology Innovation Center in Charles Town and the West Virginia Hive in Beckley offer a place for entrepreneurs to gather with experts and learn from one another. New specialized incubators, such as ChemCeption, the nation’s only chemistry-based incubator, housed at the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in South Charleston, offer industry-specific assistance. The I-79 Technology Park’s incubator features a range of client firms, many led by women.

Higher education plays a critical role in this effort, and both West Virginia University and Marshall University are upping their game to advance the entrepreneurial culture across the state. WVU’s LaunchLab, in the just-opened Evansdale Crossing, offers a resource center for people to come and build their business. Marshall offers a wide range of entrepreneurial assistance at the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing and its EDA University Center. The statewide collegiate business plan competition produces a wide range of viable business ideas, from agriculture technologies to alternative energy to new advances in health care delivery.

Thanks to a generous gift from BrickStreet Insurance to the WVU College of Business & Economics, West Virginia now has a high school business plan competition. If you ever need to be reminded that great ideas come from our students, check out the winners of this annual contest. The state Department of Education’s “Simulated Workplace” model, being used in high schools around the state, is showing impressive results in increasing graduation rates, helping students to learn important workplace skills and develop a strong work ethic. And there may be a new company or two formed around the work of these amazing students. Meanwhile, a new initiative called EntreEd is introducing entrepreneurial concepts to high schools in three counties, with assistance from the Appalachian Regional Commission. The community and technical colleges are in the game too, with Eastern WV Community and Technical College’s New Biz Launchpad, complete with an Entrepreneur-in-Residence, as just one example.

Businesses need financing to get off the ground, and West Virginia is making strides in this area. A group of “angel funders” launched the West Virginia Growth Investment LLC to help promote small business and economic development in the region. Meanwhile, other entities are working together in a coordinated network to support small business growth and expansion, including the WV Jobs Investment Trust, the INNOVA Commercialization Fund, and the Natural Capital Investment Fund.

Do we need to do more? Certainly. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed a “Self-Employment Assistance Act” to support individuals laid-off in starting their own business. That makes good sense. And a bill has been introduced in the Legislature to bring intrastate crowdfunding to the state, creating another option for accessing capital. There’s some discussion about starting a women’s angel investment fund, to be comprised of women investors who make investments in women-owned businesses.

Dark clouds currently loom over our state’s economy, but there are many people and organizations working hard to turn things around. Let’s all work together to provide support to the entrepreneurs who are launching new companies and creating new jobs.