“Innovation, ideas, and talent are equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” 

That maxim underlies the rationale for the formation of 3 Steps to StartUp – West Virginia’s first truly integrated, collaborative, and holistic initiative to assist technology- and research-focused entrepreneurs in taking their business concept from notepad to marketplace.

We have all heard the statistics. West Virginia entrepreneurs and innovators face significant hurdles to business creation. We struggle relative to neighboring states to attract investment for startups; rank 49 out of 50 among states in adults becoming entrepreneurs; place 45th in terms of business births and patents per capita; and, we receive fewer venture capital investments, with limited funding available for early stage ventures.

These are just a few of the significant impediments to diversifying West Virginia’s economy from within.

To turn the tide, three West Virginia assistance providers – INNOVA Commercialization Group, the WV Jobs Investment Trust and TechConnect West Virginia, have launched the 3 Steps to StartUp project.  The initiative will generate small business growth and economic diversification by addressing three areas of need for early-stage startup companies: (1) Awareness and Education, (2) Commercialization Assistance, and (3) Investment.

Funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation through a federal POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) grant, the program builds on traditional business assistance programs and adds a suite of virtual resources. The overarching purpose is to accelerate entrepreneurialism and innovation to diversify the economy in West Virginia.

The innovative program offers a range of cutting-edge services and resources, like those found in more urban, tech-centric locales like Silicon Valley and Boston. The program acts as a virtual business incubator – an entrepreneur’s toolbox with a structured modular map for moving a concept forward.

Technology-focused, research driven entrepreneurs will have access to a wide swath of assistance to carry them through the startup lifecycle.

Step One – Awareness & Education

The first step of the program – “Awareness and Education” – aims to identify potential entrepreneurs, enlist their participation in the program and engage them in networking and education.  3 Steps to StartUp offers an array of awareness and learning activities to create a rich pipeline of entrepreneurs and small businesses seeking startup growth opportunities. 

Networking events, to include high-level venture fairs, an online speaker series, and LIINC events (Linking Innovation, Industry and Commercialization), will facilitate entrepreneurial education and program participation. Training topics range from corporate structure, intellectual property, branding, marketing, and sales strategies, how to pitch to investors and much more.

Step Two – Commercialization

In Step Two – the Commercialization phase – a startup’s status is assessed in terms of management capacity, company formation, professional needs, and product design/development.  The business strategy will be developed with recommendations on how best to move forward.

Entrepreneurs entering the commercialization phase will have access to three buckets of services: mentorship, professional service, and technical assistance.

The program’s Mentor Network provides entrepreneurs with experience-based mentorship and support from seasoned business executives from across the state and nation.

Early-stage entrepreneurs also have access to a diversified professional services network of nearly 20 legal firms, accounting and financial companies, technology review specialists, sales and market forecasters, and others to assist with patenting or other specific tasks. Startups will have access to grant funding to help offset costs where needed.

A statewide and national network is available to entrepreneurs who have need for specialized technical assistance. Design, proto-type and beta testing contract firms and entities are available to assist early-stage entrepreneurs from concept through final product development.

Step Three – Investment

The West Virginia Jobs Investment Trust (WVJIT) is building an Impact Fund that provides early-stage financing for 3 Steps to StartUp participants and has partnered with existing lenders and investors in the region that are well-positioned to disseminate funding to companies.

Catalyst for Change

The 3 Steps to StartUp program is led by INNOVA Commercialization Group, a venture development initiative of the West Virginia High Technology Foundation that provides access to strategic planning, business development, networks of business expertise, and early stage capital. TechConnect West Virginia, which works to strengthen the state’s innovation ecosystem, is providing program awareness, networking, and education.  The WV Jobs Investment Trust, a public venture capital fund created to expand West Virginia’s economy by making investments in eligible businesses, is managing the program’s investment Impact Fund.

The 3 Steps to Start-up program will serve entrepreneurs statewide in West Virginia.

Upon completion of the 3 Steps to Start Up program, an early-stage entrepreneur will (1) be aware of available resources and engaged in regular networking opportunities; (2) be matched with mentors, professional service providers, and technical assistance that match their businesses’ needs and grant assistance to support these services as necessary; and, (3) have access to WVJIT’s Impact Fund to help the company launch in the market.

The goal of the program is to enhance the startup pipeline and accelerate the development, job creation, investment, and market introduction of new companies in West Virginia.

We know that innovation and good ideas are equally distributed, but opportunity is not. 3 Steps to StartUp is a catalyst for change focused on providing opportunity – and leveling the playing field – for West Virginia innovators.

To learn more about the 3 Steps to StartUp program visit http://3steps2startup.com/.

Reprinted from WV Executive magazine. (Spring/Summer 2020 edition)

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