Cities Compete For Title of Best in Class

GEC Cities Challenge
By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas and it is no wonder that those working on best-in-class programs and policies to support entrepreneurs are focusing their attention on cities. Whether through engagement of mayors or metropolitan-level data analysis, policymakers are bullish on local government and communities.

Given the increase in competition among cities to host the annual Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC), it is no surprise that the GEC next month in Milan will showcase how entrepreneurship is being supported at the urban level. Cities around the world are sharing what they have been doing to help entrepreneurs in their efforts to launch and scale—and it isn’t just well-known startup hubs. Up-and-coming cities have been making their case for why their location deserves the spotlight at the upcoming global gathering in Milan, resulting in the creation of a GEC Cities Challenge.

What makes the best location for entrepreneurship is a function of many factors, including finding talent, customer base and regulatory framework. Moreover, as Dane Stangler, vice president for Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation and Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville, KY, recently expressed on Forbes, urban vibrancy doesn’t necessarily or exclusively happen through grand projects or planned spaces. GEC organizers have narrowed the list down to 50. Below are some of the features emphasized by some U.S. nominees.

Kansas City, MO: An Entrepreneur-led Community

Kansas City, MO, has much to boast about to the global entrepreneurship community. Most notably, it has successfully engaged entrepreneurs by facilitating Google Fiber's deployment in the city. The Kansas City Startup Village sprang up around one of the first neighborhoods in Kansas City to get Google’s superfast internet. This entrepreneur-led Village has captured extensive national coverage for the entrepreneurs who went to Kansas City for gigabit speed and stayed for the vibrant entrepreneurial community palpable during conversations at 1 Million Cups, Startup Grind, Code for America Brigade, Geek Nights, aSTEAMvillage, KCSourcelink and more.

On the regulatory front, in 2011, the City Council's Special Committee on Small Business made 67 recommendations for changes to support small business and entrepreneurship, and appointed an Assistant City Manager for Small Business and Entrepreneurship, among other measures. In 2012, it obtained support from the Code for America Fellowship. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Mayors of Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS, is captured in this sketchbook prepared by the Kauffman Foundation which of course is headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri:

Madison, WI: Evolving in time

Madison is constantly renewing its entrepreneurial appeal. Most recently, public and private partners have been working with the Madison entrepreneurial community to create Starting Block, a maker space for creativity and entrepreneurial exploration. “Not only are the scientists and the ‘geeks’ who love this concept excited about it, but the whole larger community is, they support it and this support is critical for getting the financing, the land use controls and all that is necessary to make that space happen,” explains Ruth Rohlich of the City of Madison.

Saint Louis, MO: Breathing life into physical spaces for entrepreneurs

We all know that merely building a bioscience corridor or similar engineering projects does not guarantee entrepreneurial success, but Saint Louis has managed to turn spaces for startup talent into lively ecosystems. The community is what turned its several spaces into breeding grounds of saleable startups. That is the case for the T-REX co-working space, the Cambridge Innovation Center, and the Cortex innovation district, and more.

Louisville, KY: Combing the nation for best practices

In November 2014, Mayor Fischer hosted the Kauffman Foundation’s second annual Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship, which brought mayors and entrepreneurship experts together to discuss ways to promote startup activity and encourage higher levels of entrepreneurship in their cities. From the call for bottom-up experimentation to the policy practices like the Louisville immigrant entrepreneurship initiatives, it became clear that “the manual to making an entrepreneurial city is being created in Louisville and cities like it across America”, as jointly expressed by Mayor Fischer and Stangler. Mayor Fischer, a seasoned entrepreneur himself, is helping enrich that manual.

Durham, NC: Turning a real estate problem into a job-creating startup community

Durham’s once abandoned downtown now features The American Underground, one of the eight Google for Entrepreneur tech hubs in North America. By transforming an old tobacco warehouse, this campus community is able to house more than 180 startups, which have in aggregate raised $40.5 million in funding and created 323 new jobs in 2014. Governor Pat McCrory, Congressman David Price and Mayor Bill Bell have all publicly congratulated the American Underground on its economic impact.

The American Underground has strong links to the larger area, including the Research Triangle Park (RTP), just a few miles away. Its partnership with RTP, for example, includes a new initiative that supports employees laid off by larger corporations in the Park with free workspace should they desire to start a company.

Hamilton, OH: Leveraging its unique characteristics and strengths

The Hamilton Mill business incubator is undertaking a unique approach to revitalizing a traditionally defined "rustbelt" city. With a “cleantech” focus, its public-private startup vision capitalizes on the fact that the City of Hamilton owns and operates all four major utilities – the only city in the state of Ohio that does this. The Hamilton Mill partnership with the city of Hamilton introduced the “City as a Lab” program which allows startups to test their cleantech innovations with the city’s public utilities. This proof of concept approach replaced the typical government subsidy method. Additionally, the city government granted two employees on loan for the project. This permitted the public sector to work in close proximity to the city’s entrepreneurs rather than from a government building.

Charleston, SC: Political vision for a community-based approach

In 2011, the City of Charleston launched the Digital Corridor, a public-private initiative that is a key part of the city’s overall economic development strategy. In its nomination, the city government was particularly recognized for allowing the executors of the Digital Corridor partnership to listen to the need of actual entrepreneurs in building the four pillars of the initiative: Community + Talent + Spaces + Capital. “One of the most valuable/primary intakes for developing the ecosystem are the tech companies (vs. consultants) who provide ‘real-time’ and constant input into the respective needs and the changing tech industry,” said Ernest Andrade, director of the Charleston Digital Corridor and City of Charleston's Office of Business Development. Following the actual entrepreneurs’ advice, for example, the Corridor launched CODEcamp in 2012, allowing over 750 students to take coding classes.

Columbia, SC: Multiple feeders

When responding to the question of who contributes to the ecosystem, the City of Columbia Office of Economic Development responds: “The Mayor's Office, the Office of Economic Development, Office of Business Opportunities, the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, the University of South Carolina, SOCO and Iron Yard, EngenuitySC, IT-oLogy, the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, the South Carolina Department of Commerce's Office of Innovation, and 1 Million Cups.” While the city is still in its early stages of articulating and measuring entrepreneurial impact, the recognition that the role of local government is to support entrepreneurship rather than controlling it bodes well for its future.

Rockhill, SC: Leapfrogging into the new economy

“City leaders have been on a 10-year focused mission to leapfrog into the new economy through developing the entrepreneur and innovation economy,” explains Jason Broadwater, founder and president of RevenFlo, a successful startup in the heart of the city’s “Knowledge Park”. Winthrop University, York Technical College, the City Economic Development Staff, the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation, the York County Chamber of Commerce, and the Arts Council of York County have collaborated with a shared vision to create make Rock Hill an economy based on the innovation and entrepreneur economy. It now boasts a vibrant cultural village that is the highest employment district in the county.

Memphis, TN: Benchmarking success

The City of Memphis’ Office of Talent and Human Capital is committed to benchmarking the success of its efforts to build the ecosystem. For example, the Entrepreneur Powered Innovation Center (EPICenter) initiative started in March 2014 with clear objectives. The EPICenter will only be considered a success if it creates 1,000 new entrepreneurs in 500 new businesses, creating 4,500 new jobs in the next 10 years. Additionally, the City of Memphis uses as benchmark the data collected by the Kauffman Foundation that shows over the last decade Memphis new business entry rates peaked in 2004 at 9.3 percent.

Knoxville, TN: Entrepreneurs In Residence

“We began to realize that the one voice that truly matters in a startup community - that of an entrepreneur - wasn’t being heard. We also realized that only an entrepreneur could faithfully articulate the reasons why our region is succeeding as a hub of startup activity. So we approached one such talented Knoxvillian, the founder of companies such as Artist Growth and Bandposters, and current Entrepreneur in Residence at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC)”, explains Jim Biggs from KEC. He appreciates that an entrepreneur’s “candid appraisal of our startup scene” is a voice that speaks “with a passion and clarity that feeders can rarely muster”. The private KEC launched in April of 2013, with the vision of being the “front door” for entrepreneurs in East Tennessee by providing classes, mentoring, connection to customers, and accelerator programs focused on two of Knoxville’s greatest competitive sectors: energy and digital media.

Dallas, TX: Taking the pulse of entrepreneurship

Founded in 2013, the Dallas Entrepreneur Center (DEC) partnered with the Kauffman Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas to conduct the North Texas Startup Scene Survey in order to get a better understanding of the startup scene and its companies. These and other data points compiled from other sources, direct from organizations in the community, are reflected in the web site of the State of Entrepreneurship Address in Dallas in December of 2014.

Charlotte, NC: Large companies have a role

While the government is mostly focused on bringing in fortune 500 companies, this does not discourage entrepreneurial leaders in the community in Charlotte. In fact, the ecosystem feeders include the large banks that draw people to Charlotte. QC Fintech, a national accelerator, for example partnered with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Experian, North Highland Consulting and others. In the meantime, the Business Innovation and Growth Council is working to track job growth and salaries of high growth startups in Charlotte through a survey.

New Haven, CT: Crowdsourcing solutions from scalable startups

The current startup community in New Haven began to develop in the 1990s, as the city sought to reinvent itself after the decline of manufacturing. The biotechnology firms that were founded in New Haven, often built on research developed at Yale, inspired a new mindset in the city and state. The City of New Haven has been actively seeking entrepreneurial solutions created by startups to problems the city faces. For example, it chose a New Haven software startup and its product, Veoci, to manage its emergency response activities. In addition, the city was the first municipal partner of SeeClickFix, a New Haven-based startup that operates a platform for citizens to report non-emergency issues, and allows governments to track, manage, and communicate.

Reno, NV: The power of organic catalyst events

The New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, GigaOm and other newspapers have all written about Reno’s new entrepreneurial awakening, most visible at the Startup Row, consisting of about a dozen of startup companies working within a couple blocks on each other in downtown Reno. According to the nomination, the city’s entrepreneurial awakening as a community dates to when Reno became the sixth city in the US and the first city on the West Coast to have a local 1 Million Cups event. Since its launch almost two years ago, 1 Million Cups is a constant source of inspiration, idea generation and a great launch pad for new entrepreneurs to introduce their ideas. To date, Reno 1 Million Cups has been the fastest growing event, featuring over 100 presentations of new ideas and companies.

All of the above cities are competing with nominations received from across five continents in the GEC Cities Challenge. The top five finalists as well as the winning city will be announced soon on

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