SHERIDAN — Representatives from the Wyoming Business Center and the ENDOW Executive Council briefed city and county officials Tuesday on a proposed pilot-program intended to grow Sheridan’s Wyoming Technology Business Center.
ENDOW, which stands for Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming, is an initiative championed by Gov. Matt Mead designed to coordinate and facilitate efforts to diversify Wyoming’s economy.
Part of ENDOW’s strategy is to encourage and facilitate more entrepreneurship around the state. One proposal for doing that is to build up the Wyoming Technology Business Centers around the state.
The ENDOW council identified the WTBCs in Sheridan and Casper as ideal candidates to host pilot “innovation centers,” which would merge with the WTBCs, due to the entrepreneurial environments those communities have already created.
“We wanted to leverage existing successes,” said Jesus Rios, a local businessman and member of the ENDOW Executive Council. “We wanted to build on the strong foundations we know already exist in these communities.”
The innovation centers would essentially expand the programs the WTBCs already offer.
Rios said, in particular, the centers would work to provide entrepreneurs with more access to capital that they could use to get their business off the ground.
“If you take somebody through a one- or two-year process of developing a business plan and their sales strategies and all of that and then there’s no real pipeline for them to grow their business, it can be a real challenge,” Rios said.
The pilot centers would also attempt to provide more research and development funding, provide more shared infrastructure — such as interim office space for start-up businesses — and create entrepreneurship programs at local high schools and colleges.
With those expanded services, the ENDOW council hopes the innovation center-model will be able to achieve several long-term goals. Rios said in 20 years ENDOW aspires to have encouraged $1 billion of private venture funding invested into Wyoming based start-ups, created more than 1,000 new businesses and 5,000 new jobs and retain at least 75 percent of those businesses in the state through innovation centers.
The state Legislature allocated $250,000 in fiscal year 2019 specifically for the development of innovation centers. It also allocated $2.75 million for grants intended to bolster the state’s entrepreneurial environment.
None of those grants are guaranteed to Sheridan or Casper, but WTBC director Scot Rendall said adopting the IC model would give those communities a leg up when applying for those grants.
The specifics, in terms of organizational structure and funding, for the IC model still need to be sorted out, however, and officials from the city and county were wary of the proposed change.
County Commissioner Steve Maier said while the funding the county currently contributes to the WTBC requires it to stretch its budget, its received a return on that investment and he would not want to see the control or operation of Sheridan’s WTBC change drastically.
“I’m a little careful about where we go with this because I think what we’ve got is working,” Maier said. “…It would be nice not to fund it, so if the [Wyoming Business Council] is going to do that and be more involved in a positive way, that’s probably good. But I’m being a little cautious.”
Sarah Fitz-Gerald, a chief strategy officer for the Wyoming Business Council, said the intention of the IC model was not to give the WBC control of local centers but to assist communities in building on programs that are already working.
County administrative director Renee Obermueller said there would be a gap in funding between when the funding the city and county have allocated to the WTBC this year ends and the funds the Wyoming Business Council would provide are available, which means elected officials will have to decide whether they want to shoulder that increased financial burden.
“The second question, as we dive into some of the details, is: What is this going to look like in our community?” Obermueller said.
She pointed out that there are already several organizations, including the city, the county, the county Chamber of Commerce and Forward Sheridan, broadly working on local economic development but their efforts are not always synchronized.
Rendall said he was meeting with ENDOW and WBC representatives later Tuesday to discuss the logistics of what the transition to an innovation center would look like. He plans to present those details to city and county officials and seek further input at a future meeting.