On a balmy Tuesday morning, a cadre of community leaders including Mayor Ollie Tyler, members of the Shreveport City Council and several Caddo Parish Commissioners, gathered with business leaders and entrepreneurs in the sleek, modern foyer of InterTech 1 to celebrate the Third Anniversary of the Entrepreneurial Accelerator Program (EAP). Before the unveiling of the Entrepreneurial Wall of Achievement and ceremonial cake-cutting could commence, the esteemed group listened to a celebration of achievements from EAP Executive Director David Smith. “If you had told me we would be syndicating our tech ideas all over the country I would have said ‘no we’ll be regional.’ I was wrong. $49 million in capital investments have been made in North Louisiana startups. That’s California investment dollars and New York investment dollars invested right in here Shreveport!” Smith introduced Mayor Tyler and Commission President Steven Jackson who both gave exuberant reviews of the program’s accomplishments and potential. Mayor Tyler echoed Smith’s remarks that “EAP has already brought a lot of talent back to Shreveport” and that there is potential for this to continue. Commissioner Jackson reminded the audience that this type of partnership between the private and public sectors is similar to the synergy that has made Austin, Texas a vibrant, fertile sphere for creativity and innovation.
There is a lot to celebrate. At this anniversary party eleven new success stories were added to the EAP Wall of Entrepreneurial
Achievement. These are all companies that are either launching or on the brink of launching. They are a diverse group of startups ranging from a pet education nonprofit to a film production company, from urban farming to pharmaceutical development. These startups have been vetted and deemed viable to be mentored within this rigorous program with the hopeful outcome of meeting face to face with angel investors to present their businesses. Making it to this step is no small accomplishment—the EAP has viewed over 400 ideas in the past three years, and of those ideas, 43 have become portfolio companies. From the startups vetted and launched by the EAP, 107 tech jobs have been created with an average income of $55,000. Additionally, EAP has turned $6 million of Louisiana investment dollars into $33 million dollars of outside money invested in local startups. They have provided many of these startups with the opportunity to refine their ideas via other venues within the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Shreveport, such as CoHab, a local business incubation nonprofit.
The EAP is a public private partnership between the City of Shreveport, Caddo Parish and the BRF, with funds from the parish and the city being matched by BRF. The initial agreement is for a five-year period in which EAP aims to become self-sufficient, or find other avenues of support. EAP is not a standard accelerator, with a 14-18 week curriculum that then sets entrepreneurs on a path without continual support. They, instead, see startups from the back of a napkin idea all the way to serial entrepreneurs with well-established business. They are unique in that they assist entrepreneurs on different trajectories and at various stages from diverse industries. Most accelerators focus on one area, such as biomed or pharmaceuticals or software. EAP takes on all products, all industries, and all services. The goal of EAP is to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Beyond the rigorous training protocol and the diverse assortment of industries within its ranks, EAP is uniquely equipped to change the city. This is a team that is keenly aware of the benefit of Shreveport’s small city vibe. To take on so many different types of projects in so many fields, the team leverages their strengths to maneuver in areas where they have depth and to leverage advanced social networks (who knows who) when it is necessary to reach beyond their personal spheres of influence. In Shreveport, where everyone is connected by two degrees of separation, this engages a lot of social capital. This connectedness is an asset to getting things done in Shreveport that wouldn’t be possible in a larger market. Many team members have moved back to Shreveport from much larger markets because it’s so apparent that they can bring people together here to get things done in a way that is gratifying.
The vitality of the EAP ecosystem is contingent upon its infrastructure as well as the vision of the leaders at the helm. Dave Smith’s vision for the future of EAP and its contribution to the vibrancy of Northwest Louisiana is simultaneously a life cycle. They hope to guide projects from start to finish, with a web like network leveraging social capital to connect protégés with resources available within the community. To strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem for North Louisiana requires acknowledging the gaps in capacity that exist from an academic standpoint. Many accelerators exist within settings with higher populations of students and larger numbers of doctoral research candidates who may be generating a multitude of intellectual property within an academic institution.
Where most would see obstacles, Smith sees opportunities. Because of the current dearth of productivity within the academic sphere, EAP provides assistance guiding entrepreneurs through the patent process so their intellectual property is protected. This is not a bad problem to have since there is a correlation between the number of unique patents filed in a community and the number of quality jobs generated. The increase in demand for patent training has led to LSUS offering a patent class through the Department of Business, which is taught by attorney Charles Houloubek. These incremental changes are a harbinger of a culture change and a change in our community’s perception about our entrepreneurial capacity. The city has not reached fever pitch for entrepreneurs, but incremental increases may become exponential as capacity grows.
One of the criticisms of EAP is that Shreveport’s entrepreneurial culture will never fully launch because of the lack of access to a major university such as the University of Texas in Austin. Smith responds with pragmatic optimism, stating, “we have LSU Health Science Center, and that’s not just a teaching hospital but also a research hospital.” At this point in the conversation, analyst Julie Gilley interjects, “how many college students are there along the I-20 corridor?” Smith responds, “about 115,000.” He adds that an ambitious future goal for the EAP will be to harness the potential of these college students by supporting research at academic institutions along the I-20 corridor, with the intent of creating synergy between entrepreneurs and universities. This begins by recognizing the potential and capacity of the LSU Health Science Center and Segue Science Management. The Health Science Center is a major reason for the existence of the EAP and its principal, BRF.
The EAP is a division of the BRF-Biomedical Research Foundation, an organization founded in 1986, with a mandate to build our knowledge based economy at LSU Health Science Center to diversify the local economy at a time when oil and gas was in a
significant decline. The foundation was formed with a $60,000 grant and now has a budget of $500,000 and 330 employees. Since inception, the BRF has developed 56 labs for the med school and opened an institute that has resulted in LSU Medical Center tripling its research and thus improved talent recruitment and retention. In 1995 the BRF developed the first PET imaging center in the state and then commercialized it and scaled it globally. Following this success, BRF created a 300-acre science and research park with 28 owned and operated facilities. In 2012, it became clear that biomed research didn’t have enough capacity locally for them to stay focused on that one industry. It was time to broaden, deepen, diversify and the company name changed to Building our Region’s Future.
In 2013 Governor Bobby Jindal threatened to privatize all hospitals in Louisiana. The potential closure of LSU Medical center would have been devastating to Shreveport. Enter John George, the director of BRF with years of experience running, and recently selling twenty hospitals around the country. BRF came forward with a $20 million-dollar investment to take over LSU Medical Center. University Health Hospital opened its doors in 2013 and brought the $43 million-dollar deficit to zero in its first year.
An incubator for startup companies may have a symbiotic relationship with an academic institution wherein entrepreneurs seek out innovations patented at a university that they may license and commercialize. This creates a revenue stream for the university that enables more research from more scientists. By mentoring scientists within the sphere of LSUHSC, EAP is helping to create this capacity in Shreveport.
Enter success story, Dr. Alana Gray and co-founder Dr. James Cardelli of Segue Science Management and more recently Segue Science Labs. The appeal of working with EAP for Dr. Cardelli was the business knowledge and enthusiasm of the team of mentors and analysts, “I was in academics for years and approached the EAP because I had an idea about a company, and within three months had an office at InterTech 1”. Cardelli states that while he knew the science, EAP were, “very good at financial projections and business models and they are a driving force for the entrepreneurs”. The Segue team have two companies in the EAP portfolio and have started four companies with the EAP. The most recent company is Segue Science Labs which will be their pharmaceutical discovery division. The opportunity to develop these companies and become a serial entrepreneur is giving young scientists like Cardelli’s partner Dr. Alana Gray an opportunity to develop a career and build a life in Shreveport.
Dave Smith might say that what Drs. Cardelli and Gray contribute to the ecosystem isn’t just their business ideas and the addition of a few more scientist to our community, but also an expansion of our capacity to be a breeding ground for more innovation. While a goal of the EAP is to help strengthen pathways between academia and commercialization, there is also a determination among the visionaries within the EAP leadership to be inclusive and to maintain a diversity of projects.
Michael Billings, founder of Cotton Street Farms will tell you that when he approached EAP his idea was literally still a sketch on a napkin. “We had the concept in theory but we hadn’t looked at logistics or hard numbers for the potential to be a success.” Cotton Street Farms will be an indoor, year-round hydroponic herb and vegetable farm servicing Shreveport-Bossier City. Billings credits mentor Caryn Chalmers with helping him recognize the viability of his idea and getting his concepts primed for investors. EAP assisted with developing a financial plan, but Billings had to do the hard work of creating a business and marketing plan. Billings’ company has gone from the back of a napkin to an “almost functioning” company in eight months. He just needs to finalize his building.
It is the intrepid grit and determination of Dave Smith, Julie Gilley, Caryn Chalmers, and Michael Mazure that echoes through the discussions with several entrepreneurs. This is the “x-factor” that is vital to creating the entrepreneurial ecosystem that White and his team want to create. Shreveport has undeniable potential and has been recognized on lists for its favorability as a place to launch new businesses because of the low cost of living, low cost of labor and business-friendly tax incentives. However, it is just as often criticized for poor health outcomes and low academic standing. The key to counteracting those negatives will be a change in attitude toward a “growth mindset” like the one that already exists within the offices of the EAP. This isn’t coddling entrepreneurs, but rather teaching creative idea people how to think like business people.
A major key in the vision for EAP as a catalyst for change in the entrepreneurial culture of Shreveport is diversifying the economic landscape. Two new startups are launching with EAP support that are based in film production. Eric Gibson and Jonathan Kudabeck of Gorilla Tree Inc. met via the Louisiana Film Prize and began making short films together in 2012. Gibson, a Shreveport native, honed his film production skills on the sets of feature films produced in North Louisiana when the film industry took root post-Katrina. Kudabeck, a native of Hot Springs, Arkansas, directed and produced an adventure travel television program prior to relocating to Shreveport with his family. Gorilla Tree will produce and distribute films from Shreveport, LA. Their goal is to cultivate local investments in film so that the local community will benefit from the revenues created by the production. Kudabeck recognizes that their platform is unconventional for this community, but they are ready for the challenges. He says, “the biggest challenge is film business doesn’t fit the typical business plan model. There is a lot of risk no guarantees. Eliminating risk and increasing guarantees means being creative.”
Priscilla Adams of Priscilla A productions is creating feature-length and short films that explore the human condition while focusing on challenges facing the African American community. She is also cultivating a commercial clientele in order to diversify streams of income for her production company. Adams relocated to Shreveport after a twenty-year absence to explore film opportunities. As she was arriving back in Shreveport, those opportunities were dwindling. She confided to a family member, Pastor Bernard Kimble, that she was planning on moving back to Dallas, Texas because film production opportunities were so low. Pastor Kimble suggested EAP as a potential solution for Adams. “You’re not just wasting breath when you’re talking to me because I’m a doer and I follow up on stuff”, she said confidently while discussing her experience with EAP. This is the attitude that combined with the support of her EAP mentor resulted in her company making it to the Wall of Achievement.
The primary goal is keeping talent in Shreveport and building capacity so that we may welcome more talent to the area.
Entrepreneurial spirit is “Pioneer Spirit”, and the addition of innovative, determined and creative people to our city will inspire excellence in every facet of our community. It starts with celebrating the determination seen in our homegrown talent who are willing to bring their ideas to life with community investment in this community. Comprehensive financial growth is the pragmatic goal for North Louisiana, but this isn’t just beneficial to the business community. Smith explains that when new entrepreneurs become a part of our community, “They’re not just passionate about their tech and what they’re doing but they’re passionate about education and they’re passionate about the environment. Every time we get someone to stay or to move here, it raises the bar for the community.”