Waco's Innovation Ecosystem

Waco-based inventor, John Fitch, recently wrote a column for the Waco Tribune Herald about how our community is fostering innovation and technology entrepreneurship.  The original article can be found here.  

JOHN FITCH, Guest Columnist, Waco Tribune Herald

Key Elements for Innovative, Tech-Savvy City Already Present in Waco

If you were to conduct a survey about great cities for technology innovation, it’s unlikely Waco would even make the list.

And there actually is a list. And Waco’s not on it.

One list to look at is the Streetwise Innovation Index. This index presents the top 50 cities for innovation in America by reviewing a number of factors: technology sectors represented, venture funding available, higher education enrollment, livability and overall economy. Four cities in Texas were identified as providing the most promising climates for technology startups: San Antonio (8th), Houston (11th), Austin (12th) and Dallas (21st).

Yet in looking at the five areas making up the index, we see that Waco holds the key elements already and is rapidly improving in each area.

Let’s start with an easy one: livability. Waco has hit a critical mass in the past few years that is making a positive difference in livability. If you just compared the number of food trucks in Waco today versus five years ago, that might be enough to settle the argument. But there’s more. A real resurgence downtown; completion of the McLane Stadium and its embracing of the river; “Fixer Upper” and the Silos; the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative; loft living; and so much more.

Waco is not an Austin and probably never will be. But interestingly, because of that critical mass, new graduates more and more are seeing Austin as a place to visit but Waco as a place to live and embrace community. This is one of the keys to technology startups — keeping young, energetic, bright minds engaged and locally involved.

The overall economy is also a key factor for the list. In general terms, the economy of Waco is not significantly different than the four Texas cities cited above. That is, the Waco economy is both good and sufficient to attract and support a diverse workforce including multiple workers in a family. Waco companies also span many technology sectors such as aerospace, medical products and logistics, providing broad opportunities for varied skills and interests.

A real difference in the Waco economy is the lower overall cost of living. Month-to-month cash flow is always a problem for new development. A reduced cost of doing business (both overhead and operations) makes a tangible difference between wanting to innovate, expand or hire and actually doing so.

Fostering innovation

What about higher education? Successful technology startups must rely equally on technical and business acumen. Waco has always had a strong entrepreneurial culture fostered in large part by graduates from the Baylor School of Business. In the past decade, the Baylor School of Engineering has grown to a significant size adding Ph.D. programs and funded research in electrical and mechanical engineering. These are critical steps toward Baylor’s stated goal of becoming a top-tier research university. Available interns, graduates and collaborative opportunities provide the personnel needed to design and develop new technology. Often the engineering students have strong ties to the business school or entrepreneurial programs helping to build the culture and tools of successful innovation.

Waco has yet another educational jewel that cannot be overlooked for innovation — Texas State Technical College. Having well-trained, locally available technicians for prototyping, troubleshooting and manufacturing new technology is a unique asset for Waco. The various programs at TSTC provide excellent graduates in all areas of mechanical, electrical and optical technology. Their workforce development programs can also be critical to rapidly providing a trained workforce for scaling a successful innovation.

Venture capital? Two major points here: First, although there are real opportunities for locally available capital for technology startups, in today’s world this is not a requirement. You could make the argument that it should be at least regional. If so, then Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston are all easily accessible. The second point was made succinctly at a recent meeting with a Chicago-based venture capital firm at the BRIC: “Today’s $500,000 is yesterday’s $5 million.”

Technology has made the cost of innovation much less than it used to be. Because that cost has come down dramatically, the opportunity for local financing has improved dramatically. The Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce is actively working to encourage just this type of modest local investment in local innovation and business startups.

Finally, Waco has a host of resources primed and available for technology innovation. More and more there are capable, experienced, tech-savvy small businesses eager to collaborate. These cover the range of expertise — design, manufacturing, prototyping, 3D printing, software development, analytics, cloud services, etc. Waco even has a MakerSpace that enables DIY prototyping without large capital costs.

The mighty BRIC

The McLennan Small Business Development Center provides a host of startup support including experienced technology development coaches such as Jane Herndon. They sponsor a variety of events to foster innovation and business startup and they have the connections to other regional and national resources you may require as innovations mature.

Baylor University provides many resources and entrepreneurial groups including the Baylor Angel Network and the Launch Group. In partnership with Waco, Bellmead, TSTC and others, it leads the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative as a state-of-the-art research facility that is putting Baylor research, TSTC, Launch and large and small businesses under one roof to foster technology development and commercialization. In less than three years of operations, it’s making an impact with all four of last year’s Waco Business Innovator finalists — all directly linked to BRIC developments.

So why Waco, why now for innovation? With everything Waco has going for it, the better question for your innovative idea is: Why haven’t I started?

John Fitch is an engineer, space physicist and inventor. He has lived with his family in Waco since 1994. He founded Birkeland Current in 2009 as a small business that develops enabling technical concepts into mature prototypes ready for business startup. Birkeland Current’s joint venture with Pruf Energy Solutions won the 2015 Business Innovator award from the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. Birkeland Current’s offices and labs are in BRIC. Website: www.birkelandcurrent.com.

Posted: Waco Tribune Herald, Sunday, March 27, 2016 12:01 am | Updated: 1:04 am, Sun Mar 27, 2016.