James Chung made it clear in each of his three Focus Forward presentations – Wichita is leaking talent. Take a look at the numbers: From 2010 to 2017, Des Moines added 32,000 people to their population. Oklahoma City welcomed 52,000. Wichita lost 18,000.
Part of that labor shortage is attributed to a city-wide insufficient density of startups and a low garnering of venture capital. Chung labeled this as the “Entrepreneurial Challenge.”
“The Focus Forward data was a sobering reality check for our city,” said WCF President and CEO Shelly Prichard. “We knew there would be no silver bullet solution to the challenges, but we, as a Foundation, wanted to take steps to move the needle on Wichita’s economic realities.”
WCF took those next steps in 2018 by establishing the $1 million Talent Ecosystem Fund (TEF), which invests in Wichita’s workforce issues, talent development and lifelong learning. An initial $500,000 grant was made to WSU Tech to create Wichita Promise MOVE in 2018.
The Fund’s latest investment focuses specifically on the Entrepreneurial Challenge cited by Chung. A $250,000 grant to NXTUS (formerly e2e Accelerator, Inc.), a catalyst for the Wichita startup ecosystem, supports the creation of NXTSTAGE – a pilot competition aimed at connecting startups to mature businesses and regional partners looking to become customers for their technology innovations.
“The hope is that this program will put Wichita on the map as a place where entrepreneurs thrive,” said WCF Director of Strategic Initiatives Courtney Bengtson. “Providing an entry for startups gives us the opportunity to attract and retain that incoming talent over time.”
The program is marketed to global entrepreneurs with deployable products. Selected applicants will earn paid trips to Wichita where they will have the opportunity to present to and connect with the industry partners. The competition is focused on three areas:
1. FinTech – Banking and Financial Services
2. Industry 4.0 – Advanced Manufacturing/Industrial IoT (Internet of Things)
3. Community Health and Vibrancy
While the young companies are visiting Kansas later this year, they will have the chance to meet face-to-face with decision makers, interact with innovation teams inside partner organizations and get to know the community better. The TEF grant will fund the overall development of the competition, as well as the travel expenses related to the startup visits.
“WCF is keenly interested in changing both the reality and perception of our region,” said NXTUS Executive Director Mary Beth Jarvis. “They are providing funding that is going to allow us to bang a loud drum about what we’re doing… We’re rolling out the red carpet for startups of all sizes.”
Applicants are currently being screened by Wichita industry partners. Promising startups will visit the city for five to 10 days and the program will conclude with an innovation showcase later this year.