BECOMING THE PILOT CAPITAL
Wichita has long been known as the Air Capital of the World — a reminder and celebration of Wichita's past and present role in the world aviation economy. But the NXTUS startup accelerator program, and the accompanying NXTSTAGE pilot competition are working to craft a new moniker for Wichita: Pilot Capital of the World.
While it's a play on Wichita's aviation identity, it's actually referring to testing new, innovative software.
"It's common that enterprise buyers — business buyers of software — will bite off a little bit of a little test that we call pilots," says Josh Oeding, president and CEO of NXTUS. "Then we really riffed on the homage to the past of 'Air Capital of the World' and becoming the Pilot Capital of the World."
Oeding says Wichita is the perfect size for testing new tech because "it's big enough to matter, but small enough to get your hands around."
"And what we mean by that is we could be a really nice test market," he says. "We legitimately could be a place known in the global startup ecosystem with some core capability areas that make us the pilot capital."
We legitimately could be a place known in the global startup ecosystem with some core capability areas that make us the pilot capital.Josh Oeding
But a catchy name only goes so far. You have to back it up with concrete details that show how the name is earned. That's where the NXTSTAGE Pilot Competition, run by executive director Mary Beth Jarvis, comes into play.
"Launching NXTSTAGE was an effort to marry up a strength of our community — the significant presence we have of existing employers in a variety of industry areas — and their willingness to, and need to, innovate with the incredible innovation power of young companies," Jarvis says. "And we knew that while this region continues to give birth to great, exciting young startups, we needed to cast a wider net."
The competition's net went pretty wide, with more than 250 startups from 32 countries and 20 states applying to participate in the inaugural competition, which focused on financial technology, or FinTech.
This represented not only a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs to rub shoulders with regional industry leaders and potentially earn a pilot project, but was also an opportunity for Wichita to earn a bigger spot on the regional entrepreneurial map.
Despite the early success in gaining applications and finding industry partners, COVID-19 forced the competition into the virtual space.
ADAPTING TO UNCERTAINTY
While COVID-19 made it impossible to hold the NXTSTAGE competition in person, it also shed light on the importance of innovation.
"In some ways, the era of the last few months actually accentuated the value proposition of what we're trying to do," Jarvis says. "For the startups themselves, it became even more important to have a broker like the competition to get them in front of a customer base that they wouldn't otherwise have been able to reach in general, let alone during a pandemic. But it also reinforced our value to our corporate and community partners."
The competition put a curated list of startups in front of corporate partners interested in the type of innovation these startups have to offer. During a pandemic, these corporations likely wouldn't have the resources needed to find these opportunities, let alone deploy them. But NXTUS was able to deliver that, all in a matter of months during a global pandemic.
"That was a skillset we were able to develop and prove out very quickly at a time when it would have been impossible to do it in another construct," Jarvis says.
This year's competition focused on disruptive technologies in the financial sector and engaged leaders at INTRUST Bank, Emprise Bank and Fidelity Bank as judges and potential pilot partners. This allowed startups to get real feedback from industry players and gave banks the ability to see up-and-coming tech that could give them a leg up in an increasingly tech-centric market.
EDITOR'S NOTE: *The Bastian family, which owns Fidelity Bank, also funds The Chung Report.
Out of 11 finalists, two were ultimately chosen as pilot partners: Griffin Technologies out of Kansas City, Mo. and Bellwethr out of Wamego, Kan.
"The commitment of the banks that held through the program to spend money for a pilot project became a monster tenet of the program," Oeding says. "That knowledge transfer is really, really important and really helpful, but because it was backed up with the banks actually spending money to use this stuff, they were engaged in a different way than if they were just giving some free advice."
Whether you're a 100-year-old bank, a 50-year-old manufacturing organization or a brand new community function, being able to operate in a tech-enabled world has never been more important. Mary Beth Jarvis
Real funding and a promise of partnership through a pilot program meant the stakes were higher for both the startups and the partner banks. But COVID-19 had already ratcheted up the pressure on both ends.
"Has there ever been a time in the history of history that our financial institutions needed to be more innovative and to be innovating on behalf of their businesses and their customers and their employees faster? I don't think so," Jarvis says. "So it's incredibly timely."
But the potential benefit isn't limited to banks. Jarvis and Oeding both believe future NXTSTAGE competitions could prove vitally important for any number of legacy industries, from manufacturing to health care.
"You just extrapolate that out to every other industry that is undergoing a wave of digital transformation, including lots that are strong in our region," Jarvis says. "Whether you're a 100-year-old bank, a 50-year-old manufacturing organization or a brand new community function, being able to operate in a tech-enabled world that has never been more important."
But NXTSTAGE is only one of many pieces working simultaneously in Wichita's entrepreneurial ecosystem. How does the success of this program help the overall ecosystem better serve startups, investors and potential customers?
Oeding describes his efforts with NXTUS as a series of spinning flywheels. Each is kicked off independently, but together they represent the overall momentum of Wichita's startup ecosystem.
The first flywheel answered the need for capital with Accelerate Venture Partners (AVP). The next flywheels happened outside of NXTUS while directly relating to Wichita's overall capacity to help entrepreneurs. Efforts like Groover Labs, GoCreate and Wichita State University's Innovation Campus represent opportunities for entrepreneurs to get started with less initial investment and more access to needed tech.
Finally, we have a flywheel in NXTSTAGE, engaging startups from around the world to partner with regional corporations to pilot new technologies.
"We're collaborator and connector to the max," Oeding says. "It's always a 'one plus one hopefully equals much more than that.' We hope that [NXTSTAGE] just becomes another anchor program that helps us plant the flag in the global ecosystem."
It's always a 'one plus one hopefully equals much more than that.' We hope that [NXTSTAGE] just becomes another anchor program that helps us plant the flag in the global ecosystem.Josh Oeding
But investment in the startup ecosystem isn't just about gaining more startup funding and more innovation. It's also about attracting talent.
"The Wichita Community Foundation and their leadership really saw that a program like this could become a huge difference maker when it came to the innovation culture of our region, and therefore our region's ability to attract and retain tech-minded people — modern talent," Jarvis says. "And I would say that's an aspect of the competition's hope and value proposition that got a greater sense of affirmation and urgency because of the pandemic."
Finally, NXTSTAGE is building momentum for Wichita by filling a need that isn't necessarily being directly filled by other ecosystems in the region. Oeding says this is by design.
"We as an organization had a read that if we could take existing companies that were leaders in our community and bring them over to be active participants in the startup ecosystem, we could build a version of an accelerator program that wasn't like all the other accelerator programs in the world," he says. "Other people in other communities, when we told them what we were thinking, said, 'Man, that's really cool, let me know when that is, I will be there.' They didn't just say like, 'Yeah, sure, you should do that, we have one of those.' They went, 'Wow, that's a lot like what exists in the world, but that's a different spin on it, that's really cool.'"
Momentum is certainly building in Wichita's entrepreneurship ecosystem. But that doesn't change the fact that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on economies across the region, country and world. So how can a city like Wichita leverage the innovation something like NXTSTAGE offers and ensure we're pressing the advantage to carve out space for Wichita to recover?
DOUBLING DOWN ON INNOVATION
Even during a pandemic, Wichita has a lot going for it. Cost of living is low, space is bountiful and opportunities seem to lurk behind every corner, since making connections in a smaller city is less daunting than in New York or San Francisco.
Chase Koch, who spoke during NXTSTAGE's Innovation Showcase, says it's more important than ever for Wichita to play to these strengths.
"Entrepreneurs are leaving areas like San Francisco and New York for new homes, looking for startup communities that are more business friendly," he says. "It is vital to ‘plant a flag’ for Wichita to show that innovation is welcome here and that future-thinking professionals can thrive and be successful."
It's this show of support that matters most for talent and startups alike, Jarvis says.
"Even if somebody comes to town to work for a big company or to serve coffee, they want to be in a place that has that commitment, has that energy — that says out loud they want to be a hub for innovation or future mindedness," she says. "I think we're starting to see that that really is, and can be, a powerful lever, and we want to keep that lever pushed at this crucial time."