Building Alaska’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

By Gretchen Fauske, CED Associate Director and
Katherine Jernstrom, The Boardroom Co-Founder

This content originally appeared in the Alaska Journal of Commerce

The board of directors for Launch Alaska is working to build the state's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem.

The board of directors for Launch Alaska is working to build the state's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem.

“It’s your right to be uncommon if you can. You seek opportunity to compete. You desire to take calculated risk, to dream, to build, yes, even to fail, and to succeed.”
— - Ewing Marion Kauffman

Piper Foster Wilder had an idea. She’d been thinking about software to improve operations and maintenance in Alaska's remote powerhouses, and wanted to explore it with other creative, entrepreneurially minded people, so she signed up for Startup Weekend.

After two days of research and work, she stood in front of a crowd with her newly formed team and pitched Pinga, a culturally-informed Computerized Maintenance Management System designed for isolated microgrid operators in Alaska or the developing world. Pinga was chosen as the winning startup, and as Piper thought about how to reduce energy expenses in rural Alaska she folded the idea within a broader context, and started 60Hertz, a microgrid services company. 60Hertz solves three pain-points in the global microgrid market: 1) lack of investor access to the microgrid space and therefore a deficit of project finance capital; 2) lack of efficient site origination and aggregation; and 3) lack of effective operations & maintenance.

During the winter, Piper pitched elements of Pinga and 60Hertz for investment and won prizes at the Juneau Innovation Summit, the Online Business Model contest, and the Alaska Seed Fund contest. 

She continued re-working her idea, meeting with mentors, investors, and industry experts. Next, she entered the Alaska Business Plan Competition, and won first place and $2,000 toward her tuition at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She continued refining her idea and building her team, and was recently accepted into Launch Alaska’s 2017 cohort, which offers an intensive, 120-day process for companies to improve their operations, identify their market and product fit, learn how to innovate and iterate quickly, and become investment ready scalable ventures.

Through Launch Alaska, Piper’s company also received a $75,000 equity investment, access to corporate connections and mentors, and a team office at The Boardroom in downtown Anchorage.

60Hertz has already created seven jobs, and the team is sprinting to demonstrate market demand for the software, and find sites that want project finance capital for renewable-diesel microgrids in village and commercial sites statewide. Piper’s plans for the future including growing 60Hertz from startup to established brand, and adding value to the energy sector.

Each of the events or organizations listed — Startup Weekend, the Juneau Innovation Summit, the Online Business Model Contest, the Alaska Seed Fund, the Alaska Business Plan CompetitionUAALaunch Alaska, and The Boardroom — are part of Alaska’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

According to the Kauffman Foundation’s ESHIP Summit Program and Playbook, Entrepreneurial ecosystems “allow for the fast flow of talent, information, and resources so that entrepreneurs can easily find what they need at each stage of growth, resulting in a whole greater than the sum of its separate parts.”

Of course, the most important part of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is the people: talented, intellectually curious, creative people who contribute as entrepreneurs, mentors, developers, policy makers, investors, designers, local leaders, and more.

In Alaska, many people have been working for years to build momentum around entrepreneurship. Recently, efforts are starting to yield results, with a cohesive Year of Innovation pipeline, Alaska’s first accelerator, multiple venture funds, community building coworking spaces, entrepreneur development workshops, and new mentorship programs.

Companies like Heather’s ChoiceAttently Inc.Pandere ShoesVertical Harvest Hydroponics, and iA3 are capitalizing on our newly robust ecosystem and are blazing a new path forward in the Alaska startup scene. Their existence and that of companies like them is essential to our economy: startups, aged 0-5 years, account for all new net job creation, making a compelling reason for why supporting high-growth entrepreneurship in Alaska matters.

Despite current momentum and cohesiveness, there is still work to be done. According to the Kauffman Foundation, a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem includes:

  1. Entrepreneurs who aspire to start and grow new businesses, and the people who support those entrepreneurs.

  2. Talent that can help companies grow.

  3. People and institutions with knowledge and resources to help entrepreneurs.

  4. Individuals and institutions that champion entrepreneurs and the ecosystem.

  5. On-ramps (or access points) to the ecosystem so that anyone and everyone can participate.

  6. Intersections that facilitate the interaction of people, ideas, and resources.

  7. Stories that people tell about themselves and their ecosystems.

  8. Culture that is rich in social capital - collaboration, cooperation, trust, reciprocity, and a focus on the common good.

Alaska’s entrepreneurial ecosystem touches on the eight elements, but it’s essential that we strengthen each one and the connections between them. As ecosystem builders work to create an entrepreneur led, densely connected network where innovation thrives and a culture of vibrancy, trust, and social cohesion lives, we will be looking to you for are all invited to join us.