Why We Sprint

By Nolan Klouda, Center for Economic Development Executive Director

 Participants in the  University of Alaska President's Innovation Challenge develop solutions to community problems. 

Participants in the  University of Alaska President's Innovation Challenge develop solutions to community problems. 

Not long ago, if you spoke to me about a “sprint,” I would have assumed we were talking about your fitness routine. Not so anymore, as entrepreneurial sprints have taken off (“sprinted,” if you will?) in Alaska. Between OTIS, Growspace, the University of Alaska President’s Innovation Challenge, and now VOLT49, innovative Alaskans seem to have an appetite for sprinting.

But what the heck are sprints, and what is their value to Alaska?

Some years ago, Google Ventures--the venture capital arm of everyone’s favorite search engine--wanted to speed up the process of creating a new product. The traditional approach to product development called for a lengthy process of conceptualizing, building, launching, and then learning how customers reacted. Improvements could then be made, and the cycle repeated itself. But what if the cycle could be compressed, to allow for more rapid learning without a costly product launch?

They came up with an intensive five-day process, guiding design teams from concept to testable prototype in five basic-but-exhaustive steps: map, sketch, decide, prototype, and test. We’ve modified this format a bit, but the core elements are all there. We can thank CED’s omni-talented Global Entrepreneur In Residence Nigel Sharp for showing our team these events can spark entrepreneurial thinking locally. Just check out these awesome examples to get a flavor.

Which brings me to the value of these catalytic events. As we see it at CED, sparking and cultivating entrepreneurial talent is critical for the state’s economic future. Sprints funnel talent into potential startups in a structured way. There are at least four major reasons we like to host sprints:

  1. More startups please! Not every team in a sprint is going to turn into a startup--but some do! Wheelhouse, a mobile app maker, launched as a result of OTIS back in October. A sprint is an excellent way to get a taste of entrepreneurship, and if the shoe fits...wear it.

  2. Growing entrepreneurs. Even when a startup is not formed as result of a sprint, participants drink from a proverbial firehose of entrepreneurial education, learning about processes like problem mapping and customer discovery. We believe this will lead to future entrepreneurial endeavors, and help people understand how difficult it is to run a startup. Realizing that entrepreneurship isn’t for you also counts as a win.

  3. Build the network. A growing body of research points to the importance of diverse social networks in driving forward innovation. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is only as good as the individuals that compose it. With our small population, we need all hands on deck to share ideas and form collaborations based on complementary skills. Sprints expose participants

  4. Solve challenges. A core element to the sprints that we run with partners is a defined set of problems or challenges that sprint teams try to solve. With Growspace, the challenges related to financial sustainability for a local nonprofit. With VOLT49, the challenges relate the many problems associated with energy production and use in Alaska. Sending teams of smart people to tackle these challenges is as good a solution as any I’ve seen!

 We'll be hosting a discussion on Thursday, May 10 at The Boardroom from 1:00 PM - 4:00 PM to dive into this topic further. Attendees will hear from both organizers and participants as they share their experiences and lessons learned. Additionally, we'll release our new report, Alaska: State of Entrepreneurship. Join us