Tulsa is a regional hub for would-be entrepreneurs thanks to myriad resources for taking good ideas to the next level.
36 Degrees North opened in 2016 for Tulsa’s entrepreneurial community.
So, you’ve been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and are convinced your idea, concept or prototype will be the next big thing. If only you could get some expert guidance, financing and a network of like-minded advocates to help propel you to success, right?
Well, be thankful you live in Tulsa. The city abounds with organizations geared to help would-be entrepreneurs develop their ideas and then launch the businesses of their dreams. In fact, Forbes Magazine named Tulsa its No. 1 place for young entrepreneurs. Today, there’s no excuse to toil away in your lonely silo, unaware of the many opportunities that are available in this city’s diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Here are a few of the leading organizations helping turn Tulsa into a mecca for entrepreneurs.
125 W. Third St., 918-560-0265, www.theforgetulsa.com
Partners/Sponsors: Tulsa Regional Chamber (with support from chamber members) plus T. D. Williamson, Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences and TYPros
If your business concept is hot enough to be hammered into the shape of a profitable business, then The Forge, an economic development initiative of the Tulsa Regional Chamber, might be a good fit for you.
The Forge offers six qualified entrepreneurs some prime downtown office space and an intensive, mentor-driven program designed to refine and accelerate business concepts toward marketplace realization.
While the name might sound intimidating, The Forge’s purpose is more like getting the entrepreneurial egg to hatch.
“It’s really a startup incubator that offers low-cost office space to entrepreneurs with high energy but limited resources,” says The Forge Director Jessica Flint.
The Forge connects its entrepreneur hatchlings with expert mentors who guide them through the tricky process of business startup.
Called the Bull Pen, The Forge’s mentorship program offers guidance in 15 business categories and insider knowledge and advice when it comes to planning, raising capital, logistics, distribution and valuation.
The Forge clients are required to participate in a six-session, mentor-led mini-accelerator program (Forge Six). Additionally, clients must complete economic development impact surveys annually for five years so company growth can be tracked. One big benefit for The Forge clients is a state income tax exemption for up to 10 years.
It takes most people one to two years to graduate from The Forge — so far six have graduated, with six currently in the program. The application process to get one of the coveted six openings is somewhat extensive, and concepts must be innovative and scalable so growth can be accelerated.
Graduates include Medefy, SAPIEN Brand Experience, Switchgear Recruiting, Cultural Outreach Solutions and Job Pact. Current companies include SkaterTrainer, The Audio Planet, Sitter Planet, Synercon Technologies, Leche Lounge and Exaeris Water Innovations.
meets the second Wednesday of each month at 36 Degrees North, www.cultivate918.org
Partner: Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation
Whether you’re a dreamer with the seed of a startup idea or someone whose existing business needs to branch out, Cultivate918 is probably the organization you want to plant yourself in right away. Here you will find people eager to get their ideas launched and help others along the way.
For Alex Golimbievsky, Cultivate918 was vital to the startup success of his company, Job Pact, an online hiring tool. A couple of years ago, Golimbievsky was working full time and dreaming about this business during his “coffee shop nomad phase,” but he was afraid to step out. Finally, Golimbievsky attended Cultivate918 meetings, as well as 1 Million Cups meetings, and it made all the difference as he gained confidence to step out.
“I had that deer-in-the-headlights look, but through Cultivate918 I was able to connect with people who could help me, and I could learn from others’ journeys,” he says. “I don’t know if we would have made it otherwise.” Golimbievsky names Michael Tate and Matt Villarreal of Infinite Composites as valuable mentors who offered great advice on fundraising and more, as well as folks at Medefy, a health care cost transparency app, who helped him figure out the who’s who of the scene and get connected.
Casual meetings provide for plenty of mixing and networking, but program elements often incorporate actual business pitches and sharing about successes and failures.
Through the meetings, Golimbievsky was introduced to other opportunities that culminated in acceptance into The Forge business incubator. Job Pact has since graduated from that program and is now running full time.
“All you have to do is show up, and you will get connected to the right people,” says Golimbievsky, who now serves on Cultivate918’s steering committee. “It is a community of people who are there to help each other.”
36 Degrees North
36 E. Cameron St., www.36degreesnorth.co, www.fb.com/36degreesn
Partners: George Kaiser Family Foundation, Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, Tulsa Regional Chamber, Tulsa Technology Center, Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma
As a would-be entrepreneur, sooner or later you’ll probably realize the limitations of a cramped home office or cluttered corner in the garage. It might not be the space so much as the isolation from people and resources to help you.
Being a startup entrepreneur, especially for the first time, can be a lonely, frustrating exercise. But it doesn’t have to be. 36 Degrees North is the place where you can plug in to give your embryonic business a much-needed boost toward realization.
“Basically, it’s a gathering place, a front door for Tulsa’s entrepreneurial community,” says Executive Director Dustin Curzon. “It’s a point of entry for anybody with an idea who doesn’t know what to do next. They can come here and get pointed in the right direction.”
Located in the heart of the Brady Arts District downtown, 36°N offers 11,500 square feet of space for entrepreneurs to office, mix, mingle, exchange ideas and collaborate. Since opening in January, 36°N has more than 100 members representing 37 industries from nonprofits to food, retail, public relations, IT/software and finance, among others. Memberships are available through an application process, but there is a waiting list for those wanting both offices and desks.
36°N averages over 1,000 visitors a month at programs that include meet-ups for software developers, women’s coworking days with supervised child care, presentations and meetings from groups like Cultivate918 and 1 Million Cups, for example. Members meet with successful entrepreneurs, investors and executives who commit to spending one-on-one time with members. Don’t think you’re too young or too old to participate. Members range from middle school to retirement age.
“It’s all about making it easier to start a business,” Curzon adds. “The most valuable asset is just being here. You will meet people who can help you. My advice is don’t wait. Take that step.”
1 Million Cups
meets 9 a.m. each Wednesday, at 36 Degrees North,
Tulsa chapter founded: 2013
Partners/Sponsors: Kauffman Foundation/Kauffman Founders School, 36°N, Topeca Coffee, Chimera Café, Arcadia Printing and Novsun
Starting a business takes a lot of grit and probably for most people, a lot of caffeine, too. 1 Million Cups is a weekly morning meeting that brings entrepreneurs together with peers, mentors and, potentially, funders.
“It’s free, and it’s an opportunity to network and meet other entrepreneurs,” says Cecilia Wessinger, a volunteer organizer for 1MC’s Tulsa chapter. “It’s a place to go and bounce ideas off people.”
Started by the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, 1 Million Cups has 90 chapters nationwide and is dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship by creating a community of people to evaluate startup concepts and connect entrepreneurs with resources and funding.
In addition to offering networking opportunities, each hour-long meeting is formatted to give two startup entrepreneurs the chance to demonstrate their concept in a six-minute pitch, followed by a 20-minute Q&A with attendees.
“This is a good way for people to learn because you get asked really important questions like, ‘How do you monetize your concept?’ or, ‘Which marketing approach is best?’” Wessinger says, adding that it’s also a good way to practice and perfect a pitch. “There’s a healthy skepticism and encouragement that helps you to think outside the box you might be in.”
Presenters can consult the 1 Million Cups website for tips on how to make compelling presentations to potential backers. A year after making a presentation, companies are invited back for a “refill.”
“That’s when they tell what has happened, things to avoid, and what they and others can learn from their mistakes,” Wessinger says.
If you don’t know where to begin your entrepreneurial journey, attending 1 Million Cups is probably a good place to get your project percolating.
i2E (Innovation to Enterprise)
618 E. Third St., Suite 1, 918-582-5592, www.i2e.org
Partners/funders: Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology, U.S. Economic Development Administration, Oklahoma Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, Oklahoma Business Roundtable, Presbyterian Health Foundation and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation
Without access to capital, your plans for growth could be slow and flat, or easily die on the vine, even if you have a solid idea, prototype or promising business model.
That’s where i2E comes in, providing the timely financial investment and other services that tech and biotech companies need.
“We have capital specifically earmarked for investment in early-stage companies” that are scalable and growth-oriented, says i2E Senior Vice President of Client Services Mark Lauinger. “We serve the $50,000-$2 million space and are the only organized capital source that early with equity investment.”
i2E is one of a few capital sources that has a charter to consistently commit capital to Oklahoma’s entrepreneurial space. Also, investments primarily take the form of preferred equity or convertible notes, and i2E never owns more than 50 percent of a company.
With headquarters in Oklahoma City and offices in Tulsa, i2E has $50 million under management with companies accepted into its portfolio and approximately $18 million available for investment.
“Of course, a company must be investment worthy,” Lauinger notes. “We try to get inside the heads of entrepreneurs and help grow their businesses.”
When evaluating a company for investment, i2E looks at a few factors, including risk-weighted return, co-investment from the private sector, high growth potential and scalability.
Most businesses fitting the profile fall into IT, life sciences, bio-tech, software and manufacturing ventures, but there are other industries that meet those paramaters, as well.
Additionally, i2E is looking for companies that have a potential for attractive risk-adjusted return but have some barrier to market entry, such as a difficult-to-replicate product or protection through intellectual property laws.
Most candidates for i2E funding are well beyond the concept phase, though they have a specific fund for proving the potential stability of ideas.
“This is not about ‘Hey, I’ve got a good idea,’” Lauinger says. “That’s not a company.”
Companies agree to pay i2E an initial engagement fee of $2,000 for one year of services. At the end of the initial engagement period, the company and i2E may mutually agree to extend the term of the engagement for additional six-month periods for a fee of $1,000 per six-month extension period. Becoming a client and paying the engagement fee is not a guarantee of funding but provides the opportunity for i2E to furnish its services to the company, including possible investment due diligence.
Oklahoma Innovation Institute
100 S. Cincinnati Ave., Suite 1405, 918-863-8700, www.oklahomainnovationinstitute.org
Partners/members: University of Tulsa, OSU-Tulsa, OU-Tulsa, Tulsa Community College, Oral Roberts University, Northeastern State University
If you have a high-tech concept involving IT, software, aerospace or manufacturing applications, then the Oklahoma Innovation Institute (OII) could clear your pathway to profitability.
“We pride ourselves on being a neutral facilitator and convener for entrepreneurs in the community and helping leverage resources,” says OII Executive Director David Greer. “It’s about creating an intentional collision of opportunity versus hoping for an accidental one.”
The nonprofit offers three initiatives to support qualified entrepreneurs.
First is the Tandy Supercomputing Center that offers access to immense computing power.
“It’s for those who need that kind of computational power for research, product development and a chance to get ahead of the competition,” Greer says.
The second initiative, BetaBlox-Tulsa, is a business accelerator and incubator program designed for companies in early-stage development. A six-month business bootcamp, it involves training, mentorship and investor access that focuses on increasing a startup’s likelihood of success.
In exchange for these free benefits, BetaBlox gets 5 percent equity in the entrepreneur’s startup.
Third is the Community Technology Commercialization Concentrator (CTCC), a web portal that is designed to help move technologies, prototypes and products from the research lab into the marketplace.
Tulsa StartUp Series
meets at 36 Degrees North, www.tulsastartupseries.com
Founded: 2007 as the Mayor’s Entrepreneurial Award, then called the Tulsa Entrepreneurial Spirit Award, then the TCC StartUp Cup and now the Tulsa StartUp Series.
Partners: Tulsa Community College and Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation
Think you’ve got a pretty strong business concept? Well, maybe it’s time to put it to the test. That’s what Tulsa StartUp Series is about — it’s a live and local “Shark Tank”-esque competition among entrepreneurs vying for financial support and expert mentoring for their fledgling ideas.
Begun in 2007, the competition was recently rebranded and reformatted and now features competition in five categories: tech/apps; K-12 students; physical products; food/retail; and “wild card,” for any idea or business.
To apply, make a 60-second video pitch (yes, you can use your smartphone) and upload it to www.tulsastartupseries.com. If you are selected as a finalist, you will then make a live, five-minute pitch to a panel of judges.
Pitch winners earn $2,500, a three-month membership to 36°N, a three-month mentorship and a spot in the Venture Assessment Program at i2E. Winners also get to compete for $15,000 on Demo Day, Nov. 16, during Global Entrepreneurship Week.
Anyone can compete in the StartUp Series. In fact, a third grader won this year’s K-12 competition with a Lego vacuum concept.
Since 2007, the series has inspired 2,300 full-time, part-time and contract jobs, $11 million in follow-up investments and $57.7 million in economic impact for Tulsa, according to an economic impact analysis report sponsored by Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation. Participation has been strong, with an average of 20 video pitch applicants per series cycle.
“This is one of the most exciting opportunities in Tulsa’s entrepreneurial landscape and is another way to get an idea off the ground, get resources and help people plug into the entrepreneurial community,” says Autumn Worten, chairwoman of Tulsa StartUp Series.
Partner: A program of Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation
So, you’re a big hit at family gatherings and friends rave about your mad culinary skills. “You should open a restaurant!” they exclaim.
You smile politely, and then the thought occurs to you, “Yeah, I should.”
Kitchen 66 is the answer to this question. It is designed to turn delicious recipes into profitable realities for would-be restaurateurs and food product developers.
Applicants should be prepared to not only hone their cooking skills, but also their business acumen through an intensive six-month curriculum. Kitchen 66’s Launch Program teaches everything from sales and marketing strategies to financial forecasting and even pitching your ideas to potential investors.
With guidance from industry mentors and experts, by the end of the six months, you should have what you need to get your business going, including a brand identity, a tested and validated product concept, a sustainable business model and steps for growing your business.
Kitchen 66 also has a 9,000-square-foot commercial grade kitchen and café for foodie entrepreneurs and dreamers to test and refine their concepts. Topeca Coffee operates Kitchen 66’s breakfast and lunch services Monday-Friday. Members can host a pop-up dinner or other events in the café space to test a concept. Interested prospects can visit Kitchen 66’s website to fill out an application.
Native New Yorker Cecilia Wessinger is impressed with Tulsa’s entrepreneurial scene. She hopes to open a healthy, fast and franchisable Asian noodle bar with a charitable element next year after she completes her training with Kitchen 66.
“What’s happening here in Tulsa, you can’t do in New York City or Chicago — not easily anyway,” she says. “Here, I have a tribe of people — industry experts — helping me make my project a success.”