Yes, this startup story includes that middle-of-the-night idea, passion and persistence. But most importantly, it starts with a big problem that needed to be solved.
“At the height of the recession, we were all seriously involved in trying to help highly skilled, highly educated people find jobs. They were losing their houses, marriages, their health. We saw this as an overwhelming crisis,” explained Angela Pate, who is chief information officer of FloridaWorks, the workforce agency for Alachua and Bradford counties, the district that includes the University of Florida. “We had to do something.”
Pate reached out to her contacts at UF’s engineering and business schools as well as its technology licensing division. Together they developed many workshops, but the breakthrough came in a 3 a.m. text message from Jane Muir, who is associate director of UF's Office of Technology Licensing and also directs the Florida Innovation Hub.
Muir’s idea: Her office had all this technology available, much of it patentable. Pate had many highly skilled people eager to work. “I need entrepreneurs,” she told Pate. Startup Quest was born.
In a nutshell, Startup Quest is a free 10-week program created for college-educated unemployed or under-employed people who want to learn about starting a technology company. In sort of a reverse accelerator fashion, the ideas for the companies that will be created will not come from the class participants themselves — they will come from the mentors in the program, based on technology in the technology licensing programs at FIU, UF, NASA and other schools and agencies. The mentors — all of whom have deep experience in taking technology companies to market — will assemble and lead teams that will create companies during the 10-week program.
Eighty-three participants finished the 2011 pilot program in Gainesville, which also involved 13 mentors. From that program, 68 people became employed, including 19 self-employed. Fourteen companies were formed, creating 26 jobs. Pate and Muir had proved their model — it was time to scale.
Pate and her team applied for and received a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to create eight programs around the state, each which would repeat three times.
Interest in Workforce One’s program was high — about 600 people packed a Signature Grand ballroom in Davie last month for an informational session about the program, which was open to participants anywhere in the state, not just Broward. For the first class, 162 participants and 16 mentors have been selected, said Michael O’Donnell, regional project manager of Startup Quest who has founded a half dozen tech companies and been on the launch teams of others.
At the first session Sept. 12, each mentor will pitch his or her concept and selected technology and form a team of about 10 people -- looking for a mix of skill sets as you would for any company — and the mentor will act as the CEO, O’Donnell said. Over the course of the 10 weeks, each team will develop a “commercialization action plan.” In addition, each week speakers will be brought in to explore a new topic of entrepreneurship or technology. At the end of the program, there will be a Shark Tank-style event to present the action plans to the business community and investor judges.
For the participants, “the beauty of this is you don’t have to have a background in technology but you want to transition into the innovation economy,” said O’Donnell, adding that a second Startup Quest is already planned for next spring and those not chosen can be considered again. “The overriding goal is better paying jobs. … They can create their own job or they will become marketable for technology companies. It’s a win-win for the participants and the universities.”
Victor Nappe, one of the mentors in the Broward program, is already a believer. He’s worked at many media and technology companies, including Apple. He’s started companies also, including one that invented an early version of the now ubiquitous gift card, he said. Today, he heads CloudJacket Security, a cyber security company, and consults for a hedge fund — “I fix hard issues for companies.”
Nappe has been a mentor for many years, but this is mentorship on steroids. He chose to work with a solar-energy related technology effort. “This is raw, you take it off the shelf, you gather a team who are really questing for something,” he said. “You have a highly motivated team, and a technology chosen by someone who has been through it.
“If this formula works, it can be very powerful, very disruptive,” Nappe said. “To me this is a great opportunity to find people who say ‘I quest for something and I just need someone to show me path.’ ”
Back in Gainesville, Pate is preparing to launch her area’s second Startup Quest. Around the state, the goal is to involve at least 2,250 people in the programs run by the eight workforce agencies. She’s also fielded interest from other regions, including Miami-Dade’s South Florida Workforce, as well as other states and countries.
A key component will be measuring the programs’ effectiveness, she said..
“It’s an evidence-based research project,” she said. Employment, self employment and wage gains will be studied and tracked for the federal government and the state workforce agencies will also track startup creation and investment capital.
And for Pate, this project is especially personal. She’s a big believer that government should be helping people create their own destinies through self-employment.
“We have a lot of workforce training programs but none of them are as effective as entrepreneurship training. And this is our rock star program right now.”
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg