Like the entrepreneurs it supports, Florida Atlantic University’s entrepreneurship hub for students and the community is very much a startup, too.
Tech Runway launched just a year ago. Its second accelerator class is underway and a third will be joining in the fall. But for Kimberly Gramm, Tech Runway’s co-founder and associate vice president, it has been a six-year journey, and she has big dreams for the entrepreneurship center that is open to students and the community at large.
Tech Runway’s physical space next to the Boca Raton campus and executive airport is impressive — and unfinished, but ready for possibility. The 27,500-square-foot warehouse, where hurricane glass windows were once made, is now an open canvas. Most of the large garage doors have been replaced with glass to let the natural light in and watch the planes take off. There is plenty of open space for events, and 15 work areas have been glassed in to create areas where resident startups can brainstorm with their teams on whiteboards, practice pitching, meet clients or hold meetings with their board of mentors. A 5,000-square-foot section off to one side is the “Tech Garage,” which hosts high school and college students weekly for robotics. Gramm envisions a full-blown maker space to come there. Once a year, engineering students build an electric race car from scratch in the space (a garage door was left so it can get in and out). Open rafters present possibilities of a mezzanine for more creative meeting areas — the sky’s the limit.
“We are putting together renderings and talking to architects to build out the space so that it becomes the hub we envisioned it to be,” said Gramm, while giving a tour of the facility. “The idea is to be a home for Tech Runway companies as well as a place for FAU to prepare innovative minds to become an entrepreneurial pipeline to Tech Runway.
“Exposing the high school and university students to this space is really important to us. You get students applying their STEM learnings in robotics programs, creating prototypes, even building electric race cars that compete. Spaces like this allow the mentors, the investors, the entrepreneurs and the students to have these creative collisions.”
Gramm was hired about six years ago to develop an entrepreneurship program. She started as the director of the Adams Center for Entrepreneurship with a handful of programs including the FAU Business Plan Competition.
“That was really a proof of concept,” she said. “What we found is what the marketplace wanted to see was more support and resources to entrepreneurship being driven by the university. The idea was to create an internal ecosystem, a gateway to launch.”
At Tech Runway, companies get a real-life curriculum in customer acquisition, developing a minimal viable product and attracting first round capital. Tech Runway gives each company a $25,000 grant, a 16-week bootcamp and collaborative workspace for a year, she said.
Tech Runway also provides structure and connections. Companies develop a series of milestones with their mentors whom they meet with weekly, and they don’t pitch to investors until they are ready. Tech Runway helps them get their first sales. After about a year, Tech Runway companies will typically graduate, once their lead mentors agree they have met their milestones. But the space is continually being restocked because there will be two classes — Tech Runway calls them Venture Vintages — accepted each year going forward. It is also growing its programming for students and supporting faculty startups.
“The university is committed to making this a longstanding resource for our community,” she said.
We spoke with Gramm recently at the Tech Runway offices. Here are excerpts of that conversation:
Q. What is your mission with Tech Runway?
A. To grow and accelerate startups.
Q. Tech Runway just launched last year. What were some of the highlights of the year?
A. The metrics tell it all: nine companies accepted, 20 employees hired, $1.24 million in seed, self- and investor-funding secured by Tech Runway companies, 15,095 mentor hours tracked for entrepreneurial programs at FAU; the dollar value of mentor hours was $3.7 million.
Q. What will be your metrics for success in Year Two?
A. Launching two more rounds of accelerator venture vintages, one in the fall and another in spring, as well as graduating Venture Vintage 1; launching a successful pipeline program, allowing entrepreneurs to be members of Tech Runway and have access to mentoring; increasing the number of jobs created; increasing the amount of funding invested in startups; securing grants to increase our educational series; completing phase one of the facility buildout; and developing a donor base to support the entrepreneur ecosystem.
Q. What have you learned through the process?
A. [Before Tech Runway] what we noticed was after the Business Plan Competition, we didn’t have the resources or support to help them implement their business plans. So in comes the concept of Tech Runway — get to work. This is the implementation and execution of your business plan.
And as a startup ourselves, we’ve learned a lot between that first and second round in Tech Runway. It’s a lot about managing the people, the personalities and the leadership within the mentoring pool.
Q. Tell me about a couple of your companies.
A. Stand4 [part of the first class] recently launched. They have a platform that is going to help foundations and corporations leverage their marketing dollars through their employees who want to take a “stand for” a nonprofit organization. It’s a pretty cool company. It is trying to raise a Series A of $4 million to $6 million. Stand4 was the first TR company to receive angel funding — half a million.
Bedabox [also part of the first class], a startup that simplifies shopping and shipping outside the country, is growing by leaps and bounds. They have about $3 million in the pipeline and are ready to expand.
And in this vintage, there is HonorLock, which has cloud-based solutions to curb academic dishonesty. We’re doing a beta test in the classroom. You have these startups, and the university is a testing ground. That’s really cool.
Tone-y-Bands, Candidate.Guru and TightTalk Electronics are also part of the second vintage.
Q. What kind of companies do you look for to potentially accept into Tech Runway?
A. We are not industry-specific; we do align the mentors as subject matter experts. If we do not have a mentor with expertise, we will locate someone relevant to support the startup’s needs.
Q. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs thinking about applying to Tech Runway?
A. A great way to become acclimated to the program is to participate in activities and events hosted at Tech Runway. Meeting the TR entrepreneurs is a great way to become familiar with the requirements.
The next open application period starts at the end of July [information on techrunway.fau.edu]. The application requirements include a business plan, pitch deck and three letters of recommendation. If you make it through the initial screening round and are interviewed, remember to be “coachable.”
Q. How many mentors do you have, and how are they involved?
A. We have a total of 50 mentors that will be available starting in August. Our website will be updated once we finish the interview and training process.
Q. In regards to your physical space, what do you have left to do in buildout, and what is your vision for full buildout?
A. Currently, we are doing a charrette with entrepreneurs, students, board members, faculty and expert designers to determine the best use of space. The space will incorporate classrooms and event space with the latest technology, conference rooms, startup collaborative workspace, a food “hub” and maker space. We anticipate two phases and will require private funding.
Q. Bigger picture: How do you think our South Florida ecosystem is progressing?
A. The ecosystem is progressing in a positive way. There are many organizations and efforts in support of the entrepreneur. eMerge Americas has really put South Florida on the map in recent years. FAU’s president, leadership team and trustees are in full support of a new strategic plan that believes entrepreneurship is a platform and will touch every student on campus. These are big initiatives that are impactful and will create a runway for years into the future. When I began, these collective visions did not exist.
I think the exposure South Florida is getting for being entrepreneurial is really special. I have been doing this six years, and when I look back to year one versus the last couple of years, there is a lot to be excited about. There is still a lot to do, but leadership has really taken notice about the type of resources and integration that we need across the three counties. It’s a heavy lift, and we are still really early in our development, but Tech Runway could not have been done without the support of the community standing up and championing for us.
Q. What would you like to see going forward?
A. What I’d like to see is further development of an angel network here in the community. I’d also like to see more corporate foundation support within our service region for startup programs. There is money here, but what we need to do is help the money learn or be a part of creating the environment to invest in startups in South Florida. If we can figure out that mechanism in the next year, that opens doorways that could really help us and the startup community.
South Florida really needs more private stakeholders increasing their investment in housing, education, mentoring, funding programs and infrastructure to support entrepreneurial activities at all ages.
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Titles: Associate vice president, FAU Tech Runway, and director of the Adams Center for Entrepreneurship, Florida Atlantic University. She is co-founder and chief entrepreneur officer of Tech Runway, a South Florida public-private partnership formed to foster technology startups, whether they are founded by students or faculty of members of the community.
Experience: Prior to joining the Adams Center, Gramm was assistant dean in the College of Business at FAU, and before that her professional experience included leading corporate market strategy and business development for UPS.
Education: MBA in finance, University of Tampa; bachelor’s of science in marketing, University of South Florida.
Organizations and boards: YMCA of South Palm Beach Board of Trustees, Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, Gold Coast Venture Capital Association board member, FAU College of Business Board.
Best advice received: There will always be a reason why you meet people. Either you need to change your life, or you’re the one that’ll change theirs.
Favorite pastime: Long runs on the beach.