Utah has a long, colorful history of innovation and entrepreneurship. Within a few short years of the pioneers first settling in the Salt Lake Valley, the capital city was bustling with merchants and bankers. From early innovators like John Browning and his repeating rifle to tech companies like WordPefect and Novell, Utah has proved fertile ground for inventors and entrepreneurs.
“A pioneering spirit is a legacy of Utah’s history, and that attitude and spirit permeate this culture in Utah to this day,” says John Richards, Co-Managing Partner of BoomStartup, a mentorship-driven investment program, and Managing Partner of the UtahAngel investing group.
Utah’s business ecosystem is alive with activity in industries ranging from arts and crafts to medical devices, and from high-tech manufacturing to outdoor recreation. In fact, the Kauffman Foundation in 2010 ranked Utah No. 1 in terms of patents awarded per capita. Utah produced 22 patents per million residents, while the No. 2 state, Oregon, came in with a distant 14.4 patents.
While the Beehive State is renowned for its contributions to research and technology, entrepreneurs have made waves in numerous industries. Lifetime Products, for example, has become a leader in outdoor lifestyle products like playground equipment, sheds, and plastic tables and chairs. Launched in a garage in 1973, the company now employs more than 1,500 people in Clearfield, Utah.
Futura Industries has created a niche with its innovative aluminum extrusion processes, and Blendtec put its name on the map with patented, industrial-quality blenders.
“Utah is unbelievably rich with people who have done incredible things,” says Alan Martin, Founder and CEO of CampusBookRentals.com, a company that provides rental textbooks to college students. Launched in 2007, CampusBookRentals.com was recently named one of Forbes’ “Americas Most Promising Companies.”
Martin and his partners bootstrapped the company from nothing into a major player with more than 5,000 campuses signed on as clients. The company initially operated out of Martin’s basement, but he soon connected with a business incubator, the eStation, which provided support in the form of mentoring, inexpensive rent, meeting rooms and other services. The eStation is located on the campus of the Davis Applied Technology College and can serve up to 40 entrepreneurs at a time.
Eventually, CampusBookRentals.com connected with equity investors who enabled the company to continue its strong growth trajectory.
“I can’t imagine a better place than Utah to start and grow a business,” says Martin, who cites the favorable labor market, business-friendly government and access to mentors who are generous with their time and knowledge as the decisive factors that have kept his company in Utah.
Recipe for Success
Part of Utah’s “secret sauce” is the tremendous array of resources available to local entrepreneurs. While there are plenty of “self-made” business leaders, many more point to various forms of support, from mentoring and education to financial investments.
The Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at Brigham Young University is a prime example. The center is affiliated with more than 150 “Founders,” time-tested entrepreneurs who contribute their expertise to help guide students through the startup phase. These founders provide “massive doses of mentoring,” says Richards, who is Associate Director of the center.
Due in part to this mentoring, the center’s students are among the best prepared to launch startups, according to a study published in Entrepreneur magazine. The Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship graduate and undergraduate programs came in at No. 2 and No. 7, respectively, in the study.
The University of Utah also has an innovative program to help launch successful entrepreneurs. Sponsored by the David Eccles School of Business, the Foundry helps would-be entrepreneurs learn how to identify and pursue viable business ideas. On average, seven out of 10 businesses fail—the point of the Foundry is to help students learn to set aside or alter their initial ideas before entering the startup phase.
Foundry students have achieved remarkable success with the business ideas that do make it into development. The first cohort of students developed 15 companies that generated just under $800,000 in revenue within six months. The second cohort produced eight or nine companies that, in total, were earning well over $1 million in revenue within four months.
While students have a plethora of mentoring opportunities, those outside of the academic world also have access to valuable resources. BoomStartup, for instance, is a mentorship-driven investment program that helps selected entrepreneurs use a “lean startup” model to quickly and effectively launch companies. Entrepreneurs who are accepted into the program receive investment and operating capital, mentoring, peer interaction, and free services like legal and accounting expertise, as well as connections and introductions for follow-on sources of investment.
More than 50 percent of BoomStartup alumni end up garnering additional angel funding after completing the program.
The State of Utah also supports small businesses and startups with several Business Resource Centers located across the state. BRCs serve as “one-stop shops” for business owners looking for access to funding, training and networking, among other things.
In the Pipeline
Utah’s leaders are aggressive about promoting innovation and helping to launch ground-breaking ventures. The Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR) was developed to spur research at the local universities and turn that research into commercial ventures.
Through targeted funding, USTAR helps recruit top-level researchers to state universities, build state-of-the-art research and development facilities, and form commercialization teams.
Launched in 2006, USTAR has achieved notable results. So far, it has recruited more than 40 researchers away from top-tier institutions like Harvard and MIT. And these researchers have snagged more than $90 million in federal and other grant funding.
The commercialization pipeline is starting to flow, with 121 invention disclosures and 46 provisional patents filed as a result of USTAR research. Teams have created four companies with more than 20 other projects under development.
Other state efforts to spur innovation and economic development include the state’s Technology Commercialization and Innovation Program (TCIP) that is specifically geared to address the critical transition from the lab to the marketplace. The program provides grant funding to researchers or technology licensees who are working to build viable businesses around cutting-edge university research.
Grant applicants must “take that original research and prove they can apply it in a commercial application,” explains David Bradford, Director, IT/Software Cluster and Innovation for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. The program reviews and approves grant applications three times a year and can award funds up to $80,000 total in two tranches. Overall, the program awards about 40 grants each year.
For Bradford, a significant aspect of TCIP is the way it helps position the startups to catch the eye of investors. “We love the idea that we’re a preparatory fund—other angel investors or seed funds can pick up where we leave off and continue to fund these great spinoffs.”
Sera Prognostics, for example, started as a collaboration between researchers at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University. The fledgling company received a TCIP grant to further the commercialization of its predictive blood test for preterm labor and other pregnancy complications. The company went on to raise $19 million in Series A venture funding and is still thriving and growing in Utah’s tremendous entrepreneurial ecosystem.