Now kicking off its second year, an innovative program is recruiting Idaho’s best entrepreneurial minds, challenging them in a business start-up contest, and sponsoring the best ideas to create a functioning business. Through the b|launched program, created with the help of Boise Young Professionals, the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce is helping to jump-start innovative new businesses and build a culture of entrepreneurship in the city.
The program emerged from a mentoring initiative led by Boise Young Professionals where aspiring entrepreneurs could learn from successful entrepreneurs. One of those entrepreneurs was Faisal Shah, the founder of MarkMonitor, a company specializing in online brand protection and domain identity, and First to File, an internet patent company.
Shah’s 10-member mentoring group developed their own start-up, which they named the Boise Big Experiment Co., or BOBEC Apps LLC. The company created an iPhone app called Hot or Cold, which is a social media game used by businesses for marketing purposes or by private groups for entertainment. After two years of development, the app was launched this spring.
From the positive reception of this mentoring group and the tenacity of the young professionals in Boise, the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce grew the idea for b|launched. Shah also served as a mentor in the inaugural year of the b|launched program, a responsibility that required a personal financial investment.
Five teams of 10 professionals and one mentor compete for start-up funding and bragging rights in the b|launched competition. First and second place win $15,000 and $10,000 respectively. The prize money is donated by each of the mentors of the five teams. Teams that finish 3rd, 4th and 5th do not win any start-up money, but some decide to continue with their business plan regardless.
At inception, each team conceptualizes a creative technology-based business model. The process is rigorous. Many of the participants have families and almost all are employed full time. The teams meet regularly during this phase and brainstorm ideas and research possibilities.
Following ideation, the teams begin developing prototypes. Each team member has equity stake in the startup company and is eligible to profit if the business succeeds. The mentors initially have 51 percent ownership of any resulting companies developed by the team.
The program moves at break-neck speed. With only seven months from conception to launch, teams are challenged to create an original, sustainable concept and make it functional.
September 2011 marked the kick-off of the first b|launched program. Under the mentorship of Shah and four other accomplished entrepreneurs, 50 individuals split into five teams were given the green light to develop start-up ideas for lasting businesses in the Treasure Valley.
The teams had only a few months before they would present their ideas to a panel of judges including Boise Metro Chamber President and CEO Bill Connors, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter; Dr. David Pate, president and CEO of St. Luke’s Health System; Elizabeth Marshall, president and CEO of Marshall and Associates; and Rick Belluzzo, former COO of Microsoft.
The first place team in 2012 created Follow and Fund, a social network designed to raise money for education. Second place went to the group that created Gigster, a mobile app designed to help users buy tickets to events and concerts.
The prototype concepts were not revealed to the public until April of 2012, giving the groups a few more weeks to turn their ideas into working business models. During the public announcements in April, Gigster told the audience that their business model was unsustainable because there were too many similar competitors. However Follow and Fund and two other prototypes—Advailable, a sotware-as-a-service concept that links advertising sellers to buyers looking for ad space; and Agora, an online store for customers seeking professional services rather than goods—are still working on their businesses.
“Upcoming b|launched classes can learn a lot from these start-ups,” said Chamber CEO Bill Connors. “It’s nearly unheard of to come up with a business idea and prototype in just seven short months.”
The Boise chamber’s goal was to develop a program that could ultimately create a new company (or companies) in the Boise market. But one of the most important lessons gleaned from b|launched so far is the value of teaching young business professionals what it takes to start and sustain a business. The next class of b|launched entrepreneurs will begin their journey this fall. “It’s about innovation,” said Connors. “It’s about encouraging entrepreneurship and that is what this program does. This chamber is going to support it for many years to come.”
Carrie Westergard is community relations director at the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. She can be reached via email or at (208) 472-5212
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