A conversation with EPIC prize winner Fresno WET Center:
OTT: Congratulations on receiving $50,000 as part of OTT’s EPIC prize! First, please tell us a little more about your company/who you are.
Fresno WET Center: The Water, Energy and Technology (WET) Center at Fresno State has successfully leveraged the region’s extensive resources to support innovative water, energy and agricultural technology innovation, commercialization, and deployment. WET Center has created a dynamic ecosystem, accelerating venture growth and stimulating the formation of a critical mass of technology-driven entrepreneurs operating in the California Central Valley Region. Since 2016, the WET Center staff has evaluated 350+ inquiries for technology vetting; created 120 commercialization plans to chart a course forward for companies, conducted 121 Technology Innovation Evaluation (TIE) meetings to assess technology feasibility, and graduated 60 companies from its accelerator. The WET Center connects entrepreneurs to technical support, business development resources, subject matter experts, funding opportunities, industry stakeholders, legal advice, manufacturing assistance, and government connections throughout the Central Valley Region.
OTT: Will you give us a brief description of your winning program plan?
WET: The overarching objective of the plan is to provide solutions to the identified gaps in the Regional Energy Innovation Ecosystem:
- Develop a custom-fit program designed to stimulate the growth and scaling of innovation-driven ventures. Through a competitive selection process, FORCE will identify high-growth startups and advance them through a tailored plan that specifically addresses their needs. The assessment will be based on input from seasoned professionals with relevant deep technical and business sector experience. The plan will focus on specifically addressing the relevant pitfalls of becoming investment ready, such as financial due diligence, IP, legal structure, and market place traction. The enrolled companies will be expected to meet the stringent goals and milestones in a 6-12 month timeframe. Graduates of the program will have a lower risk profile, commercialized technology, key partnerships in place, and be ready to scale with a competitive team.
- Establish a corporate engagement working group to increase private sector partnerships. The group will identify corporations that are most likely to have aligned products with the entrepreneurs or are facing challenges the center’s pool of entrepreneurs could help solve. The working group will conduct interviews to map the corporations motives for engagements, such as driving new markets, accelerating R&D, corporate investment or attracting talent. The corporations will be introduced to a targeted and vetted pipeline of startups, will be invited to pitch sessions or act as mentors and advisors. In addition, the working group will facilitate “match making” between compatible corporations and startups.
- Cultivate investor relations and increase awareness of investment opportunities in the regional ecosystem. The goal is to identify risk capital investors, such as angels and VC groups who have an interest in investing in clean energy technologies. The target list will include regional investors who, in addition to ROI, impact invest and consider local and regional economic development as an added benefit. Investors will be introduced to graduates of the FORCE program, consisting of a pipeline of investment-ready startups. The WET Center’s placement in an opportunity zone will be leveraged to encourage potential investment. Investors will be also encouraged to engage in pitch events, as judges, speakers, mentors and advisors.
OTT: How has this program impacted your region/local community?
WET: Maintaining and expanding the Central Valley Regional Cluster Ecosystem is one of many critical components to successful technology-based economic development. The importance of innovation for long-term economic growth and regional development is well established and has long been regarded as critical to the economic dynamism of any territory. Under EPIC not only will businesses and jobs be developed and enhance the regional economic recovery but the expected higher rates of capital accumulated by the companies, the higher real wages and the higher regional per capita incomes will be impactful. For the Central Valley, where government, agriculture, health-services and hospitality are the dominating industries, commercialization of technological innovations is critical in enabling the region to continually branch out of existing specialized sectors and develop a more diversified economy. With sustainability and decarbonization being priorities worldwide, focusing on developing water, clean energy, and agricultural technologies will help to ensure regional resilience for decades to come as the society is ready to absorb the innovations.
OTT: When it comes to lessons learned with building out your regional innovation ecosystem, what is one thing that has worked and one thing that has not?
WET: Meeting these goals is heavily dependent on building relationships with the entrepreneurs and startups, investor firms, and corporate contacts. This will require regular communication by the WET team. A significant portion of time and resources will be spent on establishing and maintaining strong communication channels to keep informed and to solicit feedback. Due to the track record and reputation the WET Center has established, the connection and engagement with entrepreneurs and startups has been successful. The biggest challenge has been the engagement with regional investment communities.
OTT: What does it mean to be an accelerator/incubator during the coronavirus pandemic? What is one lesson learned from this virtual experience?
WET: The WET Center’s programs and offerings can easily be pivoted to in-person or a hybrid version in a post-pandemic era. However, since the geographic footprint is rather large (2/3 of California), it will be beneficial to maintain virtual programming. Networking and displaying technologies are the more challenging tasks to do in a virtual environment and those activities are mostly productive in-person. While virtual programming has many advantages, the region’s lack of consistent access to broadband in the rural areas can be a barrier for some entrepreneurs to participate.
OTT: How can we stay up to date on the latest news or events with your company?
Fresno WET Center (sign up for newsletter on page)
Thank you Fresno WET! Congratulations again!
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