This weekend, some 40 creative minds will get together in downtown Tucson to take innovative business ideas and push them along as far as possible in 54 hours to see if they’re viable.
And while most of those ideas won’t go any further, the best of the lot will have a chance to germinate into full-fledged businesses, thanks to a entrepreneurial “ecosystem” that didn’t fully exist in Tucson just a few years ago.
The event is the third Tucson edition of Startup Weekend, a nationwide series of events hosted by the nonprofit Startup Tucson at the Gangplank Tucson co-working space downtown.
Launched in 2011 to organize the weekend event, Startup Tucson has become a critical element to help budding entrepreneurs looking for talent, mentoring and capital to make their business dreams reality.
“It’s a front door for people to plug into the system,” said Justin Williams, chairman and founder of Startup Tucson.
Beyond Startup Weekend, the group has partnered with the co-workspace Gangplank Tucson to offer Lean Launch Pad, a six-week boot camp on starting, organizing and funding a business.
From there, entrepreneurs can plug into IdeaFunding, an annual workshop on attracting investment capital co-hosted by the Desert Angels investment group. Businesses that need more mentoring, space and services can apply to the University of Arizona’s incubator, the Arizona Center for Innovation at the UA Science and Technology Park.
The still-evolving startup pipeline helped Tucson earn a ranking as one of the “Best Cities for Entrepreneurs” by Entrepreneur magazine last month. The ranking was based on the research of Shane Reiser, who studies startup initiatives as founder of Startup Genome.
“They’ve created an entrepreneurial conveyor belt,” Reiser wrote, citing the efforts of Startup Tucson, local business-incubation efforts and the Desert Angels.
Most of the Startup Weekend ideas never come to fruition, but that’s part of the exercise, Williams said.
“That’s sort of what you expect — you’re going to fail 95 percent of the time, so that’s normal,” he said.
And even if one idea fails, Startup Weekend is often about finding talent and team-building, Williams added.
Last year’s Startup Weekend winner was a mobile app called Cheap Avocado, developed by UA students and designed to track produce prices in real time. They had a slick app and a good value proposition, Williams said.
The team members later found that supermarkets won’t supply such pricing information, and it’s difficult and costly to gather it without their cooperation, Williams said.
But the Cheap Avocado team is still together and is now working to develop a UA medical-scanning technology, he said.
“That sort of illustrates an alternative value coming out of this — you want to learn fast and fail on one model so you can go on to other things,” Williams said.
Other ideas still have some legs.
Metropia Inc., a company founded by UA civil-engineering professor Yi-Chang Chiu, went through the inaugural Startup Weekend Tucson two years ago with technology designed to ease traffic congestion by getting motorists to alter their routes or schedules. The company, which later joined the Arizona Center for Innovation, is now testing its Smartrek traffic-management technology in some major cities and recently attracted new grant funding.
After graduating from Lean Launch Pad last year, UA alum Stephen Ost is pursuing his entrepreneurial dream with UFree, which helps college students find out when their friends are free to hang out.
“I believe in it, I am entirely passionate about it, and I believe it’s going to be a success,” said Ost, whose company recently “graduated” from the Arizona Center for Innovation and uses co-workspace at Gangplank.
After graduating last May with a computer-science degree from the University of Arizona, Ost could have taken a job offer from IBM Corp. after working a student co-op gig with the computer giant.
UFree is still in the formative stages. Ost figures he wouldn’t have gotten this far without the help of an entrepreneurial ecosystem that didn’t exist when he was a UA freshman.
“They helped me do everything, pretty much, and get in touch with the right people,” said Ost, who is in the final five for Entrepreneur magazine’s College Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Many of the Startup Weekend ideas focus on computer or Internet technology, since capital needs and other barriers to market entry are lower, Williams acknowledged.
But some teams have developed hard goods, like a “BarBot” automated drink maker designed by some members of Xerocraft, a nonprofit “hackerspace” that recently moved to a historic warehouse downtown.
And this year, a local flooring company that worked on Gangplank’s space in the historic Pioneer Building plans to use Startup Weekend to further development of a new kind of building material, Williams said.
IF YOU GO
What: Startup Weekend Tucson
When: Friday, Sept. 20, through Sunday, Sept. 22
Where: Gangplank Tucson, 100 N. Stone Ave., Suite 110
For information or registration: startuptucson.com/weekend