The Charleston Area Alliance has expanded its economic development scope – it’s looking
for big ideas, market interrupters and game changers.
As a forward-thinking community organization committed to economic diversification,
innovation and entrepreneurship, the Alliance is creating an environment for success by providing entrepreneurs and startups the necessary services and support to start and grow companies – from the earliest stages of development through market validation and commercialization.
Working with support from the Benedum Foundation, the Charleston Area Alliance spent the past three years luring entrepreneurs to the Kanawha Valley, fostering business connections, nurturing startup activity and encouraging economic growth with its Radical Entrepreneurial Venture (REV) program.
“REV keys the Kanawha Valley into innovation at a very organic level,” said Cody Schuler, the Alliance’s entrepreneur project manager. “It’s one thing to try to bring a researcher to the area. It’s another thing to show off our community, introduce them to the people and resources in our region that can provide product development and funding support and talk with them about what happens next. We aim to bring the innovators to the area, help them get launched and drive them to commercialization.”
Since 2014, Alliance staff and a diverse group of Charleston business professionals have attended more than two dozen startup events and business plan competitions in nine states, resulting in 15 different entrepreneurs and startups visiting the Kanawha Valley. While visiting the region, the innovators are connected with the region’s top talent, research, technology, funding, mentorship and education support to start and grow the respective companies. Further, partnerships with existing local businesses are forged leading to a multiplied economic impact and the opportunity for Kanawha Valley employers to gain a competitive advantage by becoming early adopters of emerging technologies and services.
Many local companies committed to spending time with startup entrepreneurs, sharing
their knowledge, connections and lessons learned. Seventy-six different Kanawha Valley companies and organizations were directly involved, including more than 100 separate individuals.
“They are excited to do so because they want to help accelerate the growth of startups and
innovators in our community,” said Schuler. “With their support, it’s our mission for the Kanawha Valley to become a place for entrepreneurs to start and grow innovative, creative, technology-based companies, diversify the local economy and create a solid foundation for long-term economic success.”
In the fall of 2015 the Alliance attended the TransTech Energy Conference in Pittsburgh, Penn. and connected with two Carnegie Mellon graduates from Dubai who were inspired by their hometown’s rickshaws. Tanuj Apte and Deepak Vidhani’s startup, Autopods, uses electric battery and human pedal power pedicabs to provide trips within a two-mile radius.
The startup already provided hyperlocal transport in Pittsburgh. Alliance staff approached Autopods with the idea of expanding into the Charleston market and invited the entrepreneurs to visit the region – to scout the downtown terrain, provide an understanding of the city’s current travel options, introduce the company to community activities and small businesses and connect the management team with city leaders.
With support from the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau and the City of Charleston, Autopods launched in West Virginia’s capitol city in May 2016. To date, the emission-free pedicabs have provided more than 10,000 rides in Charleston and the company has employed four part-time drivers earning an average of $17 an hour. The company reports that ridership is actually stronger in Charleston than Pittsburgh, taking to consideration the number of pods inoperation and population differences.
Autopods is just one of the many startups that the Alliance attracted to the region and connected with local support and mentorship opportunities to foster growth. While the REV program grant is complete, the Alliance continues to bring new businesses to the community for relocation and expansion.
“We’ve learned through REV that companies with less than 10 employees can have a material, direct impact on the economic impact in the area, as well as a community development benefit in providing new goods and services to residents while simultaneously exposing them to a new way of thinking,” said Schuler. “To remain economically vibrant, we are examining startups and innovators as the key driver of economic diversification and job creation for long-term sustainable growth.”
The REV program’s initial operation allowed for the Alliance to discover best practices and refine the successful portions of the program to lay the groundwork for sustained success. Currently, the Alliance is seeking additional grant funding to expand the project and continue developing the entrepreneurial pipelines established since its debut.
Already, three startups accepted into the prestigious Alphalab startup accelerator in Pittsburgh have made contact in Charleston through the REV program and have carved the path forward for fellow Alphalab members to follow in their footsteps.