Couleecap Continues Spread of Startup Accelerators to Small Towns

The startup accelerator programs that have become ubiquitous in big tech hubs around the country are beginning to spread to small cities.

The latest example in Wisconsin is a newly announced program in La Crosse, a city of about 51,000 people that is located on the state’s western border. Organizers say the business accelerator, which is being managed by La Crosse-area nonprofit Couleecap and partially backed by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), is the first of its kind in the area.

“We think that there are plenty of people who have that innovative spirit and are super smart, that would be a perfect fit for this” locally, Couleecap business and income developer Andrew Londre says. “But to this point, this resource has been pretty much exclusive to places like Madison and Milwaukee and some of the larger metro areas.”

That’s starting to change, however. Racine, WI, a city of 78,000 people located just south of Milwaukee, created a startup accelerator last year as it tries to encourage entrepreneurship and diversify its largely manufacturing-based economy. And Co.Starters—the business development program that licensed its curriculum to Couleecap for the La Crosse accelerator—has more than 20 locations across the country, in mostly small- and medium-sized cities like Chattanooga, TN; Grand Rapids, MI; Fort Wayne, IN; Columbus, OH; and Birmingham, AL.

The La Crosse accelerator joins a growing list of nonprofit startup accelerators in Wisconsin, which are awarding grants to participating companies instead of the angel investments typical of their for-profit counterparts. Similar programs exist in larger cities like Milwaukee and Madison, as well as smaller places like Racine. Some, like the ones in La Crosse and Racine, are industry-agnostic, while others target specific sectors such as water technology and healthcare.

CouleeCo.StartersCouleecap will run a nine-week pilot accelerator program starting in February. It’s open to startups in software, medical devices, life sciences, energy, advanced manufacturing, and other “high-growth industries,” as well as those from more traditional mom and pop businesses, like restaurants or shoe shops, Londre says. Couleecap is seeking four high-tech startups for the first session, plus a small group of traditional small businesses.

The accelerator will teach the popular lean startup techniques that force entrepreneurs to fine-tune their business ideas based on feedback from customers and business mentors, Londre says. At the end of the program, the companies will participate in a pitch contest.

The accelerator is backed by $69,000 from the WEDC, and Couleecap must secure matching funds. WEDC has earmarked $50,000 of its money for seed grants to be split among the high-tech startups. The other small businesses will each be charged a fee of $300 to participate in the program, unless they qualify for a reduced rate of $150 that is based on the entrepreneur’s income level, Londre says. (Couleecap is primarily an anti-poverty and economic development nonprofit that serves La Crosse, Crawford, Monroe, and Vernon counties, part of what is dubbed the Coulee region.)

“Obviously we want to offer this program to people who could use the help and watch their businesses get started,” Londre says. “But more than that, we want to help foster a stronger startup community and a stronger startup culture in the Coulee region. In many ways we already have that, but if we want to take things to the next level, we have to push even harder.”

WEDC officials think the accelerator is a good start. The region “is collaborating extremely well and recognizing the importance of investing into the entrepreneurial community,” says Lisa Johnson, WEDC vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Londre thinks there’s enough demand for a business accelerator in the La Crosse area. He cites the talent coming out of local universities and companies like Authenticom and Logistics Health Inc. And don’t forget about aspiring entrepreneurs living in rural areas, Londre says, pointing to the example of Westby, WI-based Dairyland Shrimp, which opened last year as the state’s first indoor shrimp farm.

“I’m excited to see what ideas come out of rural parts of our community as well,” Londre says. “There are just people that come out of the woodwork.”

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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