When Logan Jenkins’ advanced materials business Pheneovate was selected for growth and development at Innosphere, a science and technology business incubator in northern Colorado, the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning.
“I pitched to a group of mentors, like 40 of them, and they developed a founding team around the business,” Jenkins said. “We work in advanced materials, or very small materials that are used in batteries and in composite structures that are all carbon-based.”
A year and a half later, Jenkins now operates both Pheneovate and another new Wyoming-based business: WY Ranch, a hub for industry and organizations working in the energy sector and related industries across the state. While his incubator experience was interrupted by the pandemic and had to be moved to a remote platform, like many things in 2020, he said the experience was worthwhile.
“I’ve stayed in contact with Innosphere, and when I came to Wyoming, I started WY Ranch,” said Jenkins, who operates both businesses in state.
“We have collaborations in the process, and more to come in the future,” Jenkins said. “There are certainly ties between Wyoming businesses and Innosphere, and I’ve actually referred a couple companies there.”
Wyoming is home to IMPACT 307, formerly the Wyoming Technology Business Center, a University of Wyoming-based network of business incubators that hosts start-up challenges across the state. IMPACT 307 also offers business mentorship and incubation, which is crucial to economic development in the state, said Fred Schmechel, assistant director of IMPACT 307. But Innosphere offers a more specialized approach and an avenue toward greater capital.
“Innosphere is very focused on science and technology. If you’re in science and technology, working on something that is hard for laypeople to understand, you need someone specialized,” Jenkins said. “Innosphere can meet that. They have a reach outside of Colorado, as well, and it’s a forward-thinking group.”
Schmechel said IMPACT 307 helps ensure that local entrepreneurs have access to the knowledge they need to start a business.
“We can be that introduction to a little bit of capital and other resources in the state, and, if it is necessary, we help to introduce them to other networks that might get them venture capital that we do need in this state,” Schmechel said. “In Wyoming, we have a problem with access to venture capital, and that is where Innosphere comes into play.
“We want to work with everyone, because we are trying to build everyone in Wyoming up. Not every client has that off-ramp where they go to venture capital, but we want to make sure that those who do, we can get them connected,” he said.
That may mean startups seek a connection to Innosphere Ventures, the Fort Collins, Colorado, incubator for science and technology companies.
“Colorado is our roots, but Laramie is closer to us than Colorado Springs. We don’t recognize the state line as a barrier,” Scott Sampl, chief operating officer at Innosphere, said. “We focus on science and tech, right off the bat, from digital health to medical devices, but also, clean energy, advanced materials and software services.
“We embrace tech coming out of Wyoming as naturally as any tech coming out of Colorado,” Sampl said.
Innosphere generally takes on clients in the grant phase, or businesses that are looking for ways to raise money, acquire customers or add talent and funding, Sampl said. A business applies, and after a questionnaire process, interview and screening that ensures each business is actually in a science or tech field, a company will be matched to a client manager.
“We really want to understand what their issues are, what their problems are and how to accelerate the progress of the business,” Sampl said. “If there is a good match, we make them an offer. If they accept, they get matched to that client manager.
“Think of it a little bit like a consulting model, except that the consultant in this case is the client manager that has a full suite of services, advisers, investors and the rest of Innosphere staff that we put the clients through. They all come together as a focal point for that client,” he said.
Businesses are typically recruited in a cohort, or group of 10 companies across various science and tech industries. Some may be working on an actual product or device, and others might be in software. Businesses go through workshops on customers, size of a market and on competition.
“It is everything to do with, ‘Is there really a customer for the thing you invented, and if there is, how are you going to reach them and sell?’” Sampl said. “Then we do a whole day on funding. Grants, investors, what are investors thinking. Why do they care, and how do you find them?”
Businesses also go through training on leadership, how to find and recruit business talent and how to create a company culture. Each workshop is spread out over three weeks, with the end goal being a completed pitch deck or customer deck.
“Think about your executive summary or your pitch deck. Well, there is a lot underneath the covers to work through and to strategize,” Sampl said.
Clients stay with Innosphere for a year or a year and a half to achieve a goal of raising money, and 70% of them hit their goal. In 2020, Innosphere supported 34 startups and emerging companies in high-tech industries, plus an additional five in a specialized physician entrepreneur cohort.
“Think of someone leaving the university, wanting to start a business … they have grant funding, and they want to find outside investment. They join us for a year, and they hit their goal through our fee-based service,” he said.
Mike Freeman, CEO of Innosphere, said entry into an accelerator program typically requires cash or a decent amount of equity for participation.
“We flip that on its head and say, you have technical risk and business risk. It is really hard to start a company, and (equity) is another barrier to consider, working with an incubator. We feel like this model is appropriate for us,” Freeman said.
Since the pandemic, Sampl said three or four clients are actively working on companies whose sole focus will respond to COVID-19, whether that means developing a prophylactic nasal spray to protect a person from viruses, or a rapid at-home COVID-19 test that generates results in less than five minutes. Others are working on technologies that will make hospitals more efficient or more effective from a financial point of view.
“Remote health care also just took off like a tiger out of a cage. This growth in telehealth, where we were at the end of 2020, was predicted for a year like 2025 or even 2030,” Sampl said. “And there is also a lot more interest in clean tech right now, with places declaring they will be carbon free by 2025 or 2030. Like all industries that go through structural change, that leads to innovation. There is opportunity in helping that shift.”