Amarillo entrepreneurs want to pull Tech’s Innovation Hub north

<p>Mark Nair </p>

The Amarillo City Council’s version of Thomas Edison couldn’t figure out how to foment a start-up culture in the city. Then a lightbulb went off over Place 4 representative Mark Nair’s head.

A tech consultant and patented inventor, Nair reached out to Kimberly Gramm, the new managing director at Texas Tech’s sparkling $29 million Innovation Hub. He wanted to help coach Lubbock entrepreneurs through the ins and outs of getting businesses off the ground, he said, with a long game in mind.

Nair, Maxi-Volt Corporation board chairman Mark Wingate and artist Andrew DeJesse have signed up as National Science Foundation I-Corps mentors at the Innovation Hub. But Nair’s ultimate goal is to convince Tech to open similar facilities in Amarillo — both out at the Pantex Plant and downtown.

“This is the kind of idea Amarillo lacks and needs to push the city into the future,” Nair said. “I’m trying to use what I know how to do to get Amarillo involved in this, because what Tech is doing is right, and what Amarillo has done in the past isn’t perfect.”

Texas Tech owns 16,000 square feet of the 343,000-square foot Pantex Administrative Support Complex being developed south of the nuclear facility. Though Tech’s property seems like a drop in a bucket compared to the rest of the $90 million behemoth, it’s plenty of space to run an incubation center for potential inventors.

Pantex has already written a letter saying it would provide industry mentors to start-up hopefuls, Gramm said.

“Having alignment amongst industry leaders, educational institutions and government leaders is really how we get this done,” Gramm said. “No one entity can pull off what we’re having discussions about today with the innovation district.

Nair wants a private company to foot the bill for a downtown “maker space,” which he has made clear to Amarillo Economic Development Corp. President and CEO Barry Albrecht.

He dreams of high schoolers operating 3-D printers and laser cutters after safety training, with staff members on hand to help coders work through lines of Python. The maker space would also include a cafe for students to work through homework assignments, which Nair said would hopefully keep them from spending three hours sipping a single drink at local coffee shops.

“When we talk about downtown growth and revitalization, these are the things that really do it,” he said.

The Innovation Hub opened in August 2015, and Gramm moved from South Florida to take the reigns less than a year ago. For her, development in Amarillo remains a nice idea for a future time.

“I think it would be premature to say, ‘Oh, we’re doing 1, 2 and 3 to get this to Amarillo,’” Gramm said. “Our (university) president and I and a committee are having conversations about how this becomes a priority.”

The Innovation Hub has launched eight startups so far, Gramm said, and has seven tenants renting work space. But the center has yet to produce a viable commercial company, Wingate said.

That’s not uncommon for an incubator’s first year. But Wingate said he was concerned with some of the Innovation Hub leaders’ waffling response on how intellectual property will be determined, as well as the program’s insistence on pairing mentors with entrepreneurs based on what staff members think would make a good match.

“Forming a mentor relationship — and I have many — is like a marriage. A computer can’t do this,” Wingate said. “Mentors are people you mesh with, you interact with, you have some attachment to. I don’t think you can assign a mentor.”

Wingate also serves on the West Texas Enterprise Center’s advisor board, which has helped launch Cat Man Du Technologies, Caprock Building Systems and Tascosa Hot Sauce, among others. He wants WTEC to partner with the Innovation Hub, using the former’s proven techniques for getting businesses off the ground and the latter’s technological focus.

Unlike some other entreprenurial projects, technology can be easily shipped and sold outside of the Texas Panhandle, Wingate said.

“We can start all the doughnut stores we want to, and nothing against doughnuts, but you’re probably not going to export very many,” Wingate said. “(Tech has) a fairly impressive IP war chest, and they have some funding that’s pretty interesting.”

Enterprise Center staff began talking to Innovation Hub personnel in the last month in hopes of setting up some sort of partnership, WTEC Marketing Director Kyla Frye said, which would extend outside of West Texas’s flagship cities.

The center has also talked to local businesses about sponsoring the sort of “maker space” seen at the Innovation Hub, which Frye said was “coming, it’s just not official yet.”

The Enterprise Center is adding 8,500 square feet onto its 31,000-foot building, though Wingate said that would only satiate the present demand for more space.

Nair, who is running for re-election against businessman Howard Smith, said his position on council gives him leverage in discussing the creation of a maker space, but he would continue to push for one regardless of whether he is elected to another term.

“This is really the reason I’m running again, so I can keep going on this,” he said. “I’m going to keep going on it regardless, but it would have to be from a different angle.”

Texas Tech’s Innovation Hub:

  • Has seven tenants
  • Runs 18 programs to support faculty, students and entrepreneurs
  • hosts six to seven events per week
  • provides co-working space, office and wet lab space, and rent conference rooms
  • provides funding to entrepreneurs through a competitive process at the Texas Tech Accelerator. Startups receive space for one year, mentoring, education and $25,000 to launch a startup
  • has created 8 startups

Source: Kimberly Gramm