Jack Mason, CEO of the University of Wyoming Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, started the job last fall after serving as director of entrepreneurial studies at the Palumbo Donahue School of Business Administration at Duquesne Unviersity. Photo courtesy of the University of Wyoming

An assessment of the Business Resource Network led by the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Business Council helps define how future economic development and entrepreneurship efforts are structured in the state.

Coupled with the progress of the new Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, UW’s business and entrepreneurship programs are evolving to meet economic development challenges facing the state, said Ed Synakowski, UW vice president for research and economic development. A presidential directive outlining the assessment was presented to UW trustees at their May meeting.

“This presidential directive was born, in part, from a recognition that this array of resources can be confusing to statewide business interests, and that there may be overlap in some of the services offered,” Synakowski said.

The Wyoming Business Resource Network includes the Small Business Development Center, the Wyoming Technology Business Center, Manufacturing Works, the Wyoming Technology Transfer and Research Products Center and the Wyoming SBIR/STTR Initiative.

“The Business Resource Network offers deep expertise and powerful services to help Wyoming small business owners research their market, reach new customers, prototype new products, build an online presence and distribute their goods and services,” said Shawn Reese, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council. “We look forward to making sure those services are as effective as possible, and are quickly and easily accessible for our Wyoming entrepreneurs.”

A panel of six reviewers, including Synakowski, is being assembled by the WBC and UW with the goal of reporting observations and recommendations to the university and the Wyoming Business Council by Sept. 1, Synakowski said. Three individuals will be external to the university, and will include those who lead or have led successful organizations in other states that are composed of an array of business development units like those that make up the Business Resource Network.

“We will work with the panel to develop the (assessment) process,” he said. “We expect that there will be some level of public engagement or opportunity for comment, but the details of this have not been developed.”

Synakowski said the BRN units are supported by various combinations of federal programs, as well as the state funds that are administered by the Wyoming Business Council.

“Many state businesses and fledgling entrepreneurs have benefited from the services they provide in developing business plans, connecting with resources to optimize manufacturing processes, and providing incubator services for new companies,” he said. “They also provide experiential learning opportunities for students.”

He said interests of the WBC in carrying out the assessment are aligned with a goal in the strategic plan of the Office of Research and Economic Development, “Breakthroughs in Research 2018-2022,” to integrate statewide services of entities supported by the Wyoming Business Council with the services of UW’s IIE.

“This goal was established well in advance of any concerns that may have been expressed by ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming) members, but it is well aligned with the aim shared by the WBC of making the services we support as impactful as possible,” Synakowski said.

UW officials publicly presented the concept of the IIE and the strategic plan at a meeting of the ENDOW task force in December 2017. The IIE was formally approved by UW trustees in March 2018.

“The IIE is aimed at drawing on the wide range of resources on campus that can be brought to bear on educating students in all aspects of entrepreneurial business development including engineering, legal and design matters, and can provide resources for testing business models so as to make them attractive for investors,” Synakowski said.

Jack Mason started as CEO of the UW Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship last fall after serving as director of entrepreneurial studies at the Palumbo Donahue School of Business Administration at Duquesne University. Mason earned his bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and went on to earn a master’s degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in engineering from MIT.

He said while the IIE is seeking to involve all areas of the university and state in developing a strategic plan, it’s not waiting to get started.

“We’re already very involved in educating students and entrepreneurs, and supporting communities and entrepreneurs,” Mason said.

In the past few months, Mason and other university officials held a series of meetings hosted by service organizations in communities throughout the state to hear firsthand what residents thought UW should offer in entrepreneurship educational and outreach programs. More than 800 people attended sessions coordinated through the UW Office of Engagement and facilitated by its director, Jean Garrison.

Garrison said it’s important that the IIE, her office and the entire university be able to connect with the different audiences in the state and show that “we’re listening and not just an ivory tower down in Laramie.”

“Of course, when you actually start putting some things into place that reflect the feedback that is received, then I think it brings the university and the state closer together,” Garrison added.

In a report summarizing the spring Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Service Club Outreach Program, Garrison noted that many attendees provided feedback during the meetings and stayed afterward to provide additional input. More than 240 individual strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges were offered by participants to be used in developing the IIE strategic plan and for addressing entrepreneur needs.

Mason said it’s not just involving all areas of the state in the IIE efforts, but all areas of the university, as well. Business faculty affiliated with the IIE developed an entrepreneurial curriculum to launch this fall. UW is relaunching its cross-campus entrepreneurship minor, open to all non-College of Business majors, and its entrepreneurship major for College of Business.

The IIE’s multidisciplined approach has helped found new centers focused on bringing UW academic and research efforts together with entrepreneurial expertise at the institution and around Wyoming. Among the new centers are the Health and Bioscience Innovation Hub to help entrepreneurs and researchers develop next-generation health and wellness solutions; the Center for Business and Economic Analysis to support the economic growth and diversification of Wyoming’s economy through applied economic and business analytics for communities, industries and entrepreneurs; and the Center for Design Thinking, which will work with faculty, students and businesses to apply design thinking and explore possibilities in creating new products using tools such as HoloLens and virtual reality headsets, holographic displays and 3-D printed materials.

“We believe that Wyoming has the potential to be a global center for health and wellness innovations,” UW School of Pharmacy Dean Kem Krueger said of the Health and Bioscience Innovation Hub.

The Center for Design Thinking is a cross-disciplinary program co-directed by Department of Visual and Literary Arts assistant professor Brandon Gellis and Department of Computer Science associate professor Amy Banic.

The aim of the Center for Business and Economic Analysis is to be the trusted destination resource for information about Wyoming’s economy and a resource for providing students practical experience.

“We want to address regional and national questions for people in Wyoming,” said UW College of Business Department of Economics Chair Jason Shogren in describing the center last December. “Any business, before they start, is going to have to decide where they’re going to set up, how many people they’re going to hire, how much capital they’re going to invest and where they’re going to invest it. Part of the process of the CBEA is to give them feedback on those numbers.”

Another proposal to enhance the work by IIE was approved last month by UW trustees with the creation of WyoVenture LLC, Synakowski said. WyoVentures will be a distinct entity with the mission of creating and maintaining an educational and practical entrepreneurship resource infrastructure, which will be an easily accessible single point of entry for start-up ventures in Wyoming.

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