For about two hours Wednesday, those startups — which hail from nine U.S. states, as well as Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore — pitched their business concepts via Zoom to the local Plug and Play program’s founding partners during Topeka’s first Plug and Play selection day of the year.
“We had 15 great startups that spanned over 10 different focus areas within animal health,” said Lindsay Lebahn, manager of the local accelerator. “Everything from supply chain to food safety, alternative proteins, packaging — some things you don’t necessarily think of when you think of animal health.”
Lebahn said representatives from the program’s founding partners — Cargill Inc., Hill’s Pet Nutrition and Evergy — were having follow-up conversations with some of the startups Thursday to better understand their operations. The partners are expected to vote for their top startup candidates Friday, and offer letters should be sent out the same day, Lebahn said.
Announcement on cohort participants coming soon
An announcement is likely to be made early next week, she added, regarding which startups will be participating in the first cohort of 2021. Orientation for the session kicks off Monday.
“This is the last part of the funneling process,” Lebahn said. “We started off with sourcing over a hundred startups. Then, we worked with our partners to whittle that down to the top 50. Then, we invited around 20 (to selection day).”
And ultimately, they plan to ask about 10 startups to participate in the upcoming session.
Going forward, selection days for the Plug and Play accelerator program are expected to be held biannually to determine the startups that will take part in each of the program’s three-month-long sessions.
Katrin Bridges, senior vice president of innovation for the Greater Topeka Partnership, tuned into the selection day Wednesday, as well as the program’s first selection day held in October.
While she thought both of the virtual selection days were well executed, she noted this week’s event was more exclusive.
“It was more of an invitation-only event compared to last time,” Bridges said. “I felt like (Wednesday) was a little bit more focused on really what are the right startups for our three corporate partners.”
Bridges was a key player in bringing Plug and Play to Topeka, and she has continued to work with the Silicon Valley-based firm to make its local events successful. Having watched the program develop since it was first announced in 2019, Bridges was excited to see a second selection day come and go.
“To have this almost becoming a standard, scheduled event now is so rewarding for me personally,” she said. “It means a lot to GO Topeka. It means a lot to Topeka and Shawnee County.”
Innovation campus will serve as hub in future
In the future, Topeka’s Plug and Play sessions and events will take place in person in the capital city, and a forthcoming innovation campus is expected to serve as the hub for such activity.
According to Bridges, progress has been made on that front, as the viability studies started last year to determine where to locate that campus have concluded. And she said a lot of work is taking place behind the scenes to prepare for a public announcement regarding the site.
“The innovation advisory board has made an official recommendation to GO Topeka,” Bridges said. “There’s going to be a number of sign-offs in the process that are happening over the next two months. Then, we’ll be able to publicly announce what location, what developer we have chosen to move forward with.”
For now, Plug and Play sessions are being held virtually due to complications stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lebahn is hopeful they may be able to hold some hybrid events near the end of the upcoming session, as more Americans become vaccinated and COVID-19 numbers continue to decline.
“I want people to come to Topeka and see how amazing it is,” Lebahn said.
Still, she expects the virtual aspects of the upcoming session to be worthwhile.
“We have different events scheduled like a reverse pitch, where the partners get to pitch to the startups and tell them what their needs are and how they work,” she said. “We’ll have networking. We’ll have some smaller things, where it’s not necessarily an event but it’s workshops and mentor sessions and things like that to really help them all around their business.”
Local accelerator looking for mentors
Lebahn said the local accelerator is still looking for mentors interested in working with the program’s startups. In particular, they are searching for mentors with expertise in product development, corporate-startup partnerships, marketing, business-to-business sales, venture capital, pitch polishing, fundraising, intellectual property and hard tech innovation.
“We’ve got a good start, but we can always expand that mentorship program,” she said, indicating she hopes to build a list of at least a couple dozen active, involved advisers.
Ultimately, the goal of Plug and Play accelerators is to help startups get off the ground, and the self-described “innovation platform” boasts an average success rate of about 70%. The Topeka program is the first of its kind to focus specifically on budding businesses in the animal health and agricultural technology realm.
Topeka’s position within the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor was a major reason for standing up such a program in the area, as Plug and Play strives to capitalize on regional resources to make its accelerator programs successful.