Jon Atkinson‘s commitment to fostering innovation and talent in New Orleans is fully ingrained in the career he’s built in Louisiana. As the former director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Loyola University, he was charged with creating programs to support students following an entrepreneurship path.
“I got to build a lot from a blank slate and when I came through the door, there was a missing drumbeat for reputable and scalable technology-enabled entrepreneurship,” says Atkinson. “Particularly that scalable companies get built by teams, not necessarily by individuals.”
To further support the startups in the New Orleans tech scene, Atkinson co-founded Lagniappe Angels, an active group of angel investors. The fund has invested in eight early-stage companies so far.
Now, four weeks into his new tenure as CEO of the city’s innovation hub The Idea Village, Atkinson hopes to broaden the definition of technology in New Orleans beyond software, and provide resources and opportunities to industries like government, healthcare and law that are slowly trying to claim a stake in the tech world.
The Idea Village was established in 2002 as the city’s’ first organization with a mission solely centered on entrepreneurship. The non-profit, which runs New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, an accelerator, and additional educational and capital connection programs for founders, has seen the local tech community evolve — the organization’s alumni now generate more than $250 million a year in annual economic impact for the region. The Idea Village has provided nearly 10,000 entrepreneurs more than $27 million in resources,including over 93,000 consulting hours and access to $3 million in seed capital.
And, its success rate has seen some positive numbers: 77 percent of alumni companies are still in business; 90 percent of them stayed in New Orleans. Though the city population is still smaller than pre-Hurricane Katrina numbers, more new businesses are being created annually.
Atkinson is ready to put that growth into overdrive. He shares more about how he hopes to continue unifying the New Orleans’ tech community, the necessary foundation every startup should have, and his upcoming goals for the innovation hub.
As you bring together your experience in education and investing at The Idea Village, what kind of characteristics do you look for in potential startups?
While I was at Loyola I learned about the lean startup method. It has driven a lot of success in the technology community, but it’s also essential to how we conduct business in New Orleans. The initial thing that I look for in evaluating companies is customer traction. If you can’t find a way to get to the customer side, the resources that we could provide you with will not be as valuable as they could be.
This goes back to opportunity recognition: are you in a targeted niche, solving a problem in a way that it hasn’t been solved before, or are you in a growing market and leveraging technology in an interesting way? And if you are, are your customers telling you that this is something they want? Until you can put those things together, you will continue the process of finding out what kind of business it’s going to be. That’s one of the things that we’re focused on as we design our accelerator program going forward — how do we make the program about helping our startups get to really substantial, meaningful traction?
How did you approach your new role when reviewing the current state of The Idea Village’s ecosystem and creating actionable insights to take it to the next level?
Being in this marketplace for some time and being a participant of the tech ecosystem, I’m coming in with a pretty good lay of the land in terms of the needs and opportunities for New Orleans. I see this city as being a place that can broaden the definition of technology in a lot of ways. When I talk about technology, I’m not necessarily talking about computers or software, but also about broader implementations around industrial processes, medical applications and how we can cultivate innovative thinking in more industries.
One of the big opportunities for New Orleans is how we have meaningfully moved the needle on how we think about innovation and think about risk taking in the last 15 years or so. The Idea Village has been a driving force in that change. We have not done a great job connecting that community of innovation and entrepreneurship to the core economic assets of this region. If you look around and ask what are our core economic drivers, they tend to be in industrial, oil and gas, health, and civic innovation. How do we channel this entrepreneurial energy into those areas and solve the problems they have? My focus is not so much on consumer-facing technology, but in how you bring technology into areas and industries where it’s not currently being deployed to its fullest extent.
What are the specific industries that you see as opportunities for new innovation?
We see a lot of opportunities in the energy and industrial sectors since they haven’t been fully mined for innovation potential. The big players there are very excited about bringing in more small startups and more innovation as we think about the future of energy. That’s an area where we can lead as a community.
Health, particularly on the business model side, is interesting. The entire healthcare industry is trying to figure out what its business model is going to be going forward; there are many opportunities for entrepreneurs there.
I also see an emerging cluster in New Orleans of what I call civic innovation — using technology to solve government problems more efficiently. It’s an interesting area since Silicon Valley and other major markets don’t always have the patience for it. It’s having the community perspective to go to City Hall and propose a new way for them to issue parking tickets or manage curbs and tax liens. That innovation around law requires more patience, partnerships and working with the public sector to understand objectives that are there. I think we’re uniquely positioned to make something meaningful.
As you build your goals for The Idea Village and its accelerator program, what questions are you asking to make sure you provide the right support to entrepreneurs in Louisiana?
We’re looking at how we can most efficiently support startups at all of those stages of the funnel. How do you bring the community together to think about interesting problems that are out there? How do you connect that community with technology in a way that it actually allows them to build products that solve those problems? How do you take a team that figured out a marketplace and grow their team to receive a significant investment from venture capital?
We will be rolling out our accelerator program in the next six months and one of my goals is to start making that model more robust. We’ve also been looking at how we build industry-specific tracks around our accelerator program so we can convene companies in a more strategic way. We would like to add more programming with an educational focus so we can continue developing and retaining that workforce in New Orleans, as our mission states. I want to get people thinking about using the tools of building a scalable company and looking for opportunities in what they’re doing everyday.
All photos courtesy of The Idea Village