Sprint Accelerator Propels KC Entrepreneurship to the Finish Line

KC’s Sprint Accelerator is on a mission to solidify our position in the tech entrepreneurial scene.

Story by Lindsey Kennedy

As tech startups continue their quest for global domination, “cooperation” and “cohabitation” are the latest buzzwords among entrepreneurs either hosting or participating in the hackathons, meetups and startup accelerators popping up around the world.

These days, a healthy startup economy is the barometer for a thriving local business community. Thanks in part to Google Fiber Kansas City has risen among more established startup hubs as the new place to build a business … or at least it will if Sprint and Techstars have anything to say about it.

Aside from nurturing specific startups, the Sprint Accelerator, which launched on March 10, houses community entrepreneurial events and provides dynamic co-working spaces in the Crossroads, a Kansas City district known for its creativity and innovation. Natural light pours into this elegant downtown venue, illuminating exposed brick, minimalist ergonomic workspaces, and for those much-needed moments of down time, a foosball table and shuffleboard court.

The three main sections of the space (which was designed by RMTA and built by McCownGordon Construction) coincide with the various goals of the Sprint Accelerator. A “community collision space” is open to the public, thus inviting the kind of impromptu collaborations the tech world is increasingly built upon. More private co-working spaces are available to smaller teams. And the second floor houses various Accelerator events and projects, including the Techstars Mobile Health program.

General Manager Erik Wullschleger hopes the space will act as a bustling entrepreneurial community center. “It’s about making sure that every single day of the year there’s activity going on here and creating that cultural and creative density that we have in the Crossroads district,” he explains. “It’s about serendipitous collisions. You want to run into people with no expectation of what could come out of it.”

One Powerful Partnership

Sprint will pair with Techstars for its flagship Accelerator project, the Mobile Health Program. Techstars, for those unfamiliar, is the world’s largest startup accelerator, connecting emerging entrepreneurs with workspace, seed funding, resources and mentorship. Its accelerator programs boast an impressive success rate: 90 percent of the companies that participate are still either active or have been acquired.

Techstars’ partnership with Sprint is a big deal for Kansas City considering the accelerator’s other locations are positioned in already well-established startup hubs like New York City; Austin, Texas; and Boulder, Colo. For KC to join such ranks is no easy task and implies a promising bout of confidence from the bigger players in the tech scene. “It’s a stamp of approval almost — that’s what it feels like,” Wullschleger says.

Photo by Mike Sinclair, courtesy of RMTA/Sprint Accelerator

Powered by Techstars, the Sprint Accelerator will house the three-month Mobile Health Program. For one quarter each year, 10 young companies selected from across the country will live out every startup’s dream, including mentorship, a combined $120,000 in seed funding and access to Sprint’s massive mobile technology resources.

As the self-described “dot-connector,” Wullschleger steps in when the entrepreneurs are faced with obstacles and grants them access to Sprint employees who can help. “I’ll go grab the person who does that as their day job [at Sprint] and sit them with you,” Wullschleger says. “We have billions of dollars invested in the network. We have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in testing equipment. We’re opening up and helping these entrepreneurs grow their business.”

The lineup of the 2014 program is the result of an exhaustive cross-country search. Although the startups are deliberately varied, they meet basic criteria. “We’re looking for companies that are in an early stage but probably have a product built already … maybe have some customer traction … and maybe even have some revenue that they’re generating,” Wullschleger says.

For those selected, the benefits of having both Sprint and Techstars behind them are hard to quantify, but Wullschleger sums it up swimmingly. “Basically, if you’re looking at a small kindling fire, this is dumping a whole barrel of gasoline right on top of your business,” he describes.

Sprint’s Not-So-Lofty Goals

For Sprint, the goals of the Mobile Health Accelerator program are threefold, the first being business development. “Obviously, we want to learn from the entrepreneurs and also help contribute technology,” Wullschleger says, although it should be noted that investing in promising startups is hardly a new concept at Sprint. The mobile technology giant helped Pandora launch its first mobile application back in the flip phone days of 2007.

Second, Sprint aims to invest in Kansas City’s growing technology community. “We’ve long mined the fields of Silicon Valley—there’s a lot going on there,” Wullschleger admits. “But there’s so much happening in our own community that we want to continue to drive tech talent into Kansas City. The health of the Kansas City tech entrepreneurship ecosystem is directly impacting the talent pool that Sprint has to pull from for an employee base.”

The third goal of the program is to expose Sprint’s existing 40,000 employees (7,000 of which work in KC) to new possibilities with regard to innovation and collaboration. “Pairing them up with people who are generalists, entrepreneurs and [those who] can just make decisions quickly [and] go build things on the fly … there’s a lot to share between those two types of people,” Wullschleger remarks.

So what exactly is Mobile Health? Well, for the purposes of the Accelerator, the definition is fairly broad. From personal fitness apps to hospital administrative tools, any startups that address the needs of the healthcare marketplace using mobile solutions are welcome. “If you’re doing something to improve health and wellness and using mobility as a part of your solution, we’re interested,” Wullschleger says.

The focus on healthcare is no accident from a business perspective as Wullschleger points out. “Three trillion dollars is being spent on healthcare today; $4 trillion by 2018. [It’s a] gigantic opportunity,” he says.

And it’s an opportunity Kansas City is specifically positioned to dominate. “It’s a gigantic industry, and everyone has their fair shot at it,” Wullschleger notes. “But when you look at the domain expertise of Kansas City dating back to the large research facilities, research hospitals, healthcare workers as proportion to the general population and large health IT companies like Cerner in town, there’s a lot of domain expertise and talent in the region that would allow us to work together with the entrepreneurial community to build some really amazing solutions.”

As for the “mobile” in mobile health, that’s an obvious one for Sprint, but the growing importance of mobile technology solutions is becoming a reality in nearly every industry. Accordingly, the task of the Accelerator entrepreneurs is to engage mobile devices, which — as Wullschleger points out — are in the pockets of practically every consumer not to mention those who are doctors, surgeons and other healthcare workers.

Our Midwestern Mentality

“We can’t help it. It’s in our blood!” says Wullschleger of the decidedly friendly, cooperative attitude that permeates KC’s tech startup scene. It’s a quality that Sprint wants to nurture, and rightly so, as it is perfectly in line with the emerging trend of a so-called “collaborative economy.”

If sharing is caring, then, “Sharing is the next currency you’re going to see in the entrepreneurial community,” Wullschleger predicts. “I think in the Midwest we’re already predisposed to doing that, and we’re going to build businesses off of that in ways that people on the coast maybe aren’t able to imagine quite yet. That probably puts us at a competitive advantage, but again, it’s something we can’t help.”

The Sprint Accelerator space was specifically designed to foster collaboration and encourage this running theme of “serendipitous collisions.” The programs it houses aim to utilize every local resource to bring entrepreneurial success to Kansas City.

Sprint echoes the sentiments we’re hearing all across Kansas City, from civic leaders to business leaders to non-profit organizations: that a win for one Kansas City business is a win for the entire community. “It’s not just about tech entrepreneurship,” Wullschleger says. “It’s about making sure everybody feels like Kansas City is the place to be.”