This week Engine is traveling with Steve Case on the Rise of the Rest road trip to celebrate entrepreneurship, in all its forms, across America. Every day we’ll post dispatches from the cities we’ve seen. For more updates follow #RiseofRest on Twitter.
In the 1860s, the First Transcontinental Railroad was constructed, connecting Omaha, NE to Sacramento, CA. It was fitting, then, that we kicked off Rise of the Rest’s western tour with a symbolic visit to to Lauritzen Gardens, the original site of the railway. While the rail line was one of Nebraska’s earliest “startups,” today there is a new startup scene taking hold in Omaha and Lincoln—one fueled by growing investment, exceptional local talent and ideas, and a unique culture around support and community.
One of the early challenges faced by the startup ecosystem in Lincoln and Omaha was a lack of capital. In 2011, Nebraska saw zero dollars in venture investment. But there has been a dramatic increase in funding for startups over the past few years. Governor Pete Ricketts, who was one of the driving forces behind Nebraska Angels, noted at Monday’s welcome breakfast that when he first got involved with the angel network ten years ago, there were only about a dozen investors involved. Now there are over 60. Venture investments have also increased, with almost $120 million in venture capital flowing to the state last year across 13 deals. We witnessed the impact that investment has had on the region with a visit to sports technology startup Hudl, which helped put the region on the map in 2015 with a $72.5 million Series A funding round.
We also saw firsthand how the colleges and universities in Lincoln and Omaha are contributing to growth in the startup ecosystem—incubating both talent and ideas. The two cities are home to almost 20 higher-ed institutions, and the University of Nebraska’s main campus is based in Lincoln. We stopped by the Nebraska Innovation Campus, a research campus designed to facilitate innovative partnerships between the University of Nebraska and the private sector. During our startup crawl at the facility, we visited Virtual Incision, the Nebraska Innovation Studio, Spreetail, and the Food Innovation Center.
Over lunch, we talked with some of Omaha and Lincoln’s “First Wave” founders to discuss how they could better support and improve collaboration with the new wave of entrepreneurs founding companies in Nebraska today (whether as validators, mentors, or even potential distribution channels). Participants echoed a theme that came up throughout our visits: that Nebraska’s greatest assets is its inclusive community. “This region has strong community support, an open door environment,” noted one of the participants. “Almost anyone is willing to sit down and have a coffee to talk through an idea. There is a strong desire for startups in Nebraska to succeed.” We experienced this further on our visits to the Startup Collaborative and Fuse Coworking, where we met dozens of companies and witnessed environments of collaboration, mentorship, and openness.
The day culminated with a pitch competition, which put a number of promising new businesses on display—including Quantified Ag, which founder Vishal Singh described as “fitbit for cattle,” and RaceNote, a motorsports management platform. The pitch competition’s winner was a great example of the best of Omaha and Lincoln Startups: LifeLoop, a platform for senior living that connects staff, families, and residents.
The main takeaway about Lincoln and Omaha’s growing startup ecosystem? It may be small, but it is mighty, and with continued community support, investments in talent, and improvements in access to capital, Nebraska’s startups are certain to rise to the top.