#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Trey Bowles, Cofounder and CEO of the Dallas Entrepreneur Center
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
Dallas is quickly emerging as national hub of innovation, even in the saturated startup state of Texas. This week we spoke with Trey Bowles about the city’s multi-pronged efforts to develop a robust and collaborative ecosystem. He attributes Dallas’ success to the city’s deep talent pool and regional cooperation but believes that public funding for entrepreneur centers and stronger incentives for early stage investment could further unlock its potential for growth.
What is your personal role in the Dallas-area startup ecosystem?
I have a few different roles. I currently run the Dallas Entrepreneur Center (DEC), which has 7 different locations across the region including those at universities and in underserved neighborhoods.
I’m also the cofounder of the Dallas Innovation Alliance, which is a public-private partnership that is working to transform Dallas into a “smart city”. We’re building one of the fastest “smart city” pilots in the world with 9 different projects running simultaneously with the goal of developing an “innovation district” in Downtown Dallas. We work closely with the city of Dallas and under the leadership of Bill Finch (Chief Information Officer) and team we have been able to accomplish great things in the last two years.
There are a few other nonprofits that I run as well, including a leadership group with the mayor called The Mayor’s Star Council that helps bring together culturally diverse, scientifically-minded young professionals and engages them with the city.
Ultimately, what I’m trying to do is build a collaborative, robust ecosystem where entrepreneurs and innovators can be aggregated, supported, and taught how to effectively build companies. What’s more, I’m trying to create an international marketing campaign to highlight why I think this region is so innovative and entrepreneurial.
What are some exciting things that have happened for the Dallas ecosystem in the last year?
Building a robust ecosystem is about much more than just connecting an investor with an entrepreneur but its about getting accelerators, academic institutions, media outlets, corporations, and all of those broader groups plugging in and serving the ecosystem as well. So what we’ve seen in recent years is more of those stakeholders coming into play and participating, making the ecosystem more effective.
One example of this is a movement towards involving Dallas’ set of large corporations that have a major presence here such as AT&T, Exxon, and Microsoft in the innovation space. I think we’ll see these companies engaging and interacting with the ecosystem more over the next 12-18 months.
It’s important for an ecosystem to move beyond “lets become the next Silicon Valley”, find their unique identity, and focus on the specific areas where they can flourish. We’ve seen Dallas start to discover its “brand”. While our regional ecosystem is great and thriving, I think we’ll become de-siloed and start to collaborate with other cities in the state such as Austin and Houston to become stronger as a whole.
What makes Dallas an ideal place to start a company?
Access to talent. Dallas has more high-tech workers than Austin and Houston combined. It’s not necessarily easy to find it all the time when a lot of it lives inside the large companies based here.
There’s also a culture that encourages people to go out and start their own businesses here. Few people will fear-monger about the risks of entrepreneurialism but many will extend an offer to help someone build their enterprise or connect them with someone who can. We relish one another’s successes because any single big win benefits the rest of the ecosystems and the economy, more broadly.
As we see investment come in from the coasts, founders who receive funding are apt to connect their investors to friends or colleagues with promising ideas and companies because they realize that it’s not a zero-sum game. The community certainly strives to bring people along with them.
The Dallas-Fort Worth ecosystem is 9,200 square miles. However, the DEC realized that there are subsets with unique needs, focuses, and stakeholders. Creating these micro-ecosystems has been immensely successful because we plug these smaller nodes into the larger community, benefiting all in the process.
What are some of the challenges that Dallas still faces?
Capital is still a huge challenge. I think this is the case in virtually every ecosystem outside of the Valley. However, many of the people complaining about the lack of available capital probably aren’t ready for it.
The interesting thing about Dallas is that most of the investment that happens in this area is directly related to some sort of traction. People aren’t throwing money at 100 ideas hoping that one works. They’re investing in 10-15 businesses with revenue and sound business practices. What this does is make the entrepreneur prove that they can and are creating value. We have tons of private equity but companies struggle to find that series A funding.
There is an enormous amount of family wealth here that isn’t spending money on “early stage” companies as we know them in the startup community. They put small amounts of money into it but we need to leverage these family offices more.
Another challenge is unlocking the talent that most of the large companies here hold. It’s hard to convince these employees who are making a comfortable living to go out and become entrepreneurs. As a result, we’re now focusing on attracting younger talent right out of college and providing an alternative for recent graduates who want to jump right into New York or Silicon Valley.
That being said, no city that I’ve ever lived in has as much potential for growth as Dallas.
Are there any specific policies or government initiatives that have enabled the growth of Dallas’ ecosystem? Do you have any ‘wish list’ items in terms of policy?
About 3 years ago when we only had a single entrepreneur center, its estimated annual economic impact was $130 million with about 1,000 jobs created. Imagine the impact over the next decade as the DEC expanded to multiple centers, 10-15,000 jobs could potentially be created. When you look at these figures, you realize that building a robust startup ecosystem is a formidable economic development strategy for a city or region.
As a result, I think cities should help fund the operational costs of these entrepreneurial centers who have a significant economic impact. The budget to run these facilities is actually quite low, so a little bit of money from a city, state, or federal government could go a long way. To this effect, the EDA and Department of Commerce could be creating grants around some of these physical structures and funding these centers across the country.
Another piece is developing policy that encourages investment into early stage businesses. Because Texas doesn’t have a state income tax, it’d be difficult to find a source for that money. However, Michigan has a really interesting model in which they created 11 strategic investment “zones” and use a sliver of the property tax generated in these designated areas to fund local entrepreneurial support organizations, like SPARK (Ann Arbor).
However, the voice of the entrepreneurial community here often goes unheard in the public policy debate. While there are as many, if not more people working in the startup space than with the large companies based in Texas, we have yet to amass all of those people and unify them to speak up on policy matters important to them.
What are some startups to watch coming out of Dallas?
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