#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Anne Barth, Executive Director, TechConnectWV
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.
Tech Me Home, West Virginia
West Virginia’s mountainous terrain may be a challenge, but certainly doesn’t divide the state’s entrepreneurs, according to Anne Barth, Executive Director of TechConnect West Virginia. TechConnectWV is a non-profit organization focused on driving innovation, cultivating entrepreneurship, and creating greater economic diversity throughout West Virginia. By bringing together a coalition of higher education, private industry and the public sector, TechConnect leads innovation-based economic development statewide. While TechConnectWV does all that it can to drive innovation and inspire local entrepreneurs, attracting and growing more tech talent remains an important goal. By leveraging resources across the state, the entire startup ecosystem in West Virginia becomes stronger.
Tell me about you.
Prior to joining TechConnectWV, I served as State Director for U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd for more than two decades. Senator Byrd served as the Chair of Appropriations Committee and worked hard to bring federal organizations outside of the beltway to West Virginia. The goal was to diversify the economy. The FBI’s Office of Criminal Justice Information Services and other federal agencies moved to the state and that attracted dozens of small firms to contract with the government. As a result, those firms brought in tech talent.
When the position opened at TechConnect in late 2010, it seemed like a natural extension of my work with Senator Byrd to diversify the state’s economy. What really impressed me was that TechConnectWV brought both major universities together in the cause, working collaboratively to turn research and innovation into enterprise. To me, that is powerful.
Can you tell us more about TechConnect and some of its programming?
We are a nonprofit coalition focused on tech-based economic development. Thanks to funding from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the State of West Virginia and U.S. Economic Development Administration, we’ve been able to launch three main programs.
Our first program had a goal of simply building capacity. In that program we brought together entities involved in the startup ecosystem and created a coalition. In StartUp WV, “Centers of Excellence” with unique skill sets were identified to help entrepreneurs gather expertise from various groups. For example, specializations like engineering and prototyping were identified.
The second program was ScaleUp WV. The program aimed to bring in resource providers and entrepreneurs, with the end goal of launching new firms and getting products to market. We were able to help 120 entrepreneurs, create 59 jobs, retain 87 jobs, launch 30 new companies and attract five million dollars of follow-on funding.
Our current program is NextUp WV, which offers technical assistance and connections to angel investor groups to startups and entrepreneurs, while also working to link incubators and accelerators across the state. We are working the strengthen the incubator community while getting best-in-class presentations in front of angel groups.
What’s your personal role in the West Virginia startup ecosystem?
TechConnectWV is the convener and a facilitator for the startup ecosystem; I lead and promote our programs. Overall, we aim to be a trusted partner for leadership on innovation-based economic development in the state.
We quickly learned that we need to connect all of the stakeholders in the state, especially because we are separated by distance. We host team calls to stay connected and attend events throughout the state. The “Centers of Excellence” work together to offer assistance as needed - we have a whole team answering questions and finding solutions. Our board of directors has one person from each of the five centers, as well.
At the end of the day, it is all about building relationships and trust. We work to get to know everyone involved in the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem in the state by meeting with as many people as possible in person.
What’s the most exciting or important development that has happened to the West Virginia ecosystem in the last year?
Appalachian Regional Commission POWER grants have been a significant development for the state in the last few years. The grants are aimed at creating a more vibrant economic future for coal-impacted communities by cultivating economic diversity, enhancing job training and re-employment opportunities, advancing innovation and entrepreneurship, creating jobs in existing or new industries, and attracting new sources of investment. The programs are making a difference.
I’m also really proud of our Women & Technology Conference series, which addresses the under-representation of women in fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The conference aims to encourage women involved in technology education and research, private enterprises, the public sector, investing, and entrepreneurship.
What is the biggest challenge the West Virginia ecosystem still faces?
Most organizations still need more capacity to carry out their missions. It’s not all about money - more capacity allows more people to participate. It’s also a challenge to to communicate our message successfully. We have some great media partners, but we need to continue to tell our story.
We recently held a great event in Fairmont to help regional entrepreneurs and companies strengthen their investment pitches. The Fairmont News covered our event, helping to shine a light on our work. It helps to increase awareness.
Tell me about 2018 Innovation & Entrepreneurship Day at the State Capitol.
We host this event every year to showcase innovation in West Virginia and raise awareness of important issues with state leaders. We prep our folks and have them meet with lawmakers, telling them what’s happening in their districts. We featured more than 50 exhibits in the Capitol Rotunda representing entrepreneurs and small businesses, as well as the organizations that support them across the state. For us, it’s important to keep that conversation going.
From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your startup ecosystem?
I hope for widespread and expanded support for innovation. I want to increase the understanding of how innovation and entrepreneurship lead to job creation and wealth generation. In addition, expanded broadband connectivity is crucial in West Virginia.
I want to see more entrepreneurs in the state, both home-grown and by relocating from other places. West Virginia has a wonderful quality of life, affordable housing, no traffic and tons of outdoor recreational opportunities. Everyone lives within 15 minutes of some place that’s beautiful. I want more innovators to give West Virginia a chance.