Building on ideas: Alaska Entrepreneurship Week aims to encourage local startups

Sean Doogan
Erika Crumley, a teacher at Roger's Park Elementary school helped kids create art with paints hung from a tripod. Anchorage's Mini-Maker Faire, was held at the Loussac Library, Saturday, July 26, 2014, during the Alaska Entrepreneurship Week.
Anne Raup / Alaska Dispatch News
A piece by Garrett Perkins, of Upcycle Design headlined his area at the Mini-Maker Faire on Saturday. Anchorage's Mini-Maker Faire, held at the Loussac Library, Saturday, July 26, 2014, during the Alaska Entrepreneurship Week.
Anne Raup / Alaska Dispatch News
Anchorage's Mini-Maker Faire, was held at the Loussac Library, Saturday, July 26, 2014, during the Alaska Entrepreneurship Week.
Anne Raup / Alaska Dispatch News
A dinosaur creation, by Duane and Wendy Hallback, was a main attraction at Saturday's Mini-Maker Faire. Anchorage's Mini-Maker Faire, held at the Loussac Library, July 26, 2014, during the Alaska Entrepreneurship Week.
Anne Raup / Alaska Dispatch News
One of Duane and Wendy Hallback's pieces keeps watch over the Mini-Maker Faire on Saturday. Anchorage's Mini-Maker Faire, held at the Loussac Library, July 26, 2014, during the Alaska Entrepreneurship Week.
Anne Raup / Alaska Dispatch News

Alaska entrepreneurs, crafts people, artists, inventors and tinkerers are getting help turning their ideas into money-making realities this week.

Now in its second year, Alaska Entrepreneurship Week connects people trying to start new businesses with each other and seasoned professionals. The events range from workshops with the founder of Indiegogo -- one of the largest crowd funding resources available on the Internet -- to seminars on business startups and even a "Shark Tank"-style contest for hopeful entrepreneurs.

Starting a business from the ground up is a daunting task. A recent study by Harvard Business School lecturer Shikhar Ghosh found that only about 25 percent of startup business return investor capital. The National Venture Capital Association believes that the number is a little better than Ghosh's figure, although it defines startup failure differently, estimating that about one-quarter to one-third of startups end up liquidating all of their assets. 

Whatever the true figure, starting a business from nothing is a difficult task, one littered with potential hurdles to overcome. And until recently, entrepreneurs in Alaska had little organized help and almost no access to investors willing to take a risk on their ideas.

"We had the idea of connecting entrepreneurs with people who had the experience to help them succeed," said Valerie Walsh, communications director for Anchorage Economic Development Corp., which co-created Alaska Entrepreneurship Week with the Alaska Small Business Development Center

While crowd funding sites like Indiegogo, GoFundMe and Kickstarter have made it a little easier to get financing, advice may be worth more than cash for a prospective businessperson. Alaska Entrepreneurship Week, which began July 25, is perhaps the most visible example of recent developments in opportunities for Alaskans wanting to build a business on an idea and hard work. 

Angels to the rescue

Even the best-laid business plans require capital to get off the ground. A few investment funds have sprung up in Alaska, including the Alaska Accelerator Fund, which is privately funded by individuals.

"In Alaska over the long term, what we are doing is arguably more important than what oil and gas does over the long term, because this state badly needs a diversified economy, and the entrepreneurs of today are going to be the captains of industry tomorrow," said Forrest Nabors, a business professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and co-founder of the AAF.

Brian McKinnon is a local entrepreneur working with the AAF and the 49th State Angel Fund, which is managed by the Municipality of Anchorage through a grant from the U.S. Treasury. His invention, a rugged Alaska version of a personal watercraft, has gone from idea to marketable product in just a few years. Mackinnon Marine, one of five companies started by the former oil field worker, just began selling the AlumaSki, a $25,000 all-terrain vehicle for the water. McKinnon says its body is made entirely from aluminum, and the craft can carry as much as 1,000 pounds. He sees it as a river-going ATV and said plans are in the works to create a tow-behind trailer for the watercraft that could hold even more.

McKinnon said the most important element for business success is the people who make it happen.

"Find what you are good at and try to find other people who are good at what you are not good at," McKinnon said. "Your team is the most important part of your company."

McKinnon said prospective entrepreneurs need to keep their egos in check and do what is right to make their businesses succeed.

"I just hired a CEO, so I have hired my own boss," McKinnon said.

McKinnon's success -- at least in the early stages of business building -- didn't happen by luck. He said he has found the advice from members of the various angel funds with which he deals to be invaluable.

This is a tool that hasn't been available for long in Alaska, which, until recently, was one of the only states in the nation that didn't have a group of angel investors working together to support business development, according to 49th State Angel Fund program manager Joe Morrison.

"Two years ago, before the fund existed, there wasn't a lot of startup activity in Anchorage like you were seeing in other communities in U.S.," Morrison said.

Makers, funders and more

Alaska Entrepreneurship week is about more than money, though. The week started Friday with Anchorage Startup Weekend, a 54-hour marathon event during which participants pitched, developed, presented and received feedback on business ideas. 

The weekend also featured a family-friendly event: the second-annual Mini Maker Faire, which drew more than 1,000 attendees. Exhibitors shared unusual hobbies and inventions, from locally developed video games to vintage computers to welding projects. There was the "Atomic Camper" -- a camper trailer-turned-rocket -- and a 30-foot-tall scale model of the Space Needle made entirely from cardboard. The day's coveted door prize? A 3-D printer.

The week continues with workshops, panels and other events in Anchorage as well as Homer, Wasilla and Ketchikan. On Wednesday, AEDC presents its Three-Year Outlook Luncheon, which will feature a glimpse into Anchorage's future presented by AEDC President and CEO Bill Popp, as well as keynote remarks by Travelocity founder Terry Jones. Jones is one of two big-name entrepreneurs appearing at multiple events throughout the week; the other is Danae Ringelmann, a co-founder of Indiegogo.com who has been recognized by ELLE, Fast Company and Forbes as one of the most influential women in technology.

Alaska Entrepreneurship Week ends Thursday with one of the week's more uniquely Alaskan events: Pitch-On-A-Train. Five startups will pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges and potential investors while riding the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Whittier. Competitors will vie for a variety of prizes, including possible early seed funding. 

A complete listing of the week's events is available at AEDCweb.com.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.