TBED response to the pandemic helped pave way to recovery, save businesses

May 20, 2021
By: Ellen Marrison

When the full impact of the COVID-19 virus was just beginning to be realized in spring of 2020, small businesses across the country were faced with nearly insurmountable challenges and emergency orders, shutting down operations in many instances and choking off funding sources. Many in the technology-based economic development (TBED) community stepped in and pivoted their own organizations and plans to help others. We reached out to our SSTI members to hear about how they responded. While we can’t include all of the many success stories, below we feature a sampling of some of the stories that SSTI members shared regarding how they responded to help guide small businesses through the pandemic. And check back next week when we will share more from members who responded about their science and education pivots that helped the country navigate the pandemic.

“When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it disrupted every aspect of life, business, and society in the U.S., sending Americans into quarantine lockdown for weeks and generating anxiety and uncertainty about what the future held. This was particularly prevalent in the investment and capital markets, where traditional funding sources scaled back new and early-round investments and reserved any outgoing dollars for late-stage companies and maintaining portfolio businesses, putting a lot of startups and founders in a precarious position and thwarting growth plans, particularly for female- and minority-founders,” wrote Rory Levine, marketing and communication director for Launch Tennessee.  

Levine noted that providing a healthy ecosystem for entrepreneurs, innovator and researchers offered the best chance for recovery. They were able to support startups through their Impact Fund, which utilizes state-owned funds for equity investment, providing in-demand capital solutions for startups based in the state. “By continuing to invest critical dollars in and support the most-promising local businesses through this capital resource, we helped keep the entrepreneurial ecosystem stable and growing during this challenging economic downtown, as well as powered a speedy recovery for the state of Tennessee.”

Being able to pivot quickly were hallmarks of many successful programs. New Mexico’s Arrowhead Center advanced the timing of its BizSprint accelerator and included additional weeks of curriculum focused on online branding and marketing. The five-week accelerator received a 400 percent increase in applications for 2020 over the previous year. Due to the overwhelming response, Arrowhead also developed and ran a webinar series focused on online marketing and branding, which is available through Arrowhead’s YouTube channel. In New York, FuzeHub found a way to connect manufacturers to resources in way that approximated its pre-pandemic Solutions Forums where manufacturers made connections with partner organizations through in-person meetings. They pivoted to host virtual manufacturing forums and expos that feature multi-directional communications rather than a webinar-type monologue.

“In some ways, these virtual events have even out-performed the physical events they were designed to replace,” according to FuzeHub’s Steve Melito. He also found that the increased interest in the virtual events also increased the likelihood of connections that will have lasting economic impacts.

Kristen Fitch at the University City Science Center also saw the value in supporting startups for future growth.

“We recognize that startups will be the source of both new innovation and net job growth on the other side of this pandemic. That’s why we’re laser-focused on identifying, accelerating and investing in research and companies addressing unmet needs, as one of the many ways the Science Center is leaning into science- and tech-based economic development,” Fitch wrote.  “We invested $500,000 in 15 companies through our Launch Lane Accelerator. Those companies — along the with 100+ others we support through our commercialization programs — represent sprouts that will grow in tomorrow’s economy.”

Fitch also highlighted the connections that members of their collaborative workspace were able to make virtually, sharing that ic@3401 increased its portfolio of member companies by 28 percent. More info on their success is available here. Additionally, Fitch noted that 45 percent of the startups supported by the Science Center over the last year were launched by minority founders and 55 percent had a foreign-born founder.

The COVID-19 emergency sent Caleb Talley of Startup Junkie into action performing “triage and ER for our startup community” through one-on-one virtual consulting with entrepreneurs and small business owners. Startup Junkie also reached tens of thousands of entrepreneurs who accessed and used their guides to the EIDL and PPP.

The City of Beaverton in Oregon also used a triage approach through its dedicated outreach and technical support, which could have included specialized business advice.

“As a city, we have always seen a close connection between place-making and TBED in Beaverton,” wrote Michael Williams, the business development officer for the city. “Keeping our storefronts active, interesting, and open is essential to our business climate and TBED competitiveness.”

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development created six assistance programs to help businesses affected by the pandemic, including 83 loan guarantees valued at $9.8 million and 1020 loans (up to 50 percent forgivable) to small businesses totaling $27.2 million. And at efactory at Missouri State University, consultations moved online and training events went virtual as they relied heavily on partnerships they had worked hard to create. In the first six weeks of the pandemic, they had already assisted more than 814 different businesses, which grew to more than 950 businesses by the end of August.

“Our programs also leveraged technology to expand upon existing offerings,” wrote Rachel Anderson of Missouri State University. “Office hours with members of the efactory’s corporate partner program were shifted online, which allowed business owners to continue to meet with attorneys, accountants and other professionals at no charge. The efactory’s mentorship program also moved online, which led to an increase in engagement and an opportunity to broaden our roster of volunteer mentors. With the geographic barriers that come with in-person meetings removed, we added business owners and experts from across the country to the program. These volunteer mentors went on to meet 1:1 with entrepreneurs throughout our region who then receive tailored follow-up from our team.”

Rural businesses were not left out of the recovery. For instance, Maryland TEDCO (Maryland Technology Development Corporation) developed the Rural Underserved Business Recovery from the Impact from COVID 19 (RUBRIC) Program as well as receiving $1.5 million for the state to develop the Agriculture and Rural Rebuild Challenge (ARR) Challenge. The challenge will fund approximately six projects to help rural and agricultural businesses recover, rebuild and pivot from the current economic crisis.

Saving local companies was top of mind for other SSTI members as well. Kansas State University Innovation Partners were able to save many local companies, particularly those in the hospitality industry, when they co-developed and executed a $2.5 million grant program with the local chamber of commerce. In Pittsburgh, Innovation Works implemented a $2 million COVID Resiliency fund that helped provide critical capital to 49 startups. They also invested a record amount of $6.7 million in 94 companies, among other successful impacts.

Paul Riser of TechTown Detroit revealed how efforts to help small businesses extended beyond funding to address the technical assistance needs of business owners with advice on how to use the PPP funds, how to pivot their business models, help establishing relationships with banking institutions, and more.

“We knew that this had to be done with partners across the city to work in a concerted and collaborative effort,” Riser wrote. “What was created from TechTown and a few other entities’ leadership in this space was ’Detroit Means Business‘ — a coalition of over 60 private, public, and philanthropic partners dedicated to meet the needs of Detroit’s small businesses.”

In addition to all the success that the programs mentioned above and many more throughout the country have achieved, Launch Tennessee’s Rory Levin saw another silver lining: “[I]f anything positive has come from the pandemic experience, it is that the rate of change has accelerated significantly, and this is where entrepreneurs and innovators particularly shine.”

tbed, small business, coronavirus