The real and imaginative adventures of Dennis Spielman

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Katy Boren: Connecting Assets in the Innovation District

A profile on Katy Boren and the Innovation District written for the Oklahoma Venture Forum on the subject of Connecting Assets in the Innovation District.

In April 2017, The Bookings Institution released a report based on an 18-month study about how the area now known as the Innovation District was ripe for an innovation district. The information inspired Katy Boren to start The Innovation District, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

“There are innovation districts across the globe, certainly across the country, and Brookings did an assessment,” said Katy Boren, Founder/CEO of The Innovation District. “What Brookings kind of foreshadowed was the success we could have if we focused on creating an ecosystem in Oklahoma City around our knowledge-based economies, STEM economies, that would make us more competitive nationally and globally.”

The borders of the Innovation District are 4th Street to 13th Street, Lottie to the east, and Robinson to the west, with the core being Harrison and 10th, right next to the Beacon of Hope in Stiles Park. Since the district sits in Northeast Oklahoma City, Boren is connected to the neighborhoods in big and small ways, from volunteering to co-programming.

“We are also working hard to make sure that as jobs are created out of this initiative in these next few years, residents of Northeast Oklahoma City are in the pipeline for STEM careers,” said Boren. “That’s working with K through 12, working with adult workforce for upskilling and reskilling, but really focusing some of our efforts to make sure that everyone benefits from this economic growth.”

One of Boren’s missions for the district is creating an ecosystem to strengthen the city’s STEM economies, making Oklahoma City more competitive. 

“Everyone was working in silos inside universities, inside enterprise-level industry businesses, and entrepreneurs had a lot of resources here but could have even more, so pulling all of those assets that we have together, and convening them in different ways,” said Boren. “For example, we have 120 post-docs doing research in our physical area here. About 78% of all NIH funding for the state comes to this physical area as well, and so we have a lot of really great things happening in academics and research, which is where entrepreneurs and investors want to be, and in the industry as well, and so we have a great recipe.”

The Innovation District hosts over 50 events a year, despite not having a building of their own yet. Construction is set to begin in April, and Boren said they will do even more programming and convening of people and ideas. People can get involved by visiting the website

Katy Boren will be presenting at the Oklahoma Venture Forum Power Lunch on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. The event will be open to guests both in-person and virtually via ZOOM. 

“Our outcomes are determined by how much people participate,” said Boren. “The more ideas we get and the more vision we have from the network and the ecosystem, it creates a better outcome.”

Listen to the interview I had with Katy Boren on The Podcast Starts Now, an exclusive podcast for my supporters on Patreon.

Wrist World: Leveling Up Talented Kids

A profile on Wrist World written for the Oklahoma Venture Forum on the subject of Leveling Up Talented Kids.

Having celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2021, Loveworks Leadership helps middle school students develop personal character, install leadership, and learn entrepreneurship skills. While attending Lovework’s summer camp program, Brent Wheelbarger and his daughter, Emma, learned about Lovework’s first student-started business, Real Kitchen Salsa. 

“With Brent’s expertise in augmented reality and technology, he came to Loveworks and presented this idea of what if we did a Silicon Valley-style startup with middle school students,” said Carolyn Le, Associate Director of Loveworks. “From there, we presented it at one of our summer camps, the opportunity to join a Silicon Valley-style startup, where we’re going to create some sort of maybe video game, some sort of technology using this technology for kids.”

Students submitted a resume, went through an interview process, and then ten students were selected to be part of the team, said Le. This team in 2018 created Wrist World.

“Wrist World is an augmented reality video game that uses four slap bands, and each of them are different worlds that you can play here and explore,” said Arya Ramineedi, part of the 3D modeling Team. “You can scan the different bands with your App, and the game will pop up. There are two modes to play. There’s game mode and wrist mode. In game mode, you can explore through any four bands, collect items, and fight enemies. And in wrist mode, you can show off your character in 3D on your wrist.”

With a rough start with makeshift wristbands and buggy software, Wrist World has evolved over time, getting their products in stores such as OnCue and Loves, and in 2020, officially licensed its first character, Hatsune Miku.

“To give you an idea of kind of who Miku is as the character, she’s a Vocaloid character, and she’s almost like a hologram who does performances on stage and thousands of people will go and watch her just perform,” said Emma Wheelbarger, Chief Marketing Officer of Wrist World. “Miku did a big expo that was online because of COVID, and we got to run an ad during that campaign, and our ad took off, and thousands of fans were super excited to see it and just hopped right on board to the Wrist World fan base.”

Brad Sparks, part of the marketing team, added they are developing new bands with different characters but weren’t allowed to divulge any further information.

Brent Wheelbarger, founder and CEO of Trifecta Communications, thinks Wrist World is an example of the Ted Lasso Effect, the idea that you don’t necessarily have to be a complete expert and know all the answers to go out and try something.

“None of us knew anything about the toy industry or this whole realm that we were going into, and yet we put ourselves out there, and the team put themselves out there,” said Brent Wheelbarger. “We’re willing to stumble, try, fix, improve, get better, learn and in a way almost stumbled their way to a successful outcome because we could never have dreamed when we first started that we would be making deals with Japanese companies to license their characters on these bands and selling all over the world.”

The Wrist World team will be presenting at the Oklahoma Venture Forum Power Lunch on Wednesday, February 9, 2022. The event will be open to guests both in-person and virtually via ZOOM. 

“I think that being here in Oklahoma and part of this community has been a huge help to our company,” said Katie Sparks. “Just the fact that we live in a place that’s so supportive like alone, but especially when it comes to business and when it comes to kids trying to do something that’s never been done before.”

The Future of Oklahoma’s Venture Ecosystem

A profile article on Michael Basch, Nathaniel Harding, and Matt Wilson written for the Oklahoma Venture Forum on the subject of The Future of Oklahoma’s Venture Ecosystem.

Atento Capital, Cortado Ventures, and Victorum Capital Club each have their criteria and types of companies for investments. Atento’s focus is on generating excellent risk-adjusted returns and making a lasting economic impact through stimulating entrepreneurial activity in the community. Cortado invests in capital-efficient businesses that leverage technology to scale in the Fintech, Biotech, Aerospace, Ag Tech, Energy Tech, Manufacturing, and Logistics sectors. The Victorum Capital Club is a membership network of accredited investors focused on entrepreneurship, investment, and business development to generate a return on investment and promote community and economic development. 

Basch’s advice is cash is a relative commodity for companies looking for investors.  

“I think, doing the work to understand your customer and the problem you’re solving before you raise any money where you would completely understand the problem and the willingness to pay,” said Michael Basch, Managing Partner at Atento Capital. “I think it’s doing the work on customer discovery ahead of time and not raising money for the sake of raising money but raising money. Cause you have to raise money. Not every business needs to raise money.”  

Over at Cortado Ventures, Harding said they invest in business-to-business technology that “you can put a moat around.” 

“That’s defendable where that company can either have an advantage because they have patents or either intellectual property that’s difficult to, to replicate, or their strategy involves, a key partnership with a large company that can help them scale very quickly,” said Nathaniel Harding, Managing Partner at Cortado Ventures. “There’s other ways of having a moat, besides having patents or trade secrets, but we look for defendable, unique, novel technology.” 

Victorum Capital Club works the same way as any other venture capital firm, but while they don’t currently fund, they have a network of investors from across the country they pool together. 

“Each of those investors gets to decide if they want to invest and if not, and if they do how much they want to invest, then when we have everybody’s commitments, we just group everybody together into a single entity and make an investment,” said Matt Wilson, Managing Partner at Victorum Capital Club. “Historically, venture capital has only been available to the wealthy elite pension funds, insurance companies, things like that. And what our business model does is it brings access to high-quality investment opportunities to everybody that is an accredited investor.” 

Wilson said a venture capital firm will generically tell potential companies that they look for are “team, team, team, market size, and traction.” 

“It’s a joke, but it’s a very serious point that the people are arguably the most important thing,” said Wilson. “One of the unique things about it that is particularly interesting to us and where we’ve found ourselves gravitating to is a CEO that has a real reason, like a real differentiated reason to be successful. So somebody that grew up in the industry or was the market already, like they have some unique reason that differentiates themselves from just any other guy off the street to be successful in their industry, focused on their customers, with their product, things like that.”  

People who are trying to make a quick buck, who don’t have a good sense of why they’re building their business, and don’t want to collaborate are some red flags in a CEO Basch said. Basch also watches for how they take feedback, how they respond to adversity, and how they problem-solve.  

“Don’t start a company or raise money because you want to, but do it because you have to,” said Basch. 

Harding said one of the benefits of doing business in Oklahoma is fewer gatekeepers here. 

“If you’re a first-time founder, you may not have a track record,” said Harding. “You may not have like the network or the keys to the city, but you can get meetings with the people that are going to help you, and they’re going to be willing to help you. That’s really special and powerful. I think if that is embraced and that entrepreneurs and founders know that, then they should be not afraid to reach out to people that may be able to give them great advice or they’ve had experienced that sector. If we all leverage that as a community, we can scale and grow the venture capital and entrepreneurial community much faster.”  

Michael Basch, Nathaniel Harding, and Matt Wilson will be part of a special panel discussion at the Oklahoma Venture Forum Power Lunch on Wednesday, January 12, 2022. The event will be open to guests both in-person and virtually via ZOOM.  

“You don’t have to be any particular thing to be involved in this ecosystem system and support founders and support businesses,” said Wilson. “There’s a lot of different ways to do that. And so I think everybody should find ways to be active and build the future of our state, build the future businesses that are kind, and going to drive us for the next 50 years.” 

Matt Payne: The Community Effort to Grow Oklahoma’s Film Industry

A profile on Matt Payne written for the Oklahoma Venture Forum on the subject of The Community Effort to Grow Oklahoma’s Film Industry.

The domino of events for Prairie Surf Media’s formation started in 2000 when Gray Frederickson moved back to Oklahoma and started the Oklahoma Film Institute. Rachel Cannon and Matt Payne were among the first of those students. The two pursued film careers outside of Oklahoma, but they eventually found themselves back in the state.

“After a little bit of chat, and discussing perhaps the idea of making a film, or writing something together, [Rachel Cannon and I] decided that maybe it would be more exciting to begin to work to add to the existing infrastructure in Oklahoma so that we could have an even more robust and thriving film community here,” said Matt Payne, co-founder and co-CEO of Prairie Surf Media. “And we’ve been doing it ever since.”

On January 1, 2021, Prairie Surf Media took over the venue, formerly known as Cox Convention Center, through a tenant agreement with the City of Oklahoma City. The venue, now known as Prairie Surf Studios, boasts five flexible, state-of-the-art soundstages with all the amenities needed to create new worlds. Payne explained soundstages are soundproof rooms where productions can build their sets, avoid outdoor elements, and shoot in a more cost-efficient way. While the former Convention is ideal for soundstages, the facility has received upgrades to better suit productions over the past several months. 

“We pulled 10,000 pounds worth of buzzy lights and old speakers out of the ceiling, replaced it with LED lights,” said Payne. “We treated the walls with soundproofing, and we built vestibules on the far end of the building so that we create a barrier, an extra door barrier between the street and the sound-stage.”

In addition to building soundstages, Prairie Surf Media worked to build up the state film incentive and the local workforce. With partnerships with OCU, Oklahoma City Community College and several career techs, including Metro Tech and Francis Tuttle, Prairie Surf Media is training people. Students learn how to work and function on an actual film set. 

“Since then, about 30 of those individuals have gone on to work on different productions in Oklahoma,” said Payne. “It’s been a really successful program, and we take a lot of pride in the fact that we’re not only bringing an industry here, but we’re that industry is creating jobs, and giving paths to kids like Rachel and I, that want to get in the entertainment industry.”

Matt Payne will be speaking at the Oklahoma Venture Forum Power Lunch on Wednesday, December 8, 2021. The event will be open to guests both in-person and virtually via ZOOM. Payne said they’ve been able to pursue this business by “standing on the shoulders of giants” from Oklahoma filmmakers such as Gray Frederickson, Lance McDaniel, and many others, including government officials.

“We’ve only been able to do this because of our partnerships with, particularly, Oklahoma City, and getting into this facility, and the state for putting an incentive in place, and state leadership, you know, Senator Roger Thompson, Chuck Hall, Representatives Fetgatter and Hill,” said Payne. “There were so many leaders that have played a role in getting us here. [Prairie Surf Media] is a very, very small start-up in a very big building, but, really, the truth is that this is a city, state, and community project that we’re all sort of proud of. And we think very much of Oklahoma as a whole, as our partner in this project.”

Devon Laney: The Third Way for Economic Development

A profile on Devon Laney written for the Oklahoma Venture Forum on the subject of The Third Way for Economic Development.

Coming from Birmingham, Alabama as the co-founder of Innovation Depot, one of the largest entrepreneurial support organizations in America, Devon Laney now resides in Tulsa as President and CEO of 36 Degrees North with a plan to grow entrepreneurs in the Tulsa region. Known as Tulsa’s base camp for entrepreneurs, innovators, and startups, 36 Degrees North is an entrepreneurial support organization focused on providing the resources, the community, and the programs needed to support entrepreneurs as they build, grow and scale businesses.

“When I got in Tulsa, we had two locations,” said Devon Laney. “We had about a 12,000 square foot co-working space, and then we had about an 8,000 square foot hybrid of co-working and small office space. I got here, and we put together a five-year plan and began to think about what we were going to be down the road.”

The first piece of that plan involved building and launching a large technology incubator focused on supporting early-stage technology startup companies and companies making a technology product or service that they can scale and grow and raise capital. In September 2021, 36 Degrees North opened its 50,000 square foot high-tech incubator.

While co-working spaces are an essential piece of the ecosystem, Laney said it’s not the only thing one should have in an ecosystem. While co-working is excellent for individuals, co-working spaces aren’t conducive to people trying to grow a business.

“An incubator is built for growing businesses, to support growing businesses,” said Laney. “It’s not just about one individual membership, and I’m going to charge you every time you have a new member. It’s about, this company applied, we accepted them into the program, and this company is going to pay for an office, and the office is $1,000 a month, as an example. And I don’t care how many people you put in that office. I don’t care if you put two people or seven people. It’s the same price. It’s $1,000, and that $1,000 covers utilities, internet, janitorial, security, conference rooms, phone booths, Zoom rooms, all our programming, all our workshops, all our mentors, all the different things. And the company then, as an entrepreneur, the company doesn’t have to worry about, ‘Well, if I hire two more people, my monthly bill’s going to be higher.’ They don’t have to worry about that. They can focus on growing their business and know that it’s all-inclusive, all the spaces are furnished, and it’s built to support them as they’re growing their businesses.”

On the subject of economic development, Laney said that historically everybody thinks of economic development as two things: recruitment and retention. Laney cited the example of Oklahoma trying to get Tesla to come to the state. The second way most communities have done economic development is through retention. Groups work to retain the businesses that are already in Oklahoma and keep them from going somewhere else.

“I think there’s a third,” said Laney. “I’m a big believer in the third, which is let’s grow new businesses. Let’s make sure we’re supporting the growth of new industries and new businesses here. We don’t just have to recruit them here; let’s grow them here. But it requires the same kind of investment in terms of infrastructure, resources, workforce, capital, tax incentives, all those same things.”

Laney clarified that we should continue the other two ways and add the third piece to support the growth of new businesses. 

Devon Laney will be speaking at the Oklahoma Venture Forum Power Lunch on Wednesday, November 10, 2021. The event will be open to guests both in-person and virtually via ZOOM. Laney is excited for the opportunity to be able to share a success story from a community perspective. 

“36 Degrees North is a non-profit, 501C3, and it would not exist without the public and the private partnership together,” said Laney. “In 2017, when 36 Degrees North launched, you had philanthropic community, public, private, chamber. They all came together to create this thing, and it’s a success story. It’s a win, and that’s what has enabled us to even evolve and to think about what we’re going to be in five years from now. If they hadn’t been successful at doing that, we wouldn’t be in a position to think about how to evolve it and be better and bigger going forward. So I love the opportunity to share about a success from a public-private partnership.”

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