Startups take off in ‘smartest’ city

With startup companies in dramatic decline in small cities across America, Flagstaff stands out. Its incubator and accelerator program for biotech and other startups is growing fast and winning big.

It’s a sign of the city’s transformation from hippie town to fledgling innovation center. Credit goes to its power triad: a successful startup program, expanding research and science at nearby Northern Arizona University, and the city’s economic development team.

“We are actively promoting Flagstaff as a biotech hub for the region and we’re getting a lot of traction,” said Gail Jackson, the city’s business attraction manager, who said employment for science related jobs now is three times higher than the national rate.

The accelerator program is a sign of the rising tech scene. A year ago, the 28,000-square feet accelerator building was almost vacant. Today, the building is 70 percent occupied.

Helping fuel that success is Scott Hathcock, CEO and president of the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (NACET) that houses the accelerator and incubator buildings totalling 38,000 square feet, and the Moonshot training program. Its name references Flagstaff’s role in getting man to the moon. All Apollo astronauts trained here.

“We’re a small market so we don’t have the luxury of being solo tech and bio,” Hathcock said about the unique mix of tenants that range from a company that makes artificial skin to a snack company that sells the Fbomb. “We’re sector agnostic. But we’re doing something right.”

Many of the current tenants are gaining worldwide success and fame. Biotech companies with offices and startups at NACET include Poba Medical, Symple Surgical, Aneuvas, Axolotl Biologix, and Senestech. ​Other bioscience companies that have offices in Flagstaff include WL Gore & Associates, TGEN North, and Astrogeology Science Center.

Expect more tech entrepreneurs to settle here, especially from California where the cost of living is high and companies are more heavily regulated, said Jackson.  

Selling the city is easy, she said. It’s the “smartest city” in the country with almost 44 percent of residents holding a bachelor’s degree, close to the Grand Canyon, and surrounded by the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world.

“People love the quality of life here,” she said. “When you’re looking at the biotech and bioscience community, they want to connect with nature.”

Victoria Harker

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