Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation continues to boost tech startups

With regular announcements about big tech/software companies like Microsoft, Apple and Oracle moving into town, it’s clear to see Arizona is making itself known as the new Silicon Valley. But while major tech companies are vacuuming up real estate throughout the state, it’s the homegrown companies and tech hubs that are reflective of the direction Arizona is going within the industry.

Earlier this summer the Arizona Tech Council reported that Arizona now plays host to more than 8,000 tech companies throughout the state, giving way to more than 168,000 industry-related jobs. A good amount of those jobs and companies are born and bred here, including the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation at GateWay Community College in East Phoenix.

Opened in 2013, CEI is a tech-driven wing of the community college that brings entrepreneurs, business leaders and industry makers together under one roof. The 18,000 square foot space attached to the educational institution provides students and professionals access to services like rapid prototyping and 3D printing, and is also used to host monthly Design Days, where participants can get feedback on their projects from engineers.

Now, the innovation center has replaced Design Days with two interactive solutions to bring tech- and venture-driven minds together. First, there’s VentureStack, a bi-weekly opportunity for founders of companies and industry-specific business leaders to come together and share feedback. Second, there’s The Big Pitch, an annual event in the spring that opens the floor for entrepreneurial students from all Maricopa Community Colleges to participate in a hands-on, week-long workshop that culminates in a pitch competition. It’s like Shark Tank, but the winner gets a year of business counseling.

“CEI’s mission is to create high-quality jobs in Arizona,” says Amanda Mollindo, of CEI. “Now that we’ve built momentum by graduating scalable companies, we know the next big hurdle to making Arizona a leading biotech and life science hub will be the need for a skilled workforce that is qualified for the high-quality jobs created.”

CEI originally kicked things off with 11 startup companies inside its shellacked walls in 2013 and has since expanded to 17. CEI offers mentoring, office space and legal advice to these companies and their leaders and continues to invite new ideas in. CEI was touted as the state’s first college incubator and has now gained recognition as a standout in the thriving tech community in Arizona.

“As active members of the International Business Innovation Association (InBIA), we’ve been able to gauge how other emerging startup communities compare to Arizona—and we have many reasons to believe that we have something special here,” adds Mollindo.

In its five years, CEI has boosted economic growth in the greater Phoenix area by generating more than $110 million in sales revenue for its clients as well as nearly 500 jobs. What’s more, clients through CEI have been able to raise about $50 million in private equity capital, grant funding and awards.

Tech innovators inside the $6 million space include bioscience startups, health care technology companies, and transportation solutions, such as LoadBlock, a blockchain-based company that focuses on streamlining the support and behind-the-scenes processes of the evolving trucking industry.

Like the transportation industry, technology is changing the way we are process everything from banking to robotics, health care to water treatment. Innovative ideas in all those areas and more will continue to thrive at CEI moving forward.

CEI will also be launching LabForce next summer, which will act as a workforce training and certification center focused on the increasing demands of the biotech and life science industries. LabForce will help prepare the community with jobs in the biotech industry, according to CEI.

CEI is still taking applications for new companies and startup ideas to take up space and develop their technology. With the help of technology review like the former Design Days events and access to feedback and resources, CEI hopes to expand its footprint as a facilitator of developing technologies not only here in Arizona, but in the country and the world.

Nick Esquer

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