Innovate ABQ still rebounding from pandemic - Albuquerque Journal

Innovate ABQ still rebounding from pandemic

Rainforest Innovations CEO Lisa Kuuttila, center, conducts a staff meeting Aug. 8. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Albuquerque’s innovation district is still navigating through the aftermath of the global pandemic as startup activities and in-person events slowly regain momentum at the Innovate ABQ research and development site Downtown.

People are gathering once again for onsite meetings and conferences at the University of New Mexico’s Lobo Rainforest Building at Innovate ABQ, which reopened in the spring for entrepreneurial endeavors.

Rainforest Innovations — which oversees UNM’s technology transfer programs and economic development initiatives — is back in direct action at the Rainforest building, where UNM staff have returned from cyber-based management to physically coordinate daily programming and activities from their offices. Tech-transfer professionals from the national labs are also occupying their onsite suites again, as are startup entrepreneurs, who have re-filled all eight office spaces available for launching early-stage businesses at the Rainforest building’s Lobo Venture Lab.

And all 155 dorms located on the five upper floors of the six-story Rainforest building are occupied by UNM students returning for the fall semester.

But despite the renewed activity, it’s still a far cry from the intense hustle and bustle that echoed through the ground-floor corridors of the building before the pandemic hit in March 2020, said Rainforest Innovations President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila.

“This spring, we started in-person events again,” Kuuttila told the Journal. “There’s a lot more activity taking place, and each month it’s increasing, but it’s nowhere near prepandemic levels.”

A long road back

Indeed, before the pandemic broke out, the Rainforest’s first floor — where all the tech-transfer and entrepreneurship programs are based — was jam-packed with students, businesspeople and professionals coming and going from meetings and events.

The Innovate ABQ campus on Broadway and Central. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

The daily hubbub brought the Rainforest building to life, reflecting a vibrant startup ecosystem where entrepreneurs, investors and innovators continuously shuffled through the halls, conference rooms and open spaces to attend individual and community activities. The vitality converted the facility — and in general the Innovate ABQ campus at Broadway and Central — into a dynamic hub for high-tech research and development in the heart of Albuquerque.

But the coronavirus brought most of that to a screeching halt, turning the Rainforest building into a desolate shell almost overnight as the city and state went into lockdown and everyone scrambled to transition to cyberspace.

Now, nearly two-and-a-half years later, the Rainforest building is steadily returning to in-person programming as people cautiously venture back. But progress is slow.

In May, for example, UNM held its annual “Pitch Deck” competition for student startups in-person for the first time since before the pandemic. About 50 people attended, or about half the number who regularly turned out in prepandemic years, Kuuttila said

Two more community events are scheduled this month, including a five-year anniversary celebration on Aug. 31 for the Rainforest building, which UNM opened in summer 2017. That — plus the opening that year of Central New Mexico Community College’s FUSE Makerspace near the Rainforest building — marked the initial build out of Innovate ABQ at the old First Baptist Church property, a seven-acre site that UNM acquired in 2014.

And Rainforest Innovations will host a technology showcase breakfast onsite on Aug. 30 for the New Mexico Angels investor group to review UNM inventions that its members could potentially take to market.

But by and large, hybrid programming remains the norm, with many events and activities either still wholly online, or conducted through a mix of in-person and online participation.

“We do see things coming back,” Kuuttila said. “There’s increased interest and office visits, and we’re on an upward trajectory. But it could take another year or more to fully get back to the way things were.”

Innovation programs deeply rooted

Despite the slow return to prepandemic normalcy, both Rainforest Innovations and UNM’s Innovation Academy — which provides hands-on training in entrepreneurship and technology transfer — have fully adapted to a hybrid online and in-person format for student and community programming. In fact, notwithstanding the lingering challenges from coronavirus, UNM’s entrepreneurial programs remain robust.

The Innovation Academy, for example, which launched in 2015, has about 1,200 UNM students enrolled across campus for the new school year, said Executive Director Rob DelCampo.

The Academy includes participants from all academic disciplines. It works to build student entrepreneurship by teaching business knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving skills through direct, real-world experience that often includes launching new startups individually and in teams.

About 5,000 students have participated since 2015. And to date, Academy students have created some 200 startups.

“Many have generated revenue, and from what I can tell, about 50% are still in business in one form or another,” DelCampo told the Journal.

Five education students, for example, built a financial-literacy app called “Class Bucks” to engage high school kids.

“They sell it to schools,” DelCampo said. “The schools buy it and make it available for students who can play it in class.”

Some startups have even achieved “exits,” meaning student entrepreneurs managed to attract enough interest in their homegrown businesses that investors or established firms bought them out, DelCampo said.

That includes “Shutter Bombs,” an online retail business for colored smoke bombs used in photography and videography that one student launched and built through targeted sales to content creators in the film and music industries.

“He started it in his apartment and then moved to Rainforest Innovations’ Lobo Venture Lab,” DelCampo said. “He bought the smoke bombs from distributors and sold them online. It got so big he needed warehouse space and he ended up selling the company.”

Until last December, the Innovation Academy was housed at the Rainforest building, contributing significantly to the hustle and bustle there before the pandemic.

Last December, however, it moved to the Anderson School of Management on campus, accounting for some of the slowdown in onsite Rainforest activity as in-person programming rebounds. But students still shuffle through the Rainforest building to access resources like video equipment and Internet tools to build businesses, DelCampo said.

New programs emerging

Apart from existing programs, the Academy and Rainforest Innovations are also jointly launching fresh initiatives this fall, including a newly created “Rainforest Accelerator” that will offer 10 weeks of entrepreneurial training per semester for faculty researchers to learn how to take their inventions to market. Participants will receive a $3,000 stipend to evaluate the commercial viability of their technology, and they’ll be paired with a dedicated mentor for one-on-one guidance, plus a tech-transfer manager from the Rainforest staff.

“It’s specifically for UNM inventors to learn about the entrepreneurial process,” DelCampo said.

Rainforest Innovations is financing the accelerator from its own funds through an endowment it established with revenue from tech-transfer activities. That includes a huge, $109 million infusion in 2020 and 2021 that UNM won under two settlements from lawsuits it initiated against companies for patent infringement of university-developed semiconductor technology.

In addition, Rainforest Innovations is using some of that money to raise a new fund in cooperation with the UNM Foundation to make investments of up to $10,000 in student startups, Kuuttila said.

New federal grants are also helping UNM to extend its entrepreneurial programs across the state.

In April, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration awarded $800,000 for Rainforest Innovations to directly assist aspiring Native American entrepreneurs through online and in-person programs in tribal communities around New Mexico.

“We’ve hired a program manager and two tribal liaison staff members,” Kuuttila said. “They’re in the field now making connections.”

And the U.S. Department of Education just awarded a $1 million grant for the Innovation Academy to bring its entrepreneurial programs to rural high schools to excite students about entrepreneurship and careers in science, technology, engineering and math. It will begin in September in Bernalillo and Valencia counties and then extend to more areas around the state. All participating students will receive laptops with built-in Wi-Fi capability, DelCampo said.

“It’s for upper-level high school kids,” he said. “We’ll hire a team of folks to go out and do it.”

NSF iCorp evolving

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, or iCorp, accelerator program at UNM is evolving into a new, streamlined virtual format that could speed the process for participating students to evaluate whether UNM technology has commercial potential.

The original five-year, $800,000 iCorp grant that NSF awarded in 2017 came to an end this spring. Under that program, some 120 student teams participated since 2017 in 10-week, semester-long cohorts to develop commercialization strategies for UNM technologies, with about 300 Academy students benefiting from hands-on tech-transfer training. All teams received a $3,000 stipend to finance their activities, and if their technologies and strategies were deemed viable, they became eligible to apply for $50,000 NSF grants to continue marketing efforts.

Of the 120 teams, only about eight actually became eligible for NSF funding, although many others found alternative financing to continue building businesses around the technology they evaluated in the iCorp accelerator.

“Greater than 50% are still pursuing the technology they wanted to market,” DelCampo said.

NSF, however, has now restructured its national iCorp program, reducing the accelerator training and technology-evaluation period to just three weeks, with collective, online programming among a group of universities rather than individual iCorp sites at select campuses, DelCampo said. UNM is now part of an eight-member iCorp hub that includes seven other universities in Colorado, Utah and California.

The goal is to determine much faster if technology is worth pursuing, with more teams in more places simultaneously evaluating university inventions to then immediately become eligible for the $50,000 grants.

“It will get people more quickly to the big money,” DelCampo said. “And for those technologies that don’t become eligible for NSF funding, the participating universities will help them find alternative routes to move forward.”

A total of 20 teams from all the universities combined will be selected each month for the three-week accelerators. That means fewer UNM teams than before will participate in each cohort. But with the program streamlined down from 10 weeks, the monthly selection process will provide at least as many opportunities for students as the semester-long accelerator did, DelCampo said.

“Monthly-based cohort training means the program will be offered more often,” DelCampo said. “It will shake out to include at least as many students, and through the university hub model, the students will get online instruction from national-level trainers.”

NSF awarded another five-year, $300,000 grant for UNM to participate in the iCorp hub.

Activities at Innovate ABQ are picking up again after the pandemic undermined onsite operations in 2020 and 2021. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

A new normal?

Overall, Rainforest and Innovation Academy programs continue to grow and evolve, but the pandemic has fundamentally changed the local startup ecosystem.

Hybrid online and in-person formats have become the new standard for entrepreneurial programs, activities and events going forward. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon, despite the slow return to onsite gatherings at Innovate ABQ, and at other venues in the Innovation District Downtown.

“People have grown accustomed to doing things differently,” DelCampo said. “They expect a hybrid model now, and it will take a lot to shift back. It’s a new world we’re in.”

It’s an open question how that will affect development at Innovate ABQ and Rainforest Innovations in the future.

The original vision for the Downtown site — collectively developed by UNM in partnership with the city, county and state government, along with private and nonprofit entities — aimed to create a central zone for entrepreneurial endeavors at the old First Baptist Church property. They believed that by developing a thriving high-tech research and development hub in the heart of Albuquerque, the activities there would potentially radiate out along Central Avenue to turn surrounding areas into an “innovation corridor” where aspiring entrepreneurs and professionals could gather to “live, work and play.”

That vision was rapidly materializing before the pandemic, encouraging the launch of more entrepreneurial venues nearby, such as the FatPipe co-working space on Broadway, just across from Innovate ABQ. FatPipe became another thriving gathering place alongside the Rainforest building, with a weekly 1 Million Cups entrepreneurial networking forum there regularly attracting crowds of up to 70 or 80 people.

Like the Rainforest building, FatPipe is also steadily rebounding from the pandemic. In fact, occupancy in the facility’s co-working spaces is now higher than ever, said FatPipe founder Stuart Rose.

“Our experience is similar to the Lobo Rainforest Building,” Rose told the Journal. “We’re not yet having as many events as prepandemic, but it’s definitely picking up.”

Community activities, however, are now all hybrid.

“During the peak of COVID, 1 Million Cups went purely online,” Rose said. “Now, we’re back to the same level of attendees as prepandemic, but it’s a 50/50 hybrid event, with half the people present onsite and the rest online.”

Tenants in the co-working space also reflect today’s paradigm shift to remote operations, said FatPipe Chief Operating Officer Lisa Adkins.

“Occupancy is very high, but we’re seeing a different kind of clientele,” Adkins told the Journal. “It’s now mostly people working remote, either for local companies that allow it, or for companies out of state.”

It’s unclear how fast that may change, or whether the constant prepandemic flurry of onsite activity will ever fully return.

“It’s a new world, and I don’t think that hustle and bustle is coming back,” Adkins said. “People want to be remote now.”

That has both positive and negative consequences, said Sandra Begay, a UNM regent and chair of the Rainforest Innovations board.

In-person interaction is critical to facilitate networking and spontaneous connections among people that lead to new business strategies and projects, Begay said. And that type of creative intermingling is hard to reproduce online.

“That one-on-one and group interaction is missing, because the virtual format is a very different dynamic,” Begay said.

On the other hand, remote conferencing offers more options for people around the state to participate in activities and programs, which has helped Rainforest Innovations extend programming to rural communities.

And UNM is still working to build more infrastructure to generate a robust startup ecosystem Downtown for onsite entrepreneurial programs and community gatherings. Remodeling of the old church sanctuary and office complex on the southeast corner of the Innovate ABQ site is planned for the next phase of development, possibly turning part of the church building into a bioscience business incubator, and another wing into a high-tech center for creative startups.

“It will take time for people to come back for face-to-face programs, and I think a lot will continue as hybrid activities,” Begay said. “That’s just the way it is now as things evolve. But Rainforest Innovations will continue plugging away with persistence and consistency to keep moving forward.”

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