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CNM accelerator ‘ignites’ startups

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After five years of coaching children in robotics competitions, Shelly Gruenig decided she could inspire and educate a lot more kids by turning her volunteer work into a business that provides robotics camps and other hands-on science workshops.

GARBAGE founder Ginny Sterpka shows a prototype of handbags made from bicycle innertubes at IGNITE demo day. (Courtesy of Stemulous)

GARBAGE founder Ginny Sterpka shows a prototype of handbags made from bicycle innertubes at IGNITE demo day. (Courtesy of Stemulous)

She launched BeGreaterThanAverage last fall to provide robot-building events, and STEM and life achievement planning workshops for young people. But it was her first business endeavor, so Gruenig enrolled in January in the IGNITE Community Accelerator run by Central New Mexico Community College’s STEMulous Center Downtown to gain knowledge and help in making her business successful.

The accelerator puts participants through 12 weeks of intensive training, mentoring and real-world experience in testing their products and services on customers to rapidly move their businesses forward.

Gruenig was one of 10 aspiring entrepreneurs who participated in the accelerator’s first cohort, which held a graduation “demo day” on April 10 where participants presented their companies to the public.

Gruenig said the accelerator helped her develop and broaden her business model, paving the way for a full slate of summer camps and plans for other workshops during the school year.

“We’ll offer nine weeks of one- to three-day camps this summer and we’ll partner with schools to do some all-year workshops, as well,” Gruenig said. “The accelerator really helped to guide me in terms of growing and scaling the business, and identifying areas where I could improve. It’s given me a lot more confidence that this is not just a hobby, but a business that I’m good at and that’s valuable.”

Shelly Gruenig, center, with her husband and two daughters, holds a model of a logo for her BeBetterThanAverage startup.

Shelly Gruenig, center, with her husband and two daughters, holds a model of a logo for her BeBetterThanAverage startup.

John Mierzwa, director of STEMulous initiatives, said participants represented a broad range of companies at different stages of development, including those still at the idea point with no product prototype and others already selling products. But all graduates demonstrated huge progress.

“We saw dramatic improvement in the companies and that’s the goal,” Mierzwa said. “They all refined their business plans and developed a better idea of their target markets to really focus their energy. And everybody in the cohort made some great connections, with some now collaborating together to validate their products.”

Gruenig, for example, agreed to work with As Girls Grow to test its products on kids in the robotics camps. As Girls Grow, another accelerator company, offers toys with engineering concepts to encourage girls in creative thinking and problem-solving.

In that regard, the accelerator helped companies develop a network of resources and peer support that they can continue to tap in the future, said Yasine Armstrong, another director of STEMulous initiatives.

“Our job is to ‘ignite’ companies, but they need continued support, so we paired them up with community resources, like the Small Business Development Centers in Albuquerque,” Armstrong said. “We exposed them to entrepreneurial networks and they also developed a support community in the cohort itself that I believe will continue long after the program is done.”

ABQid, another Downtown startup accelerator backed by the city of Albuquerque, offered to accept at least one of the IGNITE graduates into its next program, which will begin in early June.

“That reflects the depth in the entrepreneurial ecosystem that we’re all working to develop,” said ABQid Chairman Bill Bice. “The IGNITE accelerator is helping to get companies ready for more advanced training and support through ABQid. We’ll choose at least one company from IGNITE that, at a minimum, will get to audit ABQid with full exposure to investors and to our full training process.”

In at least one case, IGNITE helped a participating company, Valley Gurlz Goodz, take a huge leap forward. Jackie and Gene Baca of Bueno Foods – Albuquerque’s long-running and highly successful chile and tortilla producer – were paired up as mentors with Valley Gurlz’ two co-founders, Angie Rodriguez and Maria Gamboa.

Valley Gurlz, which specializes in pickled products that add to healthy living, has been selling its goods since 2012, but Rodriguez and Gamboa have been unable to find a distributor. So the Bacas introduced Valley Gurlz to Bueno Foods’ regional distributor in Colorado. That led to a new partnership, whereby the Colorado broker will represent Valley Gurlz for a percentage of sales.

“They’ll represent us throughout the Rocky Mountain region and in Texas starting in May,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve already developed a business plan and a timeline, and they’ve outlined who they will present our products to. We’re really excited.”

Apart from hands-on training, mentoring and connections, Rodriguez and other graduates said the accelerator provided huge encouragement and confidence to move forward.

“It made us want to grow our business to the next level,” Rodriguez said. “The possibilities are endless if we work hard. IGNITE lit a real fire under us.”

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