Venture capitalists used to say – maybe they still say it – that they bet on the jockey, not the horse. They mean that the success of their investment depends largely on the talent of the person running the company.
New Mexico has herds of horses. Great ideas are commonplace here. We have very few jockeys, so few, in fact, that STC.UNM, the organization that commercializes technologies invented at the University of New Mexico, has recruited executives from out of state to run a third of the companies it has helped set up.
And that’s a good thing. It takes a special kind of person to launch successful companies, especially companies based on technology. That STC could recruit 12 chief executive officers from places like Pittsburgh, Boston and California speaks to the appeal of our state and the value of the horses we breed here.
STC President Lisa Kuutilla says there is a network of experienced executives who like to visit New Mexico, maybe even have a second home here. Some of them jump at the chance to live and work here full time.
“There’s a whole bunch of them,” Kuutilla said in an interview. “They didn’t come for UNM or STC. They came for New Mexico.”
“We could talk about our disadvantages all day, but we have an inherent advantage,” she said. Kuutilla had a similar job at Iowa State University. When it came to recruiting in Iowa, “unless they were alums, there was no way I could get them to move there.”
That is not to say we don’t have some excellent homegrown entrepreneurs. We do. We need more.
Transplanted executives will hire, train and mentor a number of New Mexicans who will learn how to take a startup from a glimmer of hope to a full-fledged enterprise. At some point, those people will be ready to run their own companies, and some of them are likely to start their own, according to Jason Wiens, policy director of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo., charity that promotes entrepreneurship.
“The research shows that exposure to an entrepreneur means you are more likely to be an entrepreneur yourself,” Wiens said in a telephone interview.
New Mexicans are understandably frustrated by how long it takes to build what Wiens calls an “entrepreneurial ecosystem,” but he suggests we keep some perspective. There are very few places in the country with the kind of robust climate of innovation found in Austin or Boston or Pittsburgh, and it took years for those cities to become entrepreneurial hotbeds.
One reason is that even though the media celebrate the kid who launches a company in his dorm room (Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates), most entrepreneurs don’t start a company until they are in their 40s, Wiens said. It takes that long to develop the skills required to succeed.
The successful entrepreneurs bring an industry knowledge to the startup. STC has brought in CEOs from Pittsburgh, for example, to run some of its biotech companies because Pittsburgh has produced several biotech companies. The transplanted CEOs cut their teeth in that market.
They have a network of contacts developed over years in the industry. They know which companies will make good partners and potential customers. They know which sales and marketing specialists to use. They know which law firms will best understand their companies’ intellectual property needs. They know which investors might be most willing to back their ventures. They know the suppliers and the contractors they’ll need.
Communities can accelerate the evolution of an entrepreneurial ecosystem, Wiens said.
Kauffman studied 356 metropolitan areas in the United States to learn what determines entrepreneurial success. “What mattered most was educational attainment,” Wiens said. That includes good high school graduation rates, good apprenticeship and internship programs, good community colleges and universities.
UNM efforts like Innovation Academy, Central New Mexico Community College’s Deep-Dive Coding Bootcamp and community-based efforts like ABQid are nurturing startups in a number of industries, including low-tech, no-tech and arts-based businesses. Kuutilla says such efforts are essential to give young people entrepreneurial skills and to nurture a culture of innovation and risk-taking.