Ehlert: B|launched helps put Boise on startup map

rehlert@idahostatesman.comJune 17, 2013 

Robert Ehlert

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What if there was a start-your-own-business incubator in Boise that sharpened the skills of young professionals who have that irrepressible gene for entrepreneurship?

And what if there were local and regional entrepreneurial mentors who donated their time and startup money so these businesses could actually launch and ply the waters of a real marketplace?

Good news, Boise. There is.

It is called b|launched, and it works a bit like a television competition — because it is a real, live competition pitting business teams against one another for startup money. Only in this case, Boise is the star and winner no matter what happens.

B|launched is the brainchild of Boise Young Professionals, a group of some 900 area business professionals that is sponsored by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and area entrepreneurs who want to give back and further position Boise as an LED light amid flickering attempts at business development.

It is mentored and judged by the likes of Faisal Shah, Karen Meyer, Jason Crawforth, Steve Hodges, Boise chamber President Bill Connors and Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.

Wednesday I was privileged to witness several of the eight- to 10-member teams present and discuss their projects and their experience as entrepreneurs. Each had applied for the program, now in its second year, and then been thrown together with teammates — strangers to them. Their six-month mission was to develop an idea within the first 90 days and then be up and running at the close of the program.

This year’s winner, Be Free Village, which took home a $30,000 prize, settled on a company that provides gluten-free food for travelers. Capitalizing on the very passionate 18 percent of the U.S. population that is gluten-intolerant and another part of the market that prefers a gluten-free diet and lifestyle, Be Free presently is targeting hotels and marketing a box of gluten-free snacks and foods that can be sold in gift shops and, perhaps, one day aboard flights.

Though “gluten-free” signs are popping up on products everywhere, the Be Free team believes it can feed the habit of domestic and, eventually, international travelers. The Be Free team, which may later target foods for other dietary regimens, is one of five teams born in B|LAUNCHED that are doing business in Boise and around the country. The others are: Follow and Fund, an online portal that allows relatives, friends and supporters to donate digitally to a student’s education; Craysay, which assists retailers and businesses in connecting to customers via social media; BoBec, a gaming application; and ADvailable, which monitors and markets available alternative and unusual advertising space to customers.

Though the initial goal was to teach entrepreneurship, Shah said, “What has happened is something bigger — something we weren’t seeing at the beginning. We have created a mini-business ecosystem in this program. We are creating at least two companies each year and people are seeing the kind of talent we have here.”

The young professionals — most younger than 40 and most employed full time at businesses around the area — are getting excited and starting companies on their own.

Connors of the Boise chamber says many communities struggle with their brand. For instance, is Boise an adventure town, a legacy high-tech or a food processing town? The program, he says, positions Boise as a “creativity and innovation kind of town. This program feeds that brand and it will attract companies.”

When I moved here just more than two months ago, I wondered what Boise was and what it was trying to become. Was it one of those cities with 10 big companies that employ 1,000 to 10,000 people — which was good in the past, but not so great moving forward — or did it have the chops to become an area where 10,000 companies could launch with 10 people and grow with the flow of the small business arc?

I am as optimistic and encouraged as the participants in b|launched. Though, to a person, many said on Wednesday that “starting a business is not fun” and not to be taken lightly, they found the program and mission to be as stimulating as anything they have encountered.

Shah, a very successful business owner and developer who walked away from a thriving Los Angeles law practice, and Connors, who has worked with businesses for much of his life, haven’t seen anything quite like b|launched.

If you’re interested, b|launched 3.0 will start in January. It’s not too early to consider it as a member of the business community, as a mentor and benefactor, or as a participant. There is hope that the program could develop to the point where they can offer a $100,000 prize.

“It enhances our image as an innovation and creative center,” said Connors. “That is the image we need to get out .”

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Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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