Note: The story has been updated to give more accurate amounts for funding Trailhead provided by the City of Boise and the Capital City Development Corp.
Last week, Bob Burtch was one of a dozen entrepreneurs working on business plans at Trailhead, a new Downtown nonprofit at the corner of 8th and Myrtle streets that promises to grease wheels for startups. Burtch, 60, sipped coffee from a paper cup between taps on his laptop keyboard. He munched an apple. Burtch said he believes his company can prevent commercial airplane disasters, such as Malaysia Air Flight 370, which disappeared with 239 aboard, or the Germanwings plane carrying 150 souls that investigators believe a suicidal co-pilot deliberately crashed into the Alps.
He is chief financial officer of Thompson Aerospace, which developed black-box technology providing control towers constant access to a plane’s location. The technology can allow the ground crew to override pilot commands or unlock the cockpit or return a plane to autopilot if something goes haywire. Burtch said a major airline manufacturer is testing the product.
Based in Irvine, Calif., Thompson Aerospace says it is situated to be first-to-market with security solutions that industry experts expect will soon be mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Burtch said that could mean big things for a startup whose three employees have raided retirement accounts and taken second mortgages to develop the project.
But first, Burtch must do something never asked of him in 31 years at Boeing: ask for money. That means pitching to investors. That means knowing how to get into a room with investors in the first place.
That is what brought him to Trailhead. There, he received tips on how to craft his presentation from John Hale, a Trailhead board member, a serial angel investor, a former managing partner of accounting firm KPMG’s Boise office and the chairman of the Capitol City Development Corp., Boise’s urban renewal agency. With Hale’s help, Burtch pitched Thompson Aerospace to a potential investor in Meridian and has lined up meetings with other Treasure Valley investors looking for promising startups to fund.
“That would have never happened on my own,” Burtch said.
THE TRAIL STARTS HERE
About 30 members have joined Trailhead since it opened in February, and about 20 of those have founded or work for startups, said Executive Director Raino Zoller, who started his own Boise tech company, pSIFlow, five years ago and still serves on its board. Each has questions about identifying customers or filing paperwork or pitching to investors — questions that need answering before they sink more time and money into their projects.
One member in the earliest stages of planning a company is Philip Kassel, a 28-year-old French horn player in the Boise Philharmonic Orchestra. Frustrated by the cumbersome process of applying for orchestra auditions — and surmising that orchestras receive the hundreds of applications in forms that are not particularly efficient — Kassel put his rudimentary software skills to work building a platform to streamline the process.
He comes to Trailhead to work on the project for several hours at a time. If he turns his project into a business, he will tap Trailhead’s in-house expertise to get off the ground. He also trusts his Trailhead contacts to let him know if he’s pointed down a losing road, or “to back me up from the edge of the cliff,” he said.
Recently, he had what was going to be a short meeting with another member working on a different idea. That turned into a two-hour whiteboard session. Though Kassel said the pair is unlikely to join forces, he gleaned helpful ideas.
Trailhead was founded to be a venue for such brainstorming, Hale said.
“Those are the kind of collisions we’re looking for,” Hale said. “That doesn’t happen at Starbucks.”
Boise roped in some prestige when Boise State University hired Gordon Jones away from Harvard University, where he’d started the Harvard Innovation Lab. Known as i-lab, Jones’ project served as a resource center for Harvard student and faculty entrepreneurs.
About 4,000 students took advantage of i-lab’s programs annually, some of which were for credit, Jones said. In the four years since the lab opened, about 75 businesses emerged that raised $250 million in venture capital.
Boise State hired Jones to run its new College of Innovation and Design, which will provide new majors, such as a Gaming Interactive Media Mobile Technology program starting in the fall.
Zoller said Trailhead jumped at the chance to offer Jones a seat on its board. Jones said he accepted because he has seen other spaces like Trailhead where entrepreneurs bump into one another, spurring creativity.
“When you are working out of your garage, you can become either oxygen-starved or tunnel-visioned,” Jones said. “This kind of community is extremely invigorating. You can’t underestimate the power of that spontaneity.”
Jones said he is moving to Boise because he wants to be a player in a Boise startup scene he thinks is ready to graduate from serving as a mere satellite to bigger startup hubs such as Seattle, Denver and Silicon Valley.
“Trailhead has the mayor behind it, and a number of folks with credible backgrounds,” he said. “It has a location walkable to the university and Downtown. All of these are small but meaningful things I’ve seen in my work at Harvard and with many different players in these types of ecosystems.”
WANTED: CODE SCHOOL
Zoller and Hale hope Trailhead will soon follow a trend that has proved successful elsewhere by creating a for-pay curriculum known as a code school. Also known as coding academies, code schools offer intensive, three-month crash courses in coding. Graduates emerge with skills and a certificate qualifying them for entry-level coding jobs that are in demand throughout the country and often pay much higher than the local median wage.
Zoller and Hale said they hope to secure donor funding to start the program. They said it could operate out of the 6,500 square feet in the Trailhead’s basement. They haven’t pinned down a curriculum or what the program would cost.
Successful code schools elsewhere typically have between 20 and 30 students per class, Hale said. Trailhead could potentially run four or five classes at the same time if there was enough demand for students, he said.
One code school, Denver-based Galvanize, has graduated more than 200 students since opening in 2012, some of whom accepted jobs at companies such as IBM, Twitter, Uber and Airbnb.
App Academy, which offers 12-week courses in San Francisco and New York City, claims that 98 percent of its graduates receive offers or are working in tech jobs. It says its graduates earn average salaries of $105,000 in San Francisco and $89,000 in New York. Rather than charge tuition, App Academy charges graduates 18 percent of their first-year’s salary once they land a job.
While code school graduates wouldn’t be qualified for all of those jobs, Zoller said he is confident tech companies would snap up code school graduates. Companies elsewhere sometimes pay for coding schools or for individual students to attend classes in exchange for first crack at hiring them.
“We hear both from members and the business community, they are all struggling to hire enough people with software skills,” Zoller said.
Hale said code schools elsewhere enroll young adults as well as older students wanting to change careers.
“There’s so many people right now on the sidelines who don’t see the value of a four-year university, or who can’t pay for it,” Hale said. “But they can afford code school.”
They hope classes will start in the coming year.