Startup Weekend Evansville (SUW) has become an establishment in our community’s innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. The pause button was pushed on last year’s SUW Evansville and many similar events due to the pandemic. Following an entire year of experience with virtual technologies and adequate time to plan, it became clear that a virtual SUW event was feasible and a first step in the reopening of activities in the ecosystem. The USI Romain College of Business has long supported this initiative and was a gold sponsor once again, along with newly-formed Evansville Regional Economic Partnership (EREP).
Just as for the annual in-person event, the community came together and engaged to fully deliver Startup Weekend Evansville Online in April 2021. Bryan Bourdeau, Instructor in Business at Romain College, has been at SUW Evansville’s helm since it began. This year the team was expanded to include additional organizers and community partners. New to the organizing team were Josh McWilliams, Instructor in Computer Information Systems at Romain College, and Evansville Regional Economic Partnership’s Director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship Stephanie El Tawil.
“Much like the potential startups that come through SUW, the event itself was very much a 'beta test'," said McWilliams. "We were amazed at the response from the community to join and mentor prospective entrepreneurs. Community support has always been the cornerstone of this event; this year was no different, even after a tough year in yet another virtual setting.”
Events like SUW give budding entrepreneurs a unique opportunity to network and learn directly from local subject matter experts. These mentors provide feedback to teams formed around potential startup businesses to improve their business model and ultimately their pitch to potential investors. In addition to mentors, the event is supported by speakers who provide insights into resources available to startups. This year, speakers included David Watkins, Director for the Indiana Small Business Development Center, who talked about state resources for startups, and Tyler Droste, Gutwein Law IP Attorney, who spoke about entity formation and intellectual property.
The entrepreneurial team whose idea was a lockable GPS-type device designed for parents to track children who are not old enough to carry a phone or other fragile technology, called Scout Family Protection, generated a lot of interest. The team consisted of three local high school students who are competing in Indiana Innovate WithIN, an annual statewide pitch competition. Mentors and judges took this opportunity to ensure the team was well-prepared for the high-stakes competition with a chance at winning $25,000.
This year’s turnout was about 30% of what the in-person event attracts, but organizers felt the turnout was better than peer events. “Startup Weekend is a global brand with events most weekends of the year, but overall, turnout has been lower across the board,” said McWilliams, adding that “The following weekend an event with 900 participants in 2020 had 27 registered three days prior to kickoff.” Most are suffering from overall suppressed turnout created by a dormant entrepreneurial scene and Zoom fatigue due to Covid-19. However, it is encouraging that this year’s SUW Evansville kicked off the first in a series of comparable activities across Indiana this spring, such as the Radius Indiana Pitch Competition (Crane-Indiana); Crossroads Pitch Competition (Bloomington-Indiana); Innovate WithIN (Statewide); Elevate Nexus (Statewide); and Changemaker Challenge (Evansville). Organizers are optimistic that this innovative arena will soon be active and thriving once again.