The University of Wyoming continues to work with the Wyoming Business Council in search of economic diversification in the midst of the state’s energy revenue bust.
The business council is tasked by Gov. Matt Mead to create a 20-year plan to expand other parts of Wyoming’s economy, such as the technology sector.
“I think that, even though Wyoming has a low population, it’s incredibly well positioned by having a single university when looking at this strategy the governor worked for,” said Ron Gullberg, spokesperson for the Wyoming Business Council. “Other states have several universities competing against each other, and here, it just creates an opportunity to align efforts with education and work towards development.”
UW is beginning to gather its resources to assist in creating the plan, said Chris Boswell, vice president for governmental and community affairs.
“We’d like to loop some UW faculty and staff into the conversation as the council prepares its plan,” he said. “Our emphasis has always been that the university would be a resource to the council as they put together this plan rather than the university telling the business council what the plan would be.”
However, UW is already making headway into diversification through the Wyoming Technology Business Center, also known as the incubator.
“Through startups, you get a natural diversification of the economy,” CEO Jon Benson said. “What you look for are talented people who might be interested in doing the business.”
The incubator is currently hosting about a dozen businesses, helping them grow from pre-venture ideas up to possible million-dollar companies. However, the Technology Business Center provides help to areas outside of Laramie.
A recent contest hosted in Casper shows diversification in Laramie is already happening, Benson said.
“We did an entrepreneur competition where people applied with their ideas, and we narrowed it down to 12 semifinalists and five finalists,” he said. “It was like a qualifying event — the whole question was if this company was qualified to approach the fund for money.”
Three businesses were eventually given $5,000 to further explore their business ideas.
“We’re now getting ready to disperse the remaining $50,000,” he said. “The interesting thing is, we had 30 companies apply for this, and only three were energy-related. The three qualifiers we had, none of them were energy-related.”
Benson thinks it is partially because the competition went farther than communicating only with businesses.
“So, we went over the business community to the community at large, anybody, and those people responded with business ideas,” he said.
A similar contest in Laramie with $100,000 followed the same format as the Casper competition, Benson said.
“Because of experience in Casper, I was really curious about the people who were responding, so we did a survey of them,” he said. “We had 40 submittals, and of the 40, 27 percent said, ‘Well, I heard about the business and thought about what business I could start.’ Another 47 percent said they had this idea for a business but they had never pursued it.
“I believe (competitions) stimulate people to come up with startup ideas, and if you can do something that stimulates somebody to come up with an idea and actually pursue it for starting a business, that’s really high value,” Benson continued. “If this holds as we get more experience with this, we can do these competitions and actually stimulate people to try to come up with an idea for a business.”