Q&A: Kauffman Foundation’s Nathan Kurtz on the KC Accelerator Challenge

Nathan Kurtz | Courtesy of the Kauffman Foundation

In late May, eight venture accelerators in the Kansas City area were selected to receive a combined $840,000 in grants and sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation as part of the KC Accelerator Challenge.

The Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation announced the program last fall in an effort to help organizations that provide mentorship, professional services and other assistance to early-stage companies in Kansas City.

Nathan Kurtz, senior program officer in entrepreneurship at the foundation, manages the KC Accelerator Challenge. He said he sees a common quality of engaged leadership in all eight organizations that were chosen.

“They are really focused and committed to moving entrepreneurs from one stage to the next,” Kurtz said.

Missouri Business Alert spoke with Kurtz about the program shortly after the eight organizations were announced .

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: Why did the foundation choose to focus on support organizations like these with this new program?

Nathan Kurtz: We have grant-making dollars, and one of the things we want to be thoughtful about is if there are already some great organizations. And we found eight of them that are helping entrepreneurs in all the different stages and different levels. We want to be supportive of the great things already happening. We are an operating foundation and a grant-making foundation. Because these eight organizations are already focusing on entrepreneurial support and doing an effective job, we wanted to support their efforts.

MBA: What else besides grants does the KC Accelerator Challenge provide for the organizations?

NK: Some are grants; some are sponsorship. For the non-profits, we make grants; for the for-profit organizations, we are sponsoring some of the programs and projects that they are working on. We are also working with all eight on data collection. How do we demonstrate the advancement that the entrepreneurs are going through as they go through these programs? Some of that is through data collection and research.

For each of them, we are also offering the opportunity to sponsor their demo day. For some of them, they’ve asked for additional help. So we’ll be making additional space available for some of their workshops as they request. A lot of it really comes down to a one-to-one basis with each one (and determining), in addition to dollars, what other ways can we be supportive?

MBA: What is the extent of the relationship between Kauffman and the organizations going forward?

NK: We decided not to necessarily promise any ongoing financial support, so we offered this as a one-year project. We wanted to see how these grantees and sponsorship recipients do. We want to be supportive along the way and learn with them. We do multi-year grants and sponsorships; we didn’t want this necessarily to be a multi-year yet. But we did want to at least seed some support to these and, at this point, just evaluate over the course of the next year how these are going.

MBA: What quality did the Kauffman Foundation look for when selecting the grant recipients? What made these eight recipients stand out?

NK: For all eight, they had a very clear, actionable plan when they submitted their applications. What I mean by that is they were ready to hit the ground running. Some of them are already going; some of them needed some support to get going. But they had their leadership team in place; they had the curriculum planned; they had a pathway to getting participants in their accelerators. They had done the hard work ahead of time. They were more than just an idea, and we really appreciated that all eight of them took the time to really make sure it was going to be a quality program and experience for the entrepreneurs.

MBA: What does success look like for the KC Accelerator Challenge? How do you measure that?

NK: One, it’s a chance for the foundation to engage a boarder swath of entrepreneur support organizations in Kansas City and reach more entrepreneurs that way. Some of the metrics we’re going to be tracking and working with the accelerators to track, we anticipate, will demonstrate really helping to truly accelerate the entrepreneurs to that next stage of their business. Ultimately we think that’s a really helpful thing for our ecosystem, for the community and for the Midwest at large. We want to help more entrepreneurs start and grow companies. It really ties back to our founder: Ewing Kauffman wanted to help individuals obtain economic independence through education and entrepreneurship. We see (this project) as bringing an educational component to entrepreneurs who are ready for it.

We have a new initiative called Zero Barriers. We are trying to find, what are those gaps out there that keep entrepreneurs from being able to start and grow companies? And if you look at the recipients … some of these are very early entrepreneurs; some of these are for fast-growth, tech-oriented companies; some of these are for second-stage companies ready to scale. But the ultimate goal is, can we get the appropriate resources, mentors, education, etc., around the entrepreneur at the appropriate time?

MBA: What are some of the barriers that entrepreneurs in Kansas City face?

NK: Kansas City is advancing for (the Kauffman Foundation’s) Startup Activity Index. So we’ve continued to move up in the last two years in national rankings, which is great for Kansas City. We think it is a reflection on support across the state of Missouri and Kansas.

There is always need for timely access to resources. That includes mentoring, peer networks and reducing the time cost of raising capital. One of the challenges that’s true across the Midwest is that it can take longer to raise capital here than on the coasts. And one of the things we want to target is, what are all those barriers? What can we do to reduce the time that it takes to get access to resources — financial, mentoring, customers and so forth? If we can speed up that process, we think it will have a very positive impact across the ecosystem.

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