10.15.19

Foellinger Foundation Awards Northeast Indiana Innovation Center $279,900 in Breakthrough Funds

Doug LeDuc | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Northeast Indiana Innovation Center has received a Foellinger Foundation grant of $279,900 to help get NIIC services to potential entrepreneurs in under-represented groups.

In announcing the grant Oct. 15 at the center near the intersection of Hobson and Stellhorn roads in Fort Wayne, the foundation’s president, Cheryl Taylor, said the NIIC’s new Connected Communities program that it supports “will bring life to a process that nurtures underdeveloped talent in historically marginalized communities.”

The foundation had established a $500,000 Breakthrough Fund grant opportunity to mark its 60th anniversary last year and challenged local nonprofits “to propose new innovative projects that will help our Allen County residents lead more connected and more fulfilling lives,” Taylor said.

Of 14 eligible organizations applying, four advanced to a Refine Phase, which allowed them to demonstrate their proposals were feasible, measurable and sustainable. Based on those results, an outside panel of judges recommended advancing NIIC to the Realize Phase with full funding, she said.

“One of the things that impressed us is in fact they did say, ‘OK, we’re going to go out of our own comfort zone; we’re going to get out of these buildings and go into the community,’” Taylor said after the announcement.

The Innovation Center used one of the Refine Phase grants that the foundation awarded last year to demonstrate how it could find potential entrepreneurs in under-represented groups by working in collaboration with trusted local nonprofit organizations, said Karl LaPan, NIIC’s president and CEO, after the announcement.

The partner organizations help provide job skills and placement services to individuals in need, particularly within marginalized communities, and through past experience, NIIC has learned it can count on them.

They include the League for the Blind and Disabled, Amani Family Services, Blue Jacket and the Allen County Public Library.

NIIC will work with the organizations “to help make sure, as they kind of advise the clients on employment readiness, that we not only help people understand that you can take a job — go out and work for Sweetwater or something — but you can make a job, you can be your own entrepreneur (employer),” LaPan said.

A NIIC engagement coordinator will work with the organizations on this. Business coaching and upgrading the NIIC Navigator also will be important pieces of the program’s budget.

The Navigator is a set of self-paced, online tools that include self-guided training programs that NIIC clients can use to sharpen entrepreneurial skills at their convenience.

With the upgrade, the Navigator will be more capable of creating a custom path for a more diverse array of entrepreneurs, Mike Fritsch, NIIC’s entrepreneur in residence, said after the announcement.

“Say you’re ‘disabled.’ The path of help that we offer is going to be different than if you’re an immigrant or if you’re a minority,” he said. “We’re creating custom-help components inside of our software, NIIC Navigator, to actually help people in a way that they need help.”

“While there are some specific barriers or obstacles that groups of entrepreneurs face, your obstacles and barriers may be very unique to your circumstances. Our hope is that this software wraparound can help identify what those unique barriers are to you and help you overcome them,” LaPan said.

In addition to working with the partner nonprofits that NIIC already has identified, it is inviting any organization interested in getting involved to contact Fritsch at mfritsch@niic.net or by phone at 260-407-6442.

“Our goal in this two-year grant funding process is to unpack the challenges faced by under-represented entrepreneurs and address them,” LaPan said.

“We know from experience that some of the persistent barriers and obstacles include things like lack of confidence, lack of mentorship, unequal access to microfinancing and lack of skill development in the business-building aspects of moving an idea to a successful new business launch,” he said.

The Innovation Center makes limited investments through the NIIC LEAP Fund to more established emerging companies within its mission that have reached the point where they are bringing on investors, but the Foellinger Foundation grant will not support that, LaPan said.

With the Connected Communities Breakthrough Project, “there’s no direct microfinancing or granting element directly to an individual. They will be prepared to go for micro growth financing, but they will not be supported financially through the (Foellinger Foundation) grant,” he said.

Because potential entrepreneurs identified through the program would be forming new companies, their projects “are most likely going to be bootstrapped until they figure out who their customer is, what their product is and those kinds of things,” LaPan said.

“Then they would be eligible for the Fortitude Fund and … the kinds of things that would be available to those companies as they mature and grow in their development,” he said.

Underestimating the potential of aspiring business builders has contributed to Indiana’s 47th rank among the 50 states for new business formation, and NIIC officials hope reducing entrepreneurship barriers will increase local startup activity in a way that improves prosperity for under-represented communities, he said.

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