In coming weeks and months, Topeka’s Plug and Play accelerator program, which was announced last year, is expected to gain serious momentum.
Additional founding partners are set to be announced throughout August. Then, those founding partners will help select the first group of startup companies to participate in the accelerator. And this fall, they’ll begin a three-month program aimed at helping the startups make connections, perfect their products and form partnerships with area corporations.
Then, at some point this year, results of a viability study to determine the future home of an innovation campus will be revealed, leading to the creation of a space that will serve as Topeka’s hub for creative endeavors and collaborations stemming from the accelerator program.
Katrin Bridges, senior vice president of innovation for the Greater Topeka Partnership, said those efforts are aimed at creating a “culture of innovation” in Topeka, eventually solidifying the capital city’s place in the Midwest’s animal health corridor.
“We all would like for the opportunities that come with the Plug and Play program to translate into economic impact,” Bridges said. “Creating opportunities and being part of that culture of innovation will spur a lot of new projects, I think, that could have an even larger impact on Topeka’s economic development.”
Plug and Play is a self-described “innovation platform,” headquartered in Silicon Valley, that seeks to find, invest in and advance startup companies.
According to Stephen Fay, the organization’s director of corporate partnerships, Plug and Play is different from most accelerators or incubators because it works with startup companies at all phases of growth.
“We’re stage agnostic,” Fay said. “That means we work with all stages and sizes of startups. A typical accelerator or incubator only works with early stage companies and entrepreneurs. … Our second big difference is that we don’t require equity from startups to join our programs unless there’s a mutual relationship built and an investment opportunity exists.”
In addition to working with startups, Plug and Play has experience partnering with corporate entities. Having its feet in both camps allows Plug and Play to become the bridge that connects corporate partners with the startup companies in its programs.
These programs that bring a variety of players invested in innovation to the same table are called “accelerator programs” — and Topeka is now home to one of them.
Plug and Play reports an average success rate of about 70% for startups that complete one of its accelerators.
Plug and Play has more than 30 accelerator program locations across the globe. Each program focuses on a specific “vertical,” or industry, that is designed to take advantage of regional strengths and resources.
The Topeka Plug and Play program, for example, is focused on attracting and accelerating startups in the animal health and agricultural technology realm. It is the first of Plug and Play’s accelerator programs dedicated to that specific vertical.
“Nothing ever gave us quite the lightning rod to launch a full program focused around that specific industry until we came across this opportunity in Kansas by working with Katrin and her team at GO Topeka and a lot of the other partners and corporations across the region,” Fay said.
A benefit of operating the animal health and agtech program out of Topeka is that the city is situated within the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor. The animal health corridor is a specific region of the U.S. anchored by Manhattan, Kan., and Columbia, Mo. where more than 300 animal health-related companies are located.
The corridor accounts for 56% of total animal health, diagnostics technology and pet food sales worldwide.
“With launching this Plug and Play program in Topeka,” Bridges said, “we are, overnight, part of a global network of innovation.”
According to Fay, when Plug and Play launches a new program, it looks for founding partners that will become key investors in the program and will help facilitate its growth.
That’s the phase Topeka’s program is in now.
On Wednesday, Plug and Play announced Cargill, Inc. had signed on as the program’s first founding partner. Fay said the other four founding partners should all be announced by the end of August.
“These players are actually the ones that will become the board members of the program,” Fay said. “They’ll help us dictate and choose which startups make it into that accelerator program every six months. … They’re going to be the ones that really drive what areas of focus we dive into to begin with.”
Founding partners for the Topeka program, he said, are going to be companies that have a strong presence in this region. They’ll have a desire to drive innovation and will have experience in the animal health and agtech industry.