Sparkyard plan aims to grow Fort Worth’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

Marco Johnson

Although Fort Worth is the 13th most populous city in the nation, the city does not have a palpable business image as compared to other larger cities, like how San Francisco is known for technology or New York for finance.

It’s a question that has been asked at at the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC) and at other Fort Worth institutions for some time now.

Cameron Cushman, UNTHSC ‘s director of Innovation Ecosystems, pitched a potential solution that ultimately led to the creation of Sparkyard.

Sparkyard is a free collaborative platform that connects new and existing Fort Worth companies with specific business resources that helps accelerate their growth. Along with UNTHSC, the City of Fort Worth Office of Economic Development and TCU Neeley School of Business are also funding the program.

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Sparkyard is modeled on and powered by the nationally-recognized Sourcelink platform, created with help of the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City 15 years ago.

More than 40 resource partners already participate in the Sparkyard program since its soft launch a couple of months ago.

“Small- and medium-sized businesses are the economic engines of Fort Worth,” said Robert Sturns, director of Economic Development at the City of Fort Worth. “Sparkyard ensures that these companies can access the right resources at the right time to not only accelerate their own growth, but also that of Fort Worth’s thriving entrepreneurial community.”

Sparkyard is formally launching on Nov. 14, during the start of Global Entrepreneurship Week Fort Worth, a part of 35,000 networks worldwide. In Fort Worth, more than 50 local entrepreneurial events will take place during the week.

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“Fort Worth is full of innovative and hard-working entrepreneurs, but too often they lack access to the right resource at the right time to make their business a success,” UNTHSC President Michael Williams said in a statement. “Sparkyard is a valuable new tool that connects business owners to the resources they need to launch and scale their businesses.”

Entrepreneurs can directly contact resource partners for assistance through Sparkyard. They can also utilize the website’s automated Resource Navigator, which will help identify the right providers based on need, location, industry, stage of business and additional criteria.

The ultimate goal is to address the specific needs of the entrepreneurs, make and track referrals to resources, and identify and fill gaps in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Entrepreneurs in the Sparkyard platform will be navigated by Marco Johnson, assistant director of Entrepreneurship at UNTHSC, in his role as Sparkyard Network Builder.

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Johnson has years of experience working in the entrepreneurial ecosystem development sphere, most recently as the director of programming at Accelerate DFW Foundation.

Fort Worth Business Press talked with Johnson to learn more about Sparkyard and Fort Worth’s “underdeveloped” entrepreneurial ecosystem.

FWBP: What will Sparkyard help accomplish?

Johnson: In addition to what you see online, there’s a really powerful backend. There’s a really good CRM component and there’s a data analytics tool. So, we can parse all the numbers: How many referrals come through Sparkyard? What are people looking for when they search on Sparkyard? Which services are they looking for?

We can use all of that information to start painting a picture of entrepreneurship in our area. Because we don’t really know. As I mention, our ecosystem is underdeveloped. We don’t have a really good handle on how many entrepreneurs there are and what do they need.

The idea is we use this and after a year or so we have some really good data, create a baseline. Then we can share that information with policymakers and other resource organizations and investors. Then we can define our ecosystem – what is Fort Worth?

FWBP: UNTHSC has its focus on scientific research and innovation. Why might it be interested in entrepreneurship?

J: Our president is a serial entrepreneur himself. He has an MD, but he started and sold several companies on his own. He understands entrepreneurship and he understands the economic benefits entrepreneurship has on the community.

Community can be defined broadly. Not just the UNT Health Science Center community, or not just the medical or research community. But, also the entrepreneurial community, the Fort Worth community. This is a give back of the Health Science Center to the community at large here.

FWBP: What challenges might local business owners be facing?

J: In talking to entrepreneurs here and in talking to resource providers, you’ll hear the same thing over and over again where the gaps are. And that is things are siloed. Organizations don’t really talk to each other that much, they don’t interact with each other. Entrepreneurs don’t know where to go. They don’t know what resources are out there. They don’t know what events are happening.

FWBP: Should Fort Worth be concerned if its entrepreneurial ecosystem remains underdeveloped?

J: We got stuff happening here. We defiantly do. We have some great success stories of companies that are born and raised here and gone on to great success.

Things are happening. But again, how do we keep companies here in Fort Worth? As opposed to, they get so big where they need investment and they move to Silicon Valley or move to New York or Boston or Austin. We need to keep those companies here so they can grow and impact the community here locally.

FWBP: How can things improve?

J: Investment is a big part of it. We have really one venture capital firm in town – Bios Partners, led by Les Kreis. But he is a biotech investor. We don’t have much else. You have to go over on the other side of (State Highway) 360 to Dallas to start really finding some true venture capital firms. So that’s a big miss. We do have Tech FW and Accelerate DFW incubator programs. We don’t really have an accelerator here. That’s a gap.

FWBP: Have you seen things change since you been here in Fort Worth and at UNTHSC in the last two years?

J: When I moved in here, the term entrepreneurial ecosystem most people didn’t even know it. They had never heard it before. “Ecosystem? That’s biology.”

But now there have been enough of us talking about it for long enough. Where, most of the people I interact with now understand the terminology. So, that’s great. You got to start somewhere. The warm welcome Sparkyard has gotten is really nice to see. People understand the need it’s addressing and they want to see the ecosystem come together and develop.

We’re definitely on the right track and we’re asking the right questions.