Will the AIM Exchange finally solve Omaha’s density problem?

The 100-year-old Exchange Building at 19th and Harney in Omaha is quickly transforming into Omaha’s central startup hub. In recent years startup communities have popped up in major cities across the U.S. In nearly every case their growth has been driven by a central location where creative, talented people can bump into each other and…

The Exchange Building was built in 1915 for trading grain stock. Photo by Melanie Lucks
The Exchange Building was built in 1915 for trading grain stock. Photo by Melanie Lucks
The Exchange Building was built in 1915 for trading grain stock. Photo by Melanie Lucks.

The Exchange Building was built in 1915 for trading grain stock. Photo by Melanie Lucks.

The 100-year-old Exchange Building at 19th and Harney in Omaha is quickly transforming into Omaha’s central startup hub.

In recent years startup communities have popped up in major cities across the U.S. In nearly every case their growth has been driven by a central location where creative, talented people can bump into each other and collaborate.

“Look at a Kansas City or at Denver 10-20 years ago, at Chicago five years ago, and you see these different players of the community form bigger alliances,” said Erica Wassinger, co-founder of the Omaha Startup Collaborative.

Des Moines has Gravitate. Saint Louis has T-REX. But what about Omaha? There’s a lot happening in the community, from events like Big Omaha to the Garage by Aviture out west to the Scott Technology Center and, most recently, the Year of the Startup.

“We’ve got events, we’ve got programming, so if you have an idea you can develop a network. What we don’t have in Omaha yet is the proximity of innovative, disruptive thinkers on a regular basis. The closest thing we have today is One Million Cups,” said Wassinger.

Many in the community believe that solving the density/proximity issue is what the startup community needs to reach the next level of maturity.

An alliance between the Omaha Startup Collaborative and the AIM Institute this year may finally give the startup community the rally point it’s been looking for.

OSC models itself on successful incubators

The Omaha Startup Collaborative was developed by Mark Hasebroock, Peter Frei and Erica Wassinger as a way to bridge the gap between startup enthusiasm and building companies with real traction.

“When Hasebroock, Peter and I looked at what Omaha needed, we had a lot of community building events, we had a lot of cheerleaders and support, but there was a disconnect between that and really accountable actionable startups that were willing to focus on traction, growth and sales,” said Wassinger.

As part of their research, they visited over two dozen incubators and coworking spaces across the country.

“We’ve studied everything from how they vet their startups to how they design their space to how they structure their operating budget and who they hire,” Wassinger said.

The most successful incubators combine exclusive access to mentors, programming, content and events–as well as the ability to work alongside other startups.

One of the lessons OSC discovered was the importance of having all the major community players in the same space.

“What we learned is that it can’t be just the startups in there, it has to be the whole ecosystem,” said Wassinger.

Wassinger particularly likes the Galvanize network with spaces in Denver, Boulder and San Francisco. They combine startup spaces with a code school and a venture fund in the same building.

“You can see the code school talent being snapped up right away into the startups, and startups don’t have this massive tech talent drain that everyone complains about,” said Wassinger. “You also saw deals happen because of the connections that come with having VCs nearby.”

Wassinger also sees value in the exclusivity and accountability of spaces like the Atlanta Tech Village and 1871 in Chicago. (Notably, ConAgra will be moving its HQ from downtown Omaha to Merchandise Mart, the same location as 1871. Access to talent and innovation were the primary reasons given for the move.)

There’s also another incubator space in the Silicon Prairie that the OSC wants to emulate.

“One location that I can’t say enough good things about, and honestly what we hope to become, is Think Big in Kansas City,” said Wassinger. “I think what Herb, Blake and the entire team down there have done is take a community that was somewhat risk averse and just kept betting on it.”

Startup community members socialize at the first Exchanges With event at the AIM Exchange Building.

Startup community members socialize at the first Exchanges With event at the AIM Exchange Building.

AIM opens its doors to the startup community

Although Omaha Startup Collaborative started in May of 2014 in Creighton’s Wareham Building, the Exchange project came together due to an introduction by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

“They were the ones that said, ‘I think there’s some space at the AIM building. And if you need, they could be a really good partner for you,'” said Wassinger.

It was around that same time that AIM acquired Silicon Prairie News and Big Omaha. When OSC and AIM each shared their vision for the future of the Omaha tech community, it was clear there was mutual benefit.

“Kandace [Miller] is such a visionary and really knows where she wants to take AIM in terms of its ability to anchor an innovative community, not just in this building but in the region. It took one conversation to know that we have way too many good things aligning here for us not to make it work.”

Since June over 20 startups have started paying membership fees, including Drive Spotter, Crumb, Blabfeed and a Travefy satellite office. They have been accessing the mentor pool, attending events and participating in monthly accountability meetings. The OSC is now operating on three full floors of the Exchange Building.

The Exchange Building is also home to the Interface Web School, the Straight Shot accelerator and Omaha’s weekly One Million Cups gathering–as well as regular youth coding classes put on by AIM and, this summer, Omaha Code School.

“AIM is easily underestimated and they really shouldn’t be”

“It’s somewhat mindblowing when you think of the investment Kandace and the entire AIM team is making in the startup community,” said Wassinger.

For years now AIM has been a relatively quiet supporter of the community.

“AIM is easily underestimated and they really shouldn’t be,” said Wassinger. “They can rock it, and they can really make change happen.”

AIM is equally excited about the remodeling of the building, and the new energy in the space.

“What I love about Erica is that she’s always up to try something and to try it now. To see if it works, adjust and move forward. That’s exactly how we work,” said Kandace Miller, CEO of AIM.

In the past AIM has brought longevity and growth to community events like Infotec and HDC in order to strengthen the tech talent community. AIM sees itself as an investor in nonprofit startup service providers.

“We want to invest in services like OSC, Big Omaha and SPN, because they are so important,” said Miller. “We’re going to do what it takes to make sure they make it.”

The future of the Exchange

The warming relationship of the Chamber, AIM and the Omaha Startup Collaborative marks a new chapter for the Omaha startup community.

“I think we’re starting to smash a lot of the silos that had been an issue in the past,” said Wassinger.

And although the Omaha Startup Collaborative takes lessons from other communities, Wassinger looks forward to the building having its own unique vibe.

“At the end of the day we’re not going to be like an incubator in San Francisco, that’s not our ethos,” said Wassinger.

The key is creating a place where all the major community players can participate.

“In two to five years, this building could be the anchor for youth education in tech talent. This could be the anchor for venture funds in this community. It could be a major hub,” said Wassinger. “We could have this beautiful masterpiece in Omaha that from an economic development standpoint could be a major draw for talent.”

The OSC has now opened coworking space in the Exchange building for $50 per desk per month, which includes free tickets to events like the Exchanges With series, access to a mentor network and an invitation to exclusive happy hour events. To apply, visit OmahaExchange.co.

Editor’s Note: Silicon Prairie News and Big Omaha were acquired by AIM in January 2015. SPN maintains its offices in the Exchange Building.

Ryan Pendell is the Managing Editor of Silicon Prairie News.

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