The Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (NACET) is launching a new initiative that is redefining the Flagstaff-based organization, moving it from an entity focused on incubating new businesses to a recruiter of next-generation entrepreneurs pursuing imaginative, ambitious and even radical new commercial ideas.
Called “Moonshot,” the program is busy screening entrepreneurs who have the intention of profoundly changing lives, as opposed to tweaking existing products, services or systems.
“Although we will continue to house new businesses at the incubator and help others achieve scale through our accelerator, our main program of work is now ‘Moonshot at NACET’ and we are on the lookout for the big dreamers out there who need help bringing their ideas to fruition,” said NACET President and CEO Scott Hathcock.
As a concept, Moonshot entered our collective consciousness in 1961, when John F. Kennedy challenged U.S. citizens to envision a world in which an American astronaut could board a spaceship, rocket hundreds of thousands of miles into the void, leave his boot prints on the moon and return safely home. No one knew how to do it, everything was theoretical and lives were literally on the line – but the president pledged the full force of America’s talent and treasure to achieve the goal by decade’s end.
“Moonshots existed even before we dreamed of breaking the bonds of Earth,” said Hathcock. “Every explorer who has ever sailed an uncharted sea or probed the inner workings of the atom was a ‘moonshot.’ They are even more prevalent today with the near constant exponential growth of technology. It means more people are looking at problems and opportunities – no matter how impossible seeming – and asking, ‘Why not?’”
The prospects are generating excitement from Flagstaff City Hall to venture capitalists.
“We are excited to meet the startups emerging from Moonshot’s program,” said Mario Martinez II, of MRTNZ Ventures and StartupAZ. “Today’s market needs more high-performing teams working on meaningful problems and committed to delivering significant results. That’s exactly what Moonshot will be helping them do.”
Moonshot at NACET has been beta testing its onboarding and screening process over the past three months, soliciting pitches from ambitious, disruptive innovators whose plans hold commercial possibilities. Upon acceptance, these entrepreneurs and their ideas are put through a rigorous, four-track process that will develop a minimum viable product or investment-ready concept by the program’s end. Additionally, Moonshot offers seminars to teach innovators how to sell their ideas to investors; a basic business course for would-be entrepreneurs; and panel discussions to inspire future moonshots and share best practices among those already in business.
A July 2017 report from Dell estimates that 85 percent of the jobs that will be available in 2030 have not yet been invented. However, Hathcock said, many of the visionaries who will create tomorrow’s positions need some down-to-earth training today before they can bring their ideas to the marketplace.
Continuing with the space theme, Moonshot refers to its main program as “Mission One,” a four-part approach that takes an idea and builds around it the infrastructure needed to transform it into a viable business, from validation to market research to funding. Clients must master the elements of each track before moving to the next stage. Moonshot also has a more abbreviated, intensive version of the program that would bring a product to market within six months.
Since its inception, NACET has expanded and evolved multiple times. Originally begun as a business incubator leveraging support from the city, county, Northern Arizona University, investors and the business community, it has grown to include an accelerator in Flagstaff and programs in Maricopa County. Additionally, the Moonshot team is working with economic development departments in communities outside of Arizona (most recently in Nevada and Washington) as they look to adopt the Moonshot model.
But having Moonshot based in Flagstaff makes historical sense, said Hathcock, as the area has been a hub for innovators almost since its founding.
A short list of Flagstaff-based moonshots includes:
- Godfrey & Stanley Sykes, adventurers from England who immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century, settled in Flagstaff in 1886 as ranchers. But when the livestock market became depressed, they literally switched gears, opening Flagstaff’s first bicycle repair shop on Aspen Ave., just east of the Monte Vista Hotel. Advertising as the “Makers and Menders of Anything,” the brothers’ repair shop became something of a scientific salon, attracting like-minded inventors and innovators. During World War I, Godfrey was part of the scientific team that developed the gas mask used by the British in that war.
- The Sykes were at one time employed by Percival Lowell, possibly the most famous of Flagstaff’s Moonshots, whose eponymous observatory overlooks Flagstaff from Mars Hill. While many of his theories were ultimately disproven – such as speculation that there were canals on Mars – Lowell’s legacy still looms large. The observatory has been home to many discoveries, including the first detection of the expanding nature of the universe, the discovery of Pluto and moon mapping for the Apollo program.
- The Gore and Giovale families are responsible for the city’s largest private employer, W.L. Gore & Associates, world famous for its innovative medical devices, as well as Kahtoola, a designer and manufacturer of hiking crampons and other outdoor products.
- Dr. Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University directs the Pathogen Genomics Division at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen). He was brought to the public’s attention in 2001 for his work helping the United States military and intelligence community investigate domestic terrorism in the form of letters that were mailed containing anthrax. Keim also heads the Pathogen & Microbiome Institute, a joint research institute between Northern Arizona University and TGen North. Among the work of this partnership he is pursuing diagnostic tools to detect diseases such as tuberculosis and Lyme Disease.
- Loretta Mayer’s moonshot was an innovative method of battling rodent infestation without the use of deadly poisons. Her company, SenesTech, developed an innovative technology for managing animal pest populations through fertility control called ContraPest, a product that is being tested in New York City and Chicago.
- Daniel J. Kasprzyk is a serial entrepreneur with more than 25 years of medical device experience and numerous patents to his credit. He has managed or developed products at several companies, including W.L. Gore & Associates, and co-founded multiple successful medical startups, among them Machine Solutions and Symple Surgical. His latest moonshot is Poba Medical, an original equipment manufacturing company perfecting the process technology to provide high-quality, rapid turn thermoplastic balloons that open vessels inside the human body to insert stents. The company is part of the 2017 Flinn Foundation Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program.
“With Moonshot, we are just continuing Flagstaff’s rich tradition of innovators and creators who are not stymied by the idea of facing challenging problems,” said Hathcock. “Our program encourages that big thinking, and then helps them build workable businesses around their ideas.” FBN
By Cindy May, FBN