Jon Atkinson, CEO of The Idea Village is the host of this year’s New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW), an event produced annually by The Idea Village. In this interview with TechBullion, Jon will be discussing the expectations of this year’s organizers and the event’s big themes: Opportunity for Black entrepreneurs and opportunities under the umbrella headings of “Clean Tech” and “Culture Tech.” Also, why New Orleans is a great place to start your business.
Please tell us about yourself
My name is Jon Atkinson and I am the CEO of The Idea Village, a non-profit startup accelerator located in New Orleans, LA. The Idea Village helps grow the most promising local start-ups by connecting entrepreneurs with the resources they need to scale. In 2021, Idea Village alumni achieved exits in excess of $1.7 Billion dollars.
I came to The Idea Village in 2018 from Loyola University New Orleans, where I helped found the Loyola Center for Entrepreneurship and Community Development. Prior to The Idea Village, I also helped build one of the region’s first angel funds in Lagniappe Angels.
What is Idea Village and what unique services do you provide?
The Idea Village is a nonprofit organization created to harness the power of innovation and specialized networks in support of high-growth entrepreneurship in New Orleans and the surrounding region. We do so by mobilizing a village of people who are relentlessly resourceful and committed to helping entrepreneurs build industry-leading companies. Over the last 20 years, The Idea Village has served over 286 companies through various accelerator programs. We’ve mobilized almost 100,000 volunteer consulting hours for start-ups in our programs, and generated $439M in capital investment that helped create over 3,500 active jobs. As a result, New Orleans has been named one of the fastest growing tech clusters in the United States and a leading place for women and minorities in tech.
How does your accelerator program at Idea Village work, what are the benefits, who is qualified for it and how can business owners get in?
As a nonprofit accelerator, we are in a unique position to put start-up founders first. We strive to develop a startup community with a true ‘give first’ culture and a strong set of shared values. We currently run an idea stage accelerator called IDEAinstitute and a later stage accelerator program, called VILLAGEx. At the early stage we focus on helping companies recognize scalable businesses, hone their business model, conduct disciplined customer discovery work, understand their economics and build a basic pitch. At the later stage, we take companies with some of the elements of a fundable business: product, team, market and traction, and surround them with strategic mentorship, peer connections and accountability to their own milestones that helps them take the next step. Our goal is to see hundreds of local startups able to raise at least $1M in outside capital entering a vibrant local startup community each year.
Tell us more about the Greater New Orleans, Inc. and how you work together?
GNO, Inc. is the regional economic development nonprofit organization serving the 10-parish region of Southeast Louisiana. The organization works to attract and retain larger companies and create the business environment in which tech and local startups can thrive. GNO, Inc. works together with the business community; local, state, and federal governments; and other regional stakeholders to coordinate, consolidate, and catalyze action on key issues and opportunities that maximize job and wealth creation and retention, are relevant to the region as a whole, and create systematic impact. The Idea Village works to support the development of local, often homegrown startups and to connect startups to each other in ways that create a vibrant startup community. Together we represent a holistic strategy for economic growth.
This year’s New Orleans Entrepreneur Week included a number of important moments, including a record $750,000 in prizes for the IDEApitch competition. Can you tell us more about winner Jamm Around and runners up Iconic Moments and Cluey Consumer?
New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, or “NOEW,” is always inspiring, but this year’s events were taken to a new level when former IDEApitch participants pledged $750,000 to this year’s contestants. Previously, the award for the winner of IDEApitch was $50,000. That changed a few weeks ago when the founders of Lucid and Levelset, along with several of other key, early investors, came together to make IDEApitch the largest startup pitch competition in the country with a $400,000 top investment prize and $175,000 for each of the other two companies. $400,000 was won by Jamm Around, a Black-led company working to revolutionize how musicians connect and collaborate. Runner up Cluey Consumer is an online tool founded and run by women that helps consumers understand the social impact of their favorite brands and helps them make meaningful purchasing decisions. The other runner-up, Iconic Moments, is an NFT marketplace for museums and cultural institutions that is utilizing the blockchain to help museums and other cultural institutions better monetize assets. Iconic Moments recently won a United Nations Award for its efforts to help museums generate income outside of foot traffic, which was greatly reduced during the pandemic.
In addition to Scott Wolfe of Levelset and Patrick Comer o f Lucid, the other investors who came together to fund the $750,000.00 prize include: Gayle Benson, Cathy and Walter Isaacson, Amith Nagarajan, Michael Gollner and Faith Savage, and Dr. John Ellstrot.
New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell, announced The Mayor’s Challenge, a competition for startups to have the opportunity to win a $100K prize by tapping into the Web3 movement at NOEW. Can you tell us more about the city’s commitment to Web3?
New Orleans is a city known for culture, creativity, and innovation. With the Mayor’s Challenge, Mayor Cantrell is putting a stake in the ground that New Orleans will be a top destination for entrepreneurs in the new Web3 economy. The two other U.S. cities most committed to Web3 economies, so far, are New York and Miami. We believe New Orleans’ inherent history, culture and community-building instincts will make us competitive in this space. The power and long-term value of Web3 lies in its ability to create new relationships between creators of culture and consumers of culture – something New Orleans has been good at for a very long time.
Could you give us more insight into the opportunity for Black entrepreneurs and opportunities in “Cleantech” and “Culturetech.”, why the focus on these industries and Black entrepreneurs?
NOEW’s focus on Diversity, especially in relation to Culture Tech opportunities, is a natural fit in a city that is 60% Black. We believe that our city’s diversity is a source of strength and one of the reasons our culture is adored and embraced across the globe. It’s only natural that, when culture and tech collide, New Orleanians are ready and waiting.
How big are the “Clean Tech” and “Culture Tech” markets, what is the level of demand for these opportunities and trends should we expect this 2022 and beyond?
Cleantech is the combination of better, faster, cheaper, methods of making communities more resilient along with new technology that can enable the faster adoption of solutions to climate change. If addressing climate change is going to be the defining challenge of the next decade – and many think it is – than we are going to need a growing stream of new technologies to help us get there.
From media, to film, to music, to gaming, the pace of change in cultural industries has been rapid and is only going to accelerate as new technologies enabled by Web3 become more mainstream. Two of the three participants in IDEApitch, Jamm Around and Iconic Moments have Web3 enabled components and represent a new generation of culturetech companies that are allowing creators and cultural icons tap into new and growing global markets.
Why is New Orleans a great place for business and tech startups?
New Orleans culture and creativity are second to none. This is a place with a strong sense of shared values where people take pride in building something that is greater than themselves. It is also a place with a fierce sense of self and defiance in being a little different.
What is next on your roadmap? Any available opportunities for investors and partnerships at Idea Village?
The Idea Village would like to top the $750k for IDEApitch next year and build the model piloted around IDEApitch into a broader capital and organizational sustainability strategy. We have proven the model works, now the goal becomes sustaining it for future generations.
Do you have any other information to share with our readers today?
We are excited to celebrate the completion of our VILLAGEx ’22 cohort at Demo Day in New Orleans on Wednesday May 4th. Come join us to celebrate the next generation in one of America’s fastest growing tech hubs. Subscribe to the newsletter at www.ideavillage.org for more details.
Also, mark your calendar for NOEW next March and come in person to hear the next great start-ups participate in IDEApitch and for the chance to win the largest pitch contest in the country. And if you are a start-up founder and are considering relocating, come to New Orleans and be part of our thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem and supportive start-up community.