Business

Bloch Venture Hub gives entrepreneurs’ ideas room to grow

Bow tie business boosted by Bloch Venture Hub

Entrepreneur Jordan Williams operates Keefe Cravat, his Noble Neckware Co. out of the new Bloch Venture Hub at 4328 Madison Ave. The incubator is a collaboration among UMKC's Bloch School of Management, the Kauffman Foundation and the Country Club
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Entrepreneur Jordan Williams operates Keefe Cravat, his Noble Neckware Co. out of the new Bloch Venture Hub at 4328 Madison Ave. The incubator is a collaboration among UMKC's Bloch School of Management, the Kauffman Foundation and the Country Club

Collisions — of a good kind — are happening just a few feet from a busy Kansas City street. They’re collisions of zeal and ideas among a group of entrepreneurs.

There’s Quest Taylor, who started Project United Knowledge, a company well-known enough in the Kansas City startup and tech community that it goes by PukLabs. Taylor has rocketed forward to be a founding father to 15 other young enterprises already.

There’s Rebecca Dove, founder of Pennez, which provides cloud-based applications to improve literacy. Dove has graduated from several area startup programs and won prestigious grants to propel her business forward.

There’s Catina Taylor, who started Dreams KC with an eye to creating a new social venture. She has received funding to start a pilot kindergarten this year in the Southeast Community Center, eventually hoping to expand to an elementary school based on a “village” concept.

The three are among six pioneer tenants in the city’s newest entrepreneurial incubator. While building their own businesses, they’re also feeding off one another’s enthusiasm and experiences. And, at immediate hand, they have access to a range of startup resources.

Their small new offices, among others, are showcased in a former Country Club Bank building at 4328 Madison Ave. They’re working in the newest business incubator site on a growing list of such facilities in what aims to be one of the most entrepreneurial cities in America.

The Henry W. Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and its Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation — with financial support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the bank — have opened the Bloch Venture Hub.

“We’ve moved our whole incubator function here from 4747 Troost,” Andy Heise, assistant director of the Regnier Institute, said during a tour of the facility.

The hub is tied to the Regnier Institute’s E-Scholars initiative, an early-stage venture development program. New classes — a series of 14 daylong Saturday workshops — start each January and September. But E-Scholars participation isn’t a prerequisite to use the Bloch Venture Hub.

“It’s open to people from the startup community who want to launch their businesses in an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Heise said.

In addition to working in close proximity to other startups, entrepreneurs who rent below-market-rate space in the Bloch Venture Hub have access to about 160 approved mentors who assist the Regnier programs, as well as KCSourceLink and UMKC’s Entrepreneurial Legal Services Clinic.

The repurposed bank building just south of Westport Road offers three levels of space keyed to different needs along the business startup path.

The lower level, dubbed the EntreLab, provides space for up to 30 entrepreneurs who want to meet with one another, clients or advisers somewhere other than a coffee shop. Small-group seminars or programming also can take place in a large conference room.

The main, or ground-level floor, features a ring of small offices housing “launch-stage” ventures. Six enterprises already are slotted into the offices, with room for one to four more startups, depending on their space needs.

Jordan Williams occupies a small but light-filled office where he designs and sews colorful bow ties for his fledgling Keefe Cravat, Noble Neckwear Co.

Tracey Passantino has a base office for her startup, Passantino Marketing company.

Eric Phillips operates MidEast Student Link, an enterprise to help direct foreign students to U.S. colleges and universities.

And Yao Ma has R Squared Casing, a business to import sausage casings from China and export U.S. meat products.

“This is my office now, maybe for a year,” Dove said of her new company. She expects to soon outgrow the space, given that she’s already hiring developers on a contract basis to help build her “Read to Think” program.

“We’re building a cohort of E-Scholars who can help each other,” Heise said of the initial tenants, all of whom are vetted by the Regnier Institute before acceptance into the hub.

The concept, as in most co-working locations, aims to create the “collision factor” — often an unplanned exchange of ideas and energy among people.

The top floor of the building is envisioned as office space for companies that outgrow the ground floor. Beginning in April, the space will include a full-time receptionist to assist the businesses with basic administrative services.

Taylor, the PukLabs founder, is on tap to move three of his startups into the top floor. Broadly, PukLabs focuses on providing minority-owned businesses with tech solutions, helping them build software and solve their business problems.

“Basically, we’re providing Wi-Fi and locks on the doors,” Heise said of the venture lab space. “We thought we’d need file cabinets, printers and phone service, but no one so far wants any of that. Everything is electronic. So what we offer beyond space and furniture is access to all of the institute’s startup resources plus flexibility. No one’s going to get locked into a long lease.”

University of Missouri System President Mun Choi and UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton were among guests who got a first look at the facility at Thursday’s ribbon-cutting. They were joined by Mary O’Connor, a Country Club Bank executive who represented the Thompson ownership family.

O’Connor hailed the “joint vision for entrepreneurship in the Kansas City community.” In addition to leasing the building at cost to the venture hub, the bank donated many of the furnishings. Another Country Club fingerprint is found on a conference room divider, decorated with a favorite saying of former bank chairman Byron Thompson: “Plan your work. Work your plan.”

Another wall fittingly holds a quotation from Ewing Kauffman, since a Kauffman Foundation grant financed the EntreLab floor.

Multiple speakers at the grand opening echoed a point made by Matt Condon, a leader of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Big 5 initiative to build the area’s entrepreneurial economy. Condon labeled the Bloch Venture Hub a “bridge between academia and the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

David Donnelly, dean of the Bloch School, zeroed in on the “venture” part of the incubator’s name: “We say ‘venture’ instead of ‘business’ a lot because we do a lot with management in the nonprofit sector,” he said. “That’s what sets us apart from other business schools. Our program is designed to help people take good ideas and develop them” in both the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds.

People who want to investigate the Bloch Venture Hub for space or assistance should send email to entrepreneurship@umkc.edu or call 816-235-6200.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford

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