#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Liz Pocock, CEO, Startup Tucson
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
Startup Tucson is building a centralized resource for entrepreneurship in Tucson, Arizona. The team at this nonprofit is arming business owners and aspiring startup founders with the tools, knowledge, and support systems they need to help their ideas thrive. We recently spoke with Liz Pocock, Startup Tucson’s CEO, about the work they do and how they’re harnessing the resources and expertise of their community.
Can you tell us about yourself and how you got involved with Startup Tucson?
I moved to Tucson a little over 10 years ago to go to law school at the University of Arizona. I started working in international commercial development at the National Law Center during my last year of law school and stayed there for about four years after I graduated in 2012. Our focus was reforming laws in developing countries around access to credit. My role was to go to those countries and train judges, lawyers, business associations, and business owners on how to use those laws and how to access capital.
Through that, I fell in love with the training side of things and working hands-on with business owners. I was looking to do something that had more of a local impact, and Startup Tucson was looking to bring on some new team members, so I joined the team in 2016.
Tell us about Startup Tucson and the work you do.
We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and the only organization of our kind in Tucson. Our goal is to transform our region’s economy through entrepreneurship and innovation.
First and foremost, we serve entrepreneurs to increase the quantity and quality of entrepreneurs in our ecosystem. We provide training and connect them with the resources that we offer or are available in the community. We also connect them with mentors who are handpicked to help them with what they’re working on at that time. As part of that effort, we run a program called ‘Connection Services,’ which is like case management. An entrepreneur comes in and meets with one of our staff. We create a profile on what they’re struggling with and what their goals are for their business, and then we pair them with a mentor who is usually a startup expert who can help with their specific needs.
We also run a series of educational programs from Startup 101, a two hour workshop, to clinics that dive into deeper issues they’re dealing with, to our full course catalogue. Right now, we have about 15 courses listed which are offered by experts here in Tucson on a variety of topics.
Can you walk us through some of the ways startups engage with the resources you offer?
We run a series of networking events that we call ‘Discovery Events’ that are designed to encourage startup founders and potential founders to come into the ecosystem and explore what’s going on here. We have a weekly startup coffee where we usually see between 20 and 40 people each week, and it’s a mix of regulars and newcomers. We also do startup drinks once a month where we usually see 60 to 100 participants.
People come to test the waters, to give us updates on their work, and to connect with other founders. We just finished our fifth year of a festival called TENWEST, which includes an IdeaFunding Day that is specifically for entrepreneurs and startups with a big pitch competition. About 500 people attend that specific day.
Usually a startup’s range of engagement with us depends on where they are in their growth. The tiered workshops—which offer 101, 102, and 103 levels—and labs we have in our educational programs are designed for people who are ready to take that next step. What we were finding was that we were running a lot of networking opportunities, but there wasn’t a concrete place for people to go when they were actually ready to start working on an idea. Our educational programs are designed to give them that ramp up they need. The labs have about 20 participants per month, and the clinics have had about 25 to 30 which we’ve done twice this year.
What are some policy issues you are keeping your eye on?
From an individual startup perspective, some things are very specific to a particular startup’s industry. Overall, we have the Desert Angels which is very active. The Arizona Angel Investment Tax Credit is huge for that, and we keep an eye on it to make sure people know how to take advantage of it.
We have some new VC firms that have launched in the last two years that we are keeping an eye on as well. We do find that our community lacks some of the really early stage funding, so we are watching legislation around platforms like Wefunder that allow different types of investors to invest early on for equity. We’re very supportive of our startups taking advantage of the SBIR and STTIR programs, and we think it’s especially important for a community like ours where many of our promising startups are coming out of the university and can qualify for those research grants.
For a smaller ecosystem like ours, it’s really important that federal, state, and foundation funders that support these entrepreneurial ecosystems are thinking differently about how we measure success. Our organization works with all sorts of companies that never launch or never make it to the next stage, but you need to work with all those companies so that a few can make it through the funnel and keep going, and you're ready to support those founders when they do make it to the next level. We are constantly talking to city, county, and state government about how to better measure the impact of programs that serve early stage founders. On a federal level, we hope that those conversations are happening as well about what is successful in terms of ecosystem building, and we hope that the funding would follow suit so we can continue doing the work we are doing.
What is on the horizon for Startup Tucson?
In Q1 of this coming year, we are partnering with the University of Arizona to move into a new space called Forge, which will be a two-story innovation hub for our community. We are very excited to be a part of it because I think we are missing a real hub for innovation here. Our offices will be there and our educational programs will be held there.
We will also coordinate a community hub of other organizations that are looking to serve and work with entrepreneurs. The university will run a traditional incubator upstairs. I think this transition will help us grow as a team. We are constantly taking user feedback to make sure we are serving our community as it grows, so we will be offering a few new programs next year to address the gap that we’ve seen and heard about from our entrepreneurs.