This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was President John F. Kennedy’s idea.
In 1961, the president challenged NASA and the nation to land an astronaut on the moon before the decade was done. Russia had taken the lead in the race for space with the Sputnik launch in 1957. NASA was only three years old. The United States was in catch-up mode. The Cold War was chilling the world.
I’ve always wondered if President Kennedy imagined at the time just how much impact his “moon shot” would have for generations to come. Perhaps most importantly, it gave all Americans something to believe in — a common goal to strive toward. And then, there is the enduring impact on scientific discovery and ground-breaking commercial applications. From freeze-dried food to memory foam, from joysticks to LEDs, from Speedo swimsuits to invisible braces, thousands of space-spinout technologies improve our daily lives.
President Kennedy’s idea was brilliant. NASA and the exploration of space became the catalyst for national pride and a prolific force for federally funded research and development — a path for discovery and innovation for all the decades that have followed.
In our work with Oklahoma’s innovators and entrepreneurs, we see exciting new business ideas every week. Some of them may seem as improbable as sending a human to the moon may have seemed 50 years ago; other ideas are so compelling and intuitive that we wonder why on earth someone hasn’t thought of them before.
For all the good ideas and passionate inventors and entrepreneurs we meet, the last six years in the startup world have taught me that only a small percentage of those ideas will eventually be scalable to high-growth companies.
Whether in Oklahoma, Texas, or the hotbeds of venture capital on either coast, relatively few businesses can be national or international in scope, employ hundreds of people, or be acquisition opportunities (at a significant multiple) for existing corporations.
Indeed, when we start winnowing down the universe of ideas, there are a lot of smaller market ideas — promising technologies, specialized equipment, or processes that can successfully solve big problems for small or niche markets or targeted segments of an industry — that can be developed into really good companies, firms that could employ five, 15 or 25 people over time.
There are great resources in Oklahoma and across the country to prove ideas and validate solutions based on advanced technologies that have tremendous up-scale potential. We have learned that with support and assistance, these startups can morph into “gazelles,” and when they do, the payback is huge.
However, there is less support for great business ideas that may not be high-growth in the traditional sense but will allow someone to start a great company and make a good living for their family or even create generational wealth within the family. Oklahoma has been built by these types of businesses and families with names like Kilpatrick, Gaylord, Zarrow and Warren and, more recently, Love, Rainbolt and Kaiser.
Oklahoma is a business-friendly state. Whether it’s through our best-in-class vocational technology system or with financing and business guidance provided by Oklahoma’s banks, or some other way, we need to improve our support for “smaller” startup businesses in Oklahoma so they, too, can reduce risk, gain momentum and grow. We’ll be better for it.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.