PROVO — Ninety seconds. One presentation slide. An idea.
That’s all Dallin Anderson had when he stood in front of a room full of strangers two years ago at Ideathon, an event sponsored by BYU's College of Engineering and Technology to help budding entrepreneurs take that critical first step on the path to turning dreams into reality.
Today, Anderson is on the cusp of graduating with an MBA from BYU Marriott School and just months away from launching the product he first shared with the world at that event.
“The experience was invaluable,” Anderson said of Ideathon, hosted by Venture Factory, BYU's product development accelerator program. “Not only did I get immediate feedback, but met two people who stayed with me for this whole journey.”
Anderson and his team have also made a decision that is becoming increasingly common among Utah college graduates: They’re staying in Utah to start their business and join the state’s burgeoning advanced industries sector.
A 2015 Brookings Institute report that investigated U.S. advanced industry “hot spots” identified Provo, Salt Lake City and Ogden among the top 15 areas in the country with the highest employment in such businesses.
The report also cited Provo as one of the top five cities in the nation for percentage of advanced services employment, and it ranked Ogden among the top five cities for advanced industry manufacturing.
While the data clearly reflects a vital and growing economic sector for the state, the driving forces behind the numbers — and why the more than 70 percent of homegrown expertise is staying in Utah, according to the Department of Workforce Services — are more subtle.
Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber, said several factors come into play in explaining the success of Utah’s advanced industries sector. But simple economic theory, she said, accounts for a lot.
“One of the core components of a growing economic sector is investment capital,” Gochnour said. “Investment capital follows value, and that boils down to low input value, high output value.”
Utah has been achieving a very high rate of success investing in local talent, which in turn attracts the job creators who seek that expertise, she said.
“Our state recognized and invested in a lot of significant projects and efforts, particularly between 1995 and 2005,” Gochnour said. “And those investments are bearing fruit today.”
Among those state efforts, she said, was the commitment in 1999 to do what was needed to double the number of engineering graduates coming out of Utah schools. Investments were made, programs launched, and in 2013, that goal was achieved.
During that same time period, Utah’s economic vitality has boomed.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, the state’s gross domestic product has grown from $83.6 billion in 1999 to more than $131 billion in 2015.
Concurrent with that economic expansion, Utah has become one of the fastest growing states in the country.
Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said Utah’s nation-leading population growth is having notable impacts.
“In Utah, we’ve just passed the 3 million population mark,” Perlich said. “This growth is building presence across a lot of industries, and economic opportunity has improved dramatically compared to a generation ago.”
Population-fueled economic growth, she said, is simply creating many more job opportunities for new Utah college grads. And those new graduates — particularly those with advanced industry-friendly degrees — are having a multiplier effect on overall job growth, Perlich said.
“Our studies of economic development are reflecting that clusters of new, highly collaborative ecosystems have a self-reinforcing dynamic,” she said. “The new businesses that are growing up here are coming from, in a lot of instances, an environment where the next generation of entrepreneurs, innovators and creators is being nourished and facilitated.”
Creating that nourishing and collaborative environment is exactly the goal of Utah business incubation efforts such as the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the University of Utah and the Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at BYU.
The Rollins Center has earned a national reputation for excellence, making BYU one of only two universities in the country whose entrepreneurship programs have appeared on Princeton Review’s top 10 rankings for the past seven years.
Steven Fox, the center's managing director, said its achievements are the result of combining a compelling curriculum with robust networking opportunities, student competitions, and a mentoring program that draws heavily from alumni and highly successful entrepreneurs, many of whom are part of the state’s Silicon Slopes industries.
“We really believe our mentoring program is the secret sauce of our success,” Fox said. “Not only do these volunteers provide excellent, real-world knowledge resources and consultation, they help our students get connected with our local tech ecosystem.”
Anderson said his experience has affirmed the positive outcomes of the Rollins Center's programming approach.
“My team and I have worked with multiple mentors," he said, "and their help with understanding marketing, fundraising and the process of bringing a product to market has been invaluable. The stakes are high, and this expertise has helped us avoid mistakes that can cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.”
Those who have helped Anderson and his team along the way include entrepreneurs behind some well-known Silicon Slopes success stories, including Jeremy Andrus, CEO of Traeger Pellet Grills and former CEO of Skullcandy; Tom Karren, CEO and co-founder of Moki; and Scott Petersen, co-founder and executive chairman of Omadi.
Anderson is aiming to mirror the success of his mentors with his product, Wavio, a software/hardware tool aimed at the action sports market that allows users to communicate hands-free and via voice-recognition technology, with or without a cellphone signal, with up to eight people.
And he’s confident that Utah is the best place for his new business to call home.
“We’re going to stay in Utah for a lot of reasons,” he said. "We’ve made great connections here, other businesses are doing very well, and the state has a great base of outdoor recreationists and is also a destination for a lot of action sports enthusiasts from around the country and around the world.”
In addition to the high hopes he has for his business venture, Anderson said he also looks forward to the time when he can play the role that others have played for him.
“Utah is a great place to pursue your dreams,” he said. “Many of those who have found success here have found ways to help others pursue their dreams. And I hope, down the road, I’ll be able to do that too.”