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‘Homegrown unicorn’ helped this startup hub beat the bracket (and its top seed Kansas competition)

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Startland News’ Startup Road Trip series explores innovative and uncommon ideas finding success in rural America and Midwestern startup hubs outside the Kansas City metro. This series is possible thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which leads a collaborative, nationwide effort to identify and remove large and small barriers to new business creation.

A championship party for the Columbia tech and startup community heralded an unprecedented upset — celebrating the Missouri startup hub’s win in M25’s Midwest Madness competition on Twitter.

Chicago-based venture capital firm M25 hosts its annual Midwest Madness tournament on the social media platform each spring as part of its Midwest Startups initiative. Members of the public vote on which startup cities in the Midwest should advance to the next round. Columbia, an 8-seed, came out on top after four weeks of voting and ultimately took down the 1-seed Wichita in the finals with 60 percent of the votes. 

Kansas City was a 4-seed and fell to Champaign, Illinois, in the round of 32.

M25 leaders credited much of Columbia’s momentum to EquipmentShare, one of the fastest-growing equipment rental and technology companies in the nation, and its efforts to boos the local ecosystem through Scale — a hybrid accelerator fund and venture studio — and the relaunched Columbia Startup Weekend multi-day entrepreneurial competition.

“Though we’ve only been running the Midwest Madness tournament for two years, we’ve seen an emerging trend that smaller cities with well-connected ecosystems can engage their network in a really powerful way,” said Katie Birge, head of platform at M25. “Add in the power of a homegrown unicorn, and a city like Columbia can easily rise to the top. The city defeated other larger metros round over round in part because of how quickly a close-knit startup community can mobilize.”

Click here to learn more about M25, which boasts a portfolio that includes Kansas City-founded companies like backstitch, Super Dispatch and Zohr.

The team from Scale led the charge to garner thousands of votes over the course of the Midwest Madness competition. The championship party June 23 in Columbia coincided with the close of Scale’s second cohort and the launch of the third cohort of technology startup investments. 

Scale invests first checks in outlier founders and accelerates access to capital, resources, talent and leading advisors as a silent co-founder for 12 weeks on a cohort basis. To date, the team has invested in 14 startups across six markets.

“Already in our first year, we’ve put Columbia on hundreds of founders and venture capitalists’ radars from coast to coast,” said Brett Calhoun, director of Scale. “This win is a chance to continue building upon the Silicon Prairie — an area rich with ideas and builders of next generation companies.”

Jabbok Schlacks and Willy Schlacks, EquipmentShare

Jabbok Schlacks and Willy Schlacks, EquipmentShare

Founded by local entrepreneurs Willy and Jabbok Schlacks, co-founders of EquipmentShare, and Jai Malik, general partner and founder of Countdown Capital, Scale follows EquipmentShare’s rapid growth after itself emerging from the 2014 Columbia Startup Weekend event.

Today, EquipmentShare has nearly 3,500 employees and more than 115 locations nationwide.

Click here to read more about how Forbes named EquipmentShare to its list of best startup employers for the third straight year.

“Columbia is our home and has been a phenomenal and supportive city to start and grow our businesses,” said Jabbok Schlacks, CEO of EquipmentShare. “We are excited for the future of startups in Columbia and we look forward to helping support other innovators and entrepreneurs in the Midwest.”  

Columbia has peers in the Midwest, acknowledged Victor Gutwein, managing partner at M25, but its Midwest Madness win is rooted in its specific hometown advantages.

“While cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis get a lot of credit for having dense startup communities, college towns like Columbia, Wichita, and Bloomington (Indiana) have proven to be robust in their resources,” Gutwein said. “In the case of Columbia, the presence of Scale accelerator and EquipmentShare, a great Midwest success story, really contributed to this victory.”

This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.

For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect at www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn





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