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Wyoming Technology Business Center

Hits to coal prompt leaders to look elsewhere for development

in Energy/Economic development/News
As revenue from coal continues to decline, many people around the state are looking at new ways to use the state’s rich resource and think outside of the coal box for future portfolio diversification.
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By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

As revenue from coal continues to decline, many people around the state are looking at new ways to use the state’s rich resource and think outside of the coal box for future portfolio diversification.

Many people watching renewable energy expect it to eliminate the need for coal, but they are often not thinking out of the box, according one state representative.

State Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, said people are often neglecting coal’s future possibilities. Greear is co-chair of the Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee. He said the state has many developments it is exploring that still involve coal.

Greear said the University of Wyoming is continuing research on carbon capture sequestration and the utilization of the C02 for enhanced oil recovery. He visited the Petra Nova carbon capture and sequestration facility in Houston and believes Wyoming facilities would be great candidates for the same technology.

The Petra Nova facility is currently the only existing American coal-fired power plant using the carbon recapture technology, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The facility captures the C02 from the plant, liquifies it, and then injects it into oil fields. 

The process causes oil to swell, increasing the oil recovery volume. The process has reduced C02 total emissions at the Petra Nova facility by 33 percent.

Rob Godby, director for the UW’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, said the state is actively helping develop new products for coal to maintain tax revenues. He said once promising technologies become developed, companies are more willing to adopt them. 

He pointed as an example to pipelines in Wyoming delivering C02 from natural sources to enhanced oil recovery operations. If C02 captured from coal-fired plants could be sold, the revenue could offset the overall cost of coal-generated electricity and make it more competitive with natural gas. 

Not a coal problem

However, if the state continues to focus only on coal as a large revenue source, leaders may be missing other great possibilities, according to one person working directly with growing businesses.

Fred Schmechel, assistant director of the Wyoming Technology Business Center, works at the UW in a program that helps businesses grow with a goal of bringing more revenue to the state and employing residents. So when state revenues decline, he sees the results directly in his workplace. Yet, he cautions everyone who considers this a “coal problem.”  

“Wyoming doesn’t have a coal problem,” Schmechel said. “Wyoming has a revenue problem. When we reframe it like that and figure out how we pay for our services, that opens up much broader funnel of possibilities.”

 Schmechel sees diversification of the economy and expansion of revenue streams as vital to the future growth of the state.

“If we keep trying to sell to the same 10 people, none of us are going to get rich, but if we broaden our scope and sell beyond our borders, bring that cash here, that’s where we increase our lot,” Schmechel said.

Schmechel said if wages increase, people can pay more for services and make the state less dependent on coal revenue. He also suggested that getting businesses to use services based in the Cowboy State can help expand revenue streams. 

“If we continue to focus on developing companies that solve problems outside of Wyoming and bring more revenue in, that ultimately brings more cash on hand to play with,” he said.

Greear also thinks the state needs to explore alternatives to coal, but bringing new business to Wyoming is easier said than done.

Severance taxes or bust

“We are going to still be mineral reliant in this state so long as we hold onto our current tax policy,” Greear said. 

He added he does not see the tax policy changing, but that he believes a policy change is needed. 

Change, however, would alter the dynamic and culture of the state. That places Greear at odds with some of his constituents who simply aren’t ready for change. As an elected official, Greear said he must listen to them.   

“Most people understand the changes with society,” Greear said. 

He added it is easier to push those concepts in towns like Laramie and Cheyenne because of their proximity to Fort Collins and Denver, but such changes might not fly in a town like Worland. 

Towns are also dependent on larger populations to attract and sustain more tech and business, leaving smaller towns out of the mix. It also makes it unrealistic to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to the issue, he said.

Holding out for the youth

Schmechel also said he wants to keep young people in the state and create jobs for them so they can to “plant their roots” for future generations.

Schmechel sees economic diversification and development as a way to expand a town’s culture, not diminish it.

“There are lots of people who look at anything that we are doing like this and assume we are losing our culture of Wyoming, and I think those people are mistaken,” Schmechel said.

“We don’t have to be Boulder or San Francisco. We are never going to be those communities. We have found in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan, where we have our three incubators for the WTBC, that each of those communities bring on their own feel.” 

As those communities grow and develop, their core values are moved forward, growing and strengthening their existing culture.

Godby also sees the need for diversification as necessity to independence.

“Do we need to diversify more, yeah,” Godby said. “The problem is when you rely on energy, you are going to be bound by energy cycles that are out of your control and typically driven by things outside of your state.”

The Blackjewel effect

Rick Mansheim, manager of state Workforce Centers in Gillette and Newcastle, has watched the Blackjewel layoffs from the front row. He has a lot of conversations with the workers and businesses around the state. He also believes Wyoming needs more jobs outside of energy.

“The key is diversification,” Mansheim said. “We need to broaden our scope.” 

He believes internships and early career path exposure is key to getting young workers involved in that effort.

Greear believes economic development around the state is productive, but often suffers from growing pains.

“There are some really good economic development organizations within communities,” Greear said. “But it’s kind of the hand your dealt. Cheyenne is going get a lot more looks at things you are not going to get in Worland.”

 He added that state leaders sort of had tunnel vision attracting specific types of businesses that were not fits for every community. 

“What is going to work in Cheyenne is not going to work in the Big Horn Basin,” Greear said. 

ENDOW’s impact across industries

But he believes creative ideas are still important. He cited the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming — ENDOW — initiative as helping leaders think outside of the box. 

ENDOW was created in 2016 to diversify and expand the state economy.  Greear said ENDOW challenged people to think outside of the box and pursue opportunities such as value-added agriculture, which is changing a product to enhance its value through niche marketing, uniqueness or improving a supply chain.

Schmechel, whose organization assists many businesses with incubator programs and creative solutions, sees both existing and new economic sectors as exciting opportunities for business growth.

He added Wyoming’s vast spaces would be great for autonomous vehicles and drones. In addition, he suggested exploring UW’s cache of intellectual property for application in industries such as agriculture and making sure it is being used correctly.

He said the state’s agriculture community is doing great things and should be expanded upon.

National Science Foundation funds first Wind River Start-up Challenge

in News/Business
National Science Foundation funds first Wind River Start-up Challenge
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A recently announced entrepreneurship challenge focused on engaging future business startups in the Wind River Indian Reservation could help Native Americans return to their entrepreneurial roots, a University of Wyoming spokesperson said.

“We don’t see that much entrepreneurship or very many businesses started by community members on the reservation,” said James Trosper, executive director for University of Wyoming High Plains American Indian Research Institute. “But we used to be entrepreneurs. Both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho were very rich tribes. A lot of historians referred to the Arapaho as the ‘Phoenicians of the Plains.’”

Hosted by the UW’s business incubator, the Wyoming Technology Business Center, the Wind River Start-Up Challenge is the center’s fourth entrepreneur initiative statewide and the first to be tried outside the center’s facilities, said WTBC-Laramie Director Dave Bohling.

“No one has ever done this before with the National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) funds,” Bohling said. “So, we’re an experiment.”

When Trosper heard about the EPSCoR grant’s need for diverse recipients, he said he pitched the idea for a startup challenge on the reservation.

“The WTBC wanted to have entrepreneurship initiatives statewide,” Trosper explained. “But they didn’t have anything specifically for the reservation.”

The EPSCoR program provided the startup challenge with $50,000, which he said could be awarded to Native American entrepreneurs with successful business pitches during the next two years.

With the funding secured, WTBC decided to model the challenge after the Fisher Innovation Launchpad, a long-running startup initiative based out of UW in Laramie.

WTBC-Laramie Assistant Director Fred Schmechel said Fisher has proven the model’s efficacy.

“The university has had great success with our startup challenges,” Schmechel said. “We’re hoping this is a model that can be applied to an area that’s far less served than the rest of the state.”

Culture of dependency

Growing up on the reservation, Trosper said entrepreneurs were absent from the community.

“In the back of my mind, I always wondered ‘Why aren’t my people starting businesses,’” he said. “I was lucky, though. My mother earned a degree in optics, returned to the reservation and started a business called Wind River Optical. So, I got to watch firsthand the success entrepreneurship could provide.”

Trosper’s mother was a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe and the great granddaughter of Chief Washakie. His father was Northern Arapaho and the great grandson of Chief Friday. Thus, Trosper said he has strong ties to both tribes’ past, and he would like to see them return to their entrepreneurial roots.

“The government, when they put us on the reservation, they said, ‘You can’t leave this geographical area,’ which ended our trade routes and fur-trade economy,” he explained. “Instead, they said they would provide us blankets, rations and food. And that created a culture of dependency.”

That culture remains strong today, he said, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs reported in 2005 the Wind River Reservation unemployment rate was more than 70 percent.

“We’re not setting out to change unemployment right away,” Trosper said. “But as we start to change the culture of dependency, things are going to start to change in the community. I think entrepreneurship will have positive effect on the community as a whole.”

Pitches

While the challenge won’t officially kick off until fall, Bohling said WTBC staff will be visiting the reservation throughout the summer to work with potential participants.

“The first step is pitching an idea: who are you, what problem are you trying to solve, what’s your solution and who are your potential customers,” he said. “We’re only asking for a paragraph or two, because most proposals don’t survive as submitted.”

Prior to submitting pitches, Trosper said WTBC staff will mentor participants, refining their ideas and helping them get an idea about how much funding they might need to get started. 

“We want to provide some training right up front before the competition even starts,” he explained. “And during the competition, they will receive mentorship so they can really understand what the UW has to offer to them.”

Despite the use of terms like winner and competition, Bohling said participants are not competing against each other for funding, but rather themselves. 

“This is not a contest — the challenge part is internal,” he explained. “There will be a lot work on their part to get these pitches together and get their ideas off the ground. We provide some money, but we’re investing in sweat equity.”

Once pitch day arrives, a panel of judges will decide which ideas are viable in their current form and in the current market. If an idea isn’t funded, Schmechel said participants are encouraged to continue working with the WTBC and resubmit amended pitches in following years.

No matter the challenge’s number of participants or funded pitches, Trosper said he believes the initiative could be a catalyst for change on the reservation.

“Entrepreneurship isn’t something we’re born with, it’s something that has to be taught,” he said. “Getting people familiar with that, it will take time. But, I think the startup challenge is a way to really get our community to start thinking about what they could do on the business level.”

The partnership between HPAIRI and WTBC was announced at the WY-Wind River: Economic Development & Entrepreneurship Symposium. Find our coverage of that event here.

Casper to host ‘Global Game Jam’ event

in News/Technology
Man playing computer games in a gaming forum, ALT=Global Gaming jam
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By Brady Brinton

Wyoming game designers will come together in Casper this weekend to collaborate on new video game creations as part of a national “Global Game Jam.”

During the event, to begin Friday evening at the Wyoming Technology Business Center, programmers and designers of all skill levels will collaborate to create playable video games.

What exactly is a Game Jam? A Game Jam is a two-day session where people collaborate together to create playable video games. Attendees will form groups to program the code, design the art and graphics, fashion a musical score, create sound effects and architect the gameplay. The objective is two part; create a functional and emersible game, and to create synergy and provide experience in the game design field.

At the same time participants are working in Casper, others will be working at hundreds of locations around the world.

According to organizers, the event encourages people with all kinds of backgrounds to participate and contribute to the global spread of game development and creativity.

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