NM’s startup ecosystem gains momentum

By Kevin Robinson-Avila / Journal Staff Writer

Monday, October 29th, 2018 at 12:02am

New Mexico’s startup economy is on fire.

Dozens of new, homegrown businesses are emerging in Albuquerque and other hot spots across the state. Existing startups are growing, many infused with fresh capital from local and out-of-state investors. And some companies are hitting the fast track with expansions that could, over time, turn them into powerhouses in key, high-tech industries.

The latest breakout is 3D Glass Solutions, which announced last week that it’s moving into a new, 16,000-square-foot facility in Albuquerque’s north I-25 industrial corridor to begin mass manufacturing of ceramic glass semiconductor chips for high-speed mobile communications and other next-generation products in the automotive, defense and aerospace industries. The company will invest $23 million in the new facility, growing its local workforce from 16 to 150 over the next five years.

That’s major success for a local startup that built its business from scratch over the past decade. But it’s one of many that are now emerging as homegrown success stories, such as point-of-sale software company Lavu Inc., data analytic firms Descartes Labs and RS21, cybersecurity firm RiskSense, and the optics sensor and telecommunication companies Skorpios and Trilumina, to a name a few.

Employees work at RiskSense, a cybersecurity firm in Albuquerque. RiskSense is among a number of companies emerging as homegrown success stories. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Some of them also announced significant expansions this year, including Lavu and RS21, both of which are growing their workforces and upgrading their facilities in Downtown Albuquerque.

That, combined with a steady launch of new, promising startups and the recruitment of more big fish like Netflix to the local market, is turning 2018 into a banner year for New Mexico’s business and economic development.

“We’re hitting the sweet spot, and it’s having a real impact on New Mexico,” state Economic Development Secretary Matt Geisel said at last week’s event to announce the 3D Glass expansion. “We’re growing and diversifying the economy.”

Many factors are contributing to the state’s startup momentum, including government assistance through Local Economic Development Act funding and the Job Training Incentive Program, along with more public and private venture investment boosted by the State Investment Council’s new Catalyst Fund. Other programs are also contributing, such as state “innovation voucher” grants for startups and more funding opportunities through the state-backed Technology Research Collaborative.

But it’s the bustling network of public, nonprofit and private support programs that’s emerged in the last few years that’s providing the backbone for the state’s emerging innovation economy. Hundreds of individuals, organizations, and businesses have come together through Albuquerque’s City Alive initiative, and through the Innovate ABQ high-tech zone Downtown, to build a collaborative approach to economic development.

Innovate ABQ, in particular, has united a range of people and organizations – including the state’s research universities and national labs – in a mesh of collaboration. That’s providing a broad foundation of support for entrepreneurial activities at all levels while generating creative “collisions” among entrepreneurs, inventors and investors, said Debra Inman, Albuquerque Economic Development’s senior vice president for business development.

“Real collisions have occurred through all these efforts,” Inman said. “It’s created an environment that’s very conducive for entrepreneurs and technology companies to advance. It’s a variety of things put in place over many years that’s now really coming together.”

A new investigative report by research firm Startup Genome that looked at six U.S. cities working to build their innovation ecosystems said Albuquerque excels at “local connectedness.” That’s one of a half-dozen factors considered critical to success.

“The excitement (in Albuquerque) around startups is palpable, particularly as regards the creative sectors and inclusion of many groups,” said the report, published Oct. 23.

The collaborative environment is also giving rise to new industry-building, or “cluster” initiatives in the biotechnology, aerospace and information technology sectors. New Space NM launched this year to help local space-related companies grow while attracting more out-of-state firms to New Mexico. And the new DART initiative is working to unite software companies statewide to jointly attract more out-of-state contracts for local firms.

All the local buzz has a “multiplier effect” that’s boosting local and state efforts to recruit more businesses to New Mexico, said Annemarie Henton, AED vice president for business development and marketing.

“People start to flock to cities when they see all the technology jobs and growth,” Henton said. “It changes how people behave, whether they’re willing to spend money and take risks. We have great momentum here now.”

Indeed, New Mexico’s startup fever is attracting more veteran talent to Albuquerque, such as former salesforce.com executive Mark Chavez, a native New Mexican who returned this year to launch Lens, a startup with online privacy technology.

“There’s a very healthy ecosystem here that’s producing a lot of opportunities,” Chavez said. “High-tech places like Boulder (Colo.) or Austin had to get their start somewhere, and I think we’re now reaching that level in Albuquerque.”

Andrea M. Garcia