DAN HOFFMAN, chief executive officer with Invest Nebraska, discusses the history of the nonprofit organization, which was created under Gov. Mike Johanns, who served from 1999 to 2005.
Entrepreneurs are usually wired differently, in part because they are risk takers. Yet they sometimes need a boost. That’s where Invest Nebraska can make a difference. The statewide nonprofit venture development organization seeks to help entrepreneurs and invest in technology that generates returns.
Dan Hoffman, CEO of Invest Nebraska, was among the featured speakers Wednesday at the Lifelong Learning Center on the Northeast Community College campus as part of an update on the Northeast Nebraska Growing Together initiative. Since it began in 2002, Invest Nebraska has contributed more than $30 million to more than 100 start-up businesses in Nebraska. That ranges from a robotics company that will have a product on the space station next year to ear tags in cattle, Hoffman said. That $30 million in capital has brought another $250 million in outside capital to be invested in Nebraska. Along with seed capital, Invest Nebraska has helped entrepreneurs and created entrepreneurial ecosystems in Nebraska, Hoffman said. U.S. Rep. Mike Flood approached the Invest Nebraska board in 2018, talking about the Aksarben Foundation and Growing Together for the Northeast Nebraska region, Hoffman said.
The conversation included talking about all the “right things,” Hoffman said. “Density, getting more people downtown, young people, getting students from Wayne State College, recreation and arts — all those things that nobody else in rural areas in Nebraska was doing,” Hoffman said. Hoffman said Invest Nebraska wanted to be a part of the effort because most of its investments are in Omaha and Lincoln.
“There weren’t a lot of Technology start-ups coming out of rural areas,” he said. “We knew what we had to do was build that infrastructure or ecosystem.” Economic development is no longer just focused on tax incentives and ribbon cuttings where a community celebrates the creation of 30 to 40 new jobs. Instead, it is more focused on technology-based economic development or innovation Economic development, Hoffman said. The three main components in Norfolk are: in Developing incubation and co-working tech space in downtown Norfolk.
In Organizing entrepreneurial events — technology meetups. n Creating an inventory of tech workers in Norfolk and Northeast Nebraska and creating a density of tech workers in downtown Norfolk. One of the concepts that was mentioned to support entrepreneurs was “1 Million Cups,” which is a free, weekly national program designed to educate, engage and connect entrepreneurs. It was developed by he Kauffman Foundation, with the name coming from the notion that entrepreneurs develop ideas and solutions over coffee. Hoffman said entrepreneurs would talk to one another, with the community trying to lift them up. He encouraged anyone who has not yet visited Intersect in downtown Norfolk to do so.
The shop near the Daily News has incubation and coworking tech space. Another part of the infrastructure is the Northeast Fab Lab, which will help develop robotics and skilled labor. Hoffman said one of the great benefits is that it is reaching out to a population that doesn’t necessarily always look at robotics as a potential job. Invest Nebraska applied in October 2021 as one of 529 applicants for a large grant. That December, Hoffman said he was notified that Invest Nebraska was one of 60 finalists across the country. There were many partners, including Nebraska Public Power District noticing in a study that the state had the fourth highest middle school and high school per capita participating in robotics competitions at the national and international level.
“What we have is this talent pool of builders. They’re not football players. They’re not sports people. They are really focused on building. And they were competing against peers in other states and other countries,” Hoffman said. “We knew we had this raw talent.” Then last September, Invest Nebraska learned it was one of 25 finalists that received $25 million. “We were one of the few n the Midwest chosen, based on the partnerships that we’ve developed,” he said. Northeast’s Fab Lab component of the grant included the grant and matching funds that will total early $5 million. The robotics and outreach component will be $1.7 million, including the grant and matching funds. The site of the Fab Lab will be in downtown Norfolk.