By Adriana Lopez, Contributor
New Orleans is one of the most diverse and eccentric cities in the country. It Is known for the French Quarter, live music, bachelor parties, levies, Hurricane Katrina, Bourbon Street, delicious (yet, heartburn inducing) food, nearby swamps, nearby swamp people, Hollywood South, above ground cemeteries, voodoo, oak trees, football champions, and football bounty hunters.
There is no one word that best describes New Orleans, nor is there one type of person who best fits its lifestyle. That being said, New Orleans, with its many assets and diverse characters, is not made for only one type of entrepreneur either.
Louisiana's ever-progressing business climate has recently been luring new industries and businesses to the south, using competitive tax incentives as a catalyst. Assets such as low cost of living, high quality of life, and culture have been essential in retaining the talent that have contributed to turning Louisiana, and New Orleans specifically, into a film industry leader, entrepreneurial mecca, and technology hub.
As a result, entrepreneurial activity in New Orleans is now 40% above the national average, after having lagged behind the rest of the country for nearly ten years. According to the Brookings Institute Report, an average of 450 out of every 100,000 adults started businesses in the New Orleans metro area each year, which is well above the national average, and almost double the pre-Katrina rate.
Temptation into the state first started with the motion picture tax credit. It was implemented a decade ago to give production companies the opportunity to receive up to 35% in transferable tax credits, provided that all vendor and crew expenditures are made in the state. While the incentive has been vital in luring in big budget productions, small media startups have been able to quickly garner access into the film industry by capitalizing on the increasing demand for services.
In the years following Hurricane Katrina, annual film production has increased by 175%, attributing half of those productions to new media startups such as Moonbot Studios. The Shreveport-based hybrid animation/digital interactive media company has recently garnered industry recognition at the Academy Awards for their animated short film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. However, that is only a small piece of what this talented group can accomplish. Today, Moonbot studios has released their new app called IMAG-N-OTRON, which turns the images from their New York Times Best Selling picture book into 3D animation using an iPhone or iPad's camera.
"Assets set up by the state, such as the tax credit and FastStart workforce training program, have helped make this all possible," says Moonbot's Brandon Oldenburg on what influenced them to establish the company in Louisiana over other industry leading states like California or New York. "Everyone in the community has played a part in our success, and we couldn't be happier to call Shreveport home."
New media entrepreneurs have further influenced long-term economic impact and initiated the growth of other bourgeoning industries, as well. In 2009, Louisiana's digital media incentive was refined in order to attract a broader range of small businesses with tax credits worth up to 35%.
While Louisiana's aggressive tax credit programs continue to lure the country's top innovators to the south, it has been communal camaraderie and business incubators that have helped many of the startups get off the ground. Tech haven, Launch Pad, has become a breeding ground for ambitious digital media professionals by offering the young creatives and entrepreneurs shared office space, while its precursor, Launch Pad Ignition, provides a select group of tech entrepreneurs with business assistance through its annual accelerator program.
2012 Launch Pad Ignition alum, Jason Nicosia, entered the program earlier this year with only a minimal viable product, and exited three months later with his first round of seed funding and the launched beta version of his site, Connect for a Cause. Nicosia's online platform is a marriage of LinkedIn and eBay, where individuals have the opportunity to bid for lunch dates with celebrities, VIP's, and business executives auctioning themselves off for the charities they support. In addition to the help he received through Launch Pad Ignition, Nicosia was able to take advantage of the state's Angel Investor Tax Credit, a program that was signed into law in 2011 to directly benefit those who are investing in the growing companies in Louisiana.
The brain gain movement also brought in an influx of Teach for America corps members eager to contribute to the school reform that resulted after Hurricane Katrina. As the movement intersected with the emerging tech community, business incubator 4.0 Schools was born in 2010 to turn TFA members exiting the program, as well as those with a passion for education, into entrepreneurs.
This year, the incubator's six-month business development program, along with partners Teach for America and The Idea Village, helped launch several technology-based companies that focus on closing the education gap. Some of the program's most promising startups include Classroom Blueprint, a social media platform that allows teachers to compare efficient classroom designs and strategies, and Dash, a mobile application that facilitates communication between parents and teachers through a data management system.
"New Orleans has a culture for innovation, specifically within education," said Meghan Mclain, Communications Lead for Dash, on why New Orleans has been a welcoming place for education technology entrepreneurs. "The teachers and schools are quick to adapt to new and innovative ideas. It's as if the idea of 'slow to warm up' doesn't exist here."
Like education technology entrepreneurs, water and environmental entrepreneurs have tapped into sectors that are positioned for local economic growth, while developing solutions to global problems.
With an eroding coastline, port system that is responsible for 25 percent of all U.S. waterborne exports, and a leading offshore oil and gas industry, Louisiana has invested billions of dollars into water management ideas. The state's dependency on water has become an opportunity for entrepreneurs that are creating solutions to global environmental issues, such as coastal erosion and water contamination.
NanoFex, for example, is an environmental water remediation company that has created an innovative formula that removes harmful chlorinated solvents from groundwater. Then, there's also environmental consulting firm Tierra Resources, who received approval of the world's first carbon offset methodology for wetland restoration. Both companies participated in a six-month acceleration program conducted by the Greater New Orleans Foundation and The Idea Village, and culminated the challenge at a $50,000 pitch competition at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week this past March.
Recently, The Water Challenge's program received the nationally recognized Nania award from Tulsa Partners for their outstanding collaborative work towards building a disaster-resistant and sustainable community.
"We believe that the Water Challenge can be a catalyst to create a vibrant entrepreneurial community in the water industry," said Tim Williamson, Co-founder and CEO of The Idea Village. "We are honored by this endorsement from Tulsa Partners recognizing that by turning to entrepreneurs, we're finding creative solutions that will benefit the entire region."
The Idea Village, a non-profit organization that hosts the annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, has supported 1,798 entrepreneurs in New Orleans over the past 12 years by providing professional consulting to emerging businesses through an annual accelerator program. Their portfolio has collectively generated over $100 million in annual revenue and has created over 2,000 jobs in the region.
VoiceHIT, an alum of the Idea Village's 2012 IDEAxcelerator, has created a healthcare platform that uses web-based technologies to streamline clinical documentation and make patient encounters more efficient.
"The New Orleans startup community has been so welcoming to young startups like ours, because it is all still very new and up and coming," said Co-Founder, Dr. Peter Ragusa, who moved the company from Nashville last summer to take advantage of the Angel Investor Tax Credit. Dr. Ragusa adds that being part of the rebirth and rebuilding of the city has been a welcomed added bonus.
Like VoiceHIT, tenants of the new $47 million BioInnovation Center are all working towards creating a new biotechnology sector in New Orleans, besides reaching their own personal milestones. Oral care innovator Theodent, for example, has revolutionized toothpaste by using cocoa bean as an alternative to fluoride in their newly developed product, which has recently been awarded the prestigious Red Dot Product Design Award. The award, which has been presented to the likes of Apple and Audi, brings more credibility to other products coming out of New Orleans.
"Technology usually migrates to where the larger capital firms are, but we will be keeping the brain trust here in New Orleans," says Theodent President and CEO, Dr. Arman Sadeghpour, a New Orleans native and Tulane University alum.
And to think, this is only a piece of what the city has to offer.
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