25 Years, 25 Profiles–Laura Kilcrease
It’s been 25 years since the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) launched as the first business incubator in Austin. Over the years, we’ve worked with hundreds of companies and thousands of individuals that have helped transform Austin into one of the most respected technology communities in the world. We’d like to share some of the stories from past directors, community partners, member companies, and even former associates in a new series we call “25 Years, 25 Profiles.” Look for our next installment coming soon!
Austin was a much different place in the late 80s than it is today. Back then, Austin was a much smaller city that relied heavily on the oil and gas industry, which, at the time, was in steep decline. Without alternative industries to help boost the economy, thousands of people lost their jobs and their homes.
The situation was bleak.
One day, Laura Kilcrease, a local entrepreneur, received a phone call from George Kozmetsky, the former dean of UT’s business school and founder of the IC2 Institute.
“He had an ambitious project in mind to help diversify Austin’s economy. He wanted to establish a business incubator within the IC2 Institute that would focus on developing the technology sector in Central Texas, and he wanted my help to come up with the business plan.”
While this idea may not seem revolutionary today, keep in mind that if you mentioned incubator in 1989, people assumed you were talking about chickens. There were no business incubators in Austin, and only a handful in the entire United States.
Laura spent the next several months creating the business model for what would come to be known as the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI).
“From the start, the goal was to be a catalyst,” Laura explains. ”Austin had all of the ingredients for a successful tech scene, but there was no connectivity. There was a glut of R&D coming out of the university and the few tech companies that were in Austin, but there was little to no commercialization of that research. We wanted to change that.”
To do so, Laura knew that she would also need to increase businesses’ access to capital. The decline of the oil and gas industry coincided with the Savings and Loan crisis of the late 80s. Traditional funding streams froze up, so Laura began to think of alternatives. The result was The Capital Network (TCN), the first network of angel investors in Texas.
“The TCN was a truly pioneering concept at the time. People take for granted the idea of angel investors today, but this was all new back then,” Laura recalls. ”We even had to help get a few laws changed, but we were able to do so and eventually people started to recognize the potential.”
The TCN and ATI became the cornerstones of an entrepreneurial ecosystem that would flourish over the next few decades (dot-com bubble notwithstanding). Today, there are dozens of incubators and accelerators throughout Central Texas, and Austin is consistently ranked as one of the most innovative and business-friendly cities in the country.
A big part of what makes Austin successful, according to Laura, is the inclusive nature of the people living here.
“One thing that sets Austin apart form other entrepreneurial cities is its culture. People here have a genuine interest in seeing others succeed, and if Austin is to continue to thrive, we have to remain more cooperative than competitive.”
Today, Laura remains very active in the entrepreneurial ecosystem she helped create. She runs her own VC firm, Triton Ventures, and is a member of the Central Texas Angels Network, the most active angel network in the country (TCN dissolved in 2004). She also just finished serving as Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the McCombs School of Business at UT.
“Helping to contribute to the development of the next generation of entrepreneurs is very important to me,” Laura shared. ”It’s exciting because students today have a very different mindset with regards to their career goals. They want to create their own opportunities, and it’s our responsibility to help facilitate their growth. Not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of the entire community.”
Laura has received countless awards for her civic service, and was recently named one of the “20 Austinites You Simply Must Know” by the Austin Business Journal. At each graduation, ATI gives out the Laura J. Kilcrease Award for Civic Entrepreneurship to recognize others in our community who share her passion for giving back.
“It’s by working together that we can control our future. We have the power to make it as bright as we want; we’ve proven it before and we’ll do so again.”
Laura Kilcrease served as the first director of the Austin Technology Incubator from its inception in 1989 through 1996.