As chairman and founder of Startup Tucson, Justin Williams has worked to foster a vibrant startup community in Tucson through nurturing, networking and good ol' entrepreneurship. Startup Tucson recently merged with the Gangplank Tucson co-working space to form CoLab Workspace downtown at 17 E. Pennington St. Startup Tucson has also joined forces with local entrepreneur Fletcher McCusker, offering space to members of his Toole Avenue Hive workshop as he takes on a mentoring role for young entrepreneurs.
How would you describe CoLab?
CoLab is a collaborative workstation. We came up with the name based on the terms "collaborative" and "laboratory." It's sort of an experiment in collaboration. Instead of renting desks, participants pay it forward through community participation. There's a number of initiative frameworks where people participating in CoLab can get involved. Anyone can show up and start working for free; as long as there's space available, they can drop in and get involved. The goal is to have people who don't have sufficient resources to come in and work ... and be a part of the community in whatever way best works for them. The overall mission is to create an innovative space where entrepreneurs, talented creative young professionals and people with ideas that (fill) needs can become a part of an engaging community.
What caused the transition from Gangplank to CoLab, and the merger with Startup Tucson?
As Gangplank (which has locations in Arizona, Virginia and Canada) grew into a global network, their intentions lent themselves to an online, immersive community where they ultimately hoped to create a virtual relationship between Tucson and Canada. They made a move toward this approach last summer. And as we got a sense for what their expectations were, we realized that, in order to maximize our space for Tucson's potential success, we'd have to sacrifice some of their needs. It came down to a conversation where they decided that certain elements of participation were essential in defining what it was to be part of Gangplank. We decided that we were unable to ask people here to commit that level of time and bandwidth to participation with Gangplank on top of what they were trying to commit for building companies and growth in Tucson.
How will StartupTucson be utilizing CoLab?
Our offices have always been out of the CoLab space since it opened in downtown, and the very first Startup Weekend we hosted in 2011 was hosted at the Gangplank space. In the future, things will basically operate as they always have: StartupTucson will maintain a desk there, but will run programming wherever it makes sense. For instance, next year's Startup Weekend will be at Connect. Our intention is to have a strong relationship, and we're looking at programming we can run through Connect. We're running events at Maker House and Xerocraft, at the UA and at the UA Science and Tech Park.
What projects running through CoLab are exciting you?
There's a couple of different, cool things that are percolating up. One is called LeadLocal, which was created by two women from the university, a professor and a student, who are taking concepts of student-community engagement and creating a program that's potentially a national model. It's about engaging college students and putting them to work with nonprofits in a way that integrates that with young leaders from local companies. Young professional talent can mentor teams of students and work on projects that support an initiative that the local nonprofit needs accomplished.
There are also two student startups working out of CoLab; one is called UFree, a social networking application that's focused on looking for friends on campus who are free to go do something right now. They just received their first round of funding and are looking to launch on the UA in the fall, and then expand to other campuses. Their founder, Stephen Ost, was one of the finalists for Entrepreneur magazine's College Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 award.
The other one is CrowdAudio, a student company that launched out of the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program. They've developed an online mixing platform that allows musicians to upload their music and submit it to be edited and remixed by aspiring producers from all over the world. It's a cool experience.