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Innovate SOMO invests $2M grant for new programs

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Less than six months after launching Innovate SOMO, a regional network that aims to spur digital workforce and economic development in the state, officials with the initiative are making plans for a recently received $2 million federal grant.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration selected Innovate SOMO, aka the Southern Missouri Innovation Network, out of nearly 200 applications nationwide, according to a news release. It’s one of 51 operational support grants totaling $47 million announced in October by the federal government.

The Efactory, Missouri State University’s business incubator, is partnering on the network with Cape Girardeau-based technology incubator Codefi LLC. Innovate SOMO is designed to assist entrepreneurs in 47 counties with software developer training and other programs, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

Rachel Anderson, Efactory director, said via email the EDA grant is “incredibly humbling and motivating.”

She said, “We know southern Missouri is a special place to live and do business, and this grant award and innovation network is another sign showing the tremendous momentum happening throughout our region.”

Codefi co-founder James Stapleton said the $2 million for Innovate SOMO comes through the EDA’s Venture Challenge competition, which awards grants to intermediary organizations such as accelerators, universities and nonprofits supporting new business ventures. The businesses must be scalable by nature, challenge the status quo of established markets, commercialize technologies and further job creation within its organization.

“Along with Efactory, we will be delivering a variety of programs that assist founders of new tech and high-growth potential companies [to] create and expand the pipeline of new ventures across southern Missouri that will spur on job creation,” he said via email, declining to disclose program specifics. “The programs include startup boot camps and pre-accelerators, accelerators, as well as assistance with software and technology development and new venture investment.”

Stapleton said investments in the new programs will begin soon, adding the funding will cover the next three years.

“Additional announcements will be made about these programs over the next few months,” he said.

The Innovate SOMO initiative previously received nearly $1 million in seed funding from the state, according to past reporting.

Program progress
While details are sparse about Innovate SOMO’s growth plans, two of Codefi’s programs have successfully launched in southern Missouri in recent months, officials say.

Those are Code Labs, a skills-based software developer training program for adults seeking entry-level development roles, and Youth Coding League, a co-curricular education program that introduces fifth through eighth graders to computer science and coding.

“We recruited the largest cohort in history to our nationally recognized full-stack software developer training program with over 500 applicants and 160 trainees admitted across southern Missouri,” Stapleton said.

The front-end development course in Springfield for Code Labs, which is free for participants, began in August and is held twice a week at the Efactory, he said. Trainees will continue the program in January for back-end development, which includes database and application programming interface development.

“Another 20 individuals from Springfield and other surrounding communities are participating in our virtual training program, which also meets virtually two times per week,” he said. “Both versions of our program include additional scheduled paired programming and office hours support activities with our code coaches.”

At the conclusion of the program, participants are typically hired by regional companies or could be employed through paid contractual work experiences, Stapleton said. Recruiting for the next cohort of the 48-week program will commence in January in advance of a June start, he added.

Anderson said with a Code Labs program taking place where she works, she gets to see it in action and work with the participants.

“Several are working on building their own (minimum viable product) for their startup, and others are developing new skills to become a software developer,” she said.

League activity
Prior to partnering with Codefi, Anderson said the Efactory looked at different coding training programs and came away confident of the quality and impact of Code Labs and Youth Coding League.

“The ‘extras’ that are embedded in these programs are what make participants successful – the one-to-one mentoring, coaching, connection to employers and simulated real world on-the-job training,” she said.

The Youth Coding League, an afterschool program for middle school and junior high school students, uses Google’s CS First curriculum and the Scratch programming language. Stapleton said the program was launched this fall in Springfield and the Joplin area with 22 new teams, comprising 225 students. In Springfield, there are 120 coders on 14 teams, he said, noting most are participating at Boys & Girls Clubs sites announced in May through a partnership with the local nonprofit. The program in the Joplin area is through a partnership with Crowder College in Neosho.

The program’s cost in Springfield is being covered by a $250,000 grant the Efactory was awarded earlier this year from the Missouri Technology Corp., according to past reporting. Stapleton said the Youth Coding League program reaches more than 2,500 students in nine states.

Codefi also now has a physical presence at the Efactory, as Stapleton said the organization completed renovations this summer of its Springfield office. He declined to disclose costs but said Codefi is recruiting employees to work locally while maintaining its Cape Girardeau headquarters.

“We plan to have a minimum of six staff in our office at Efactory next year,” he said.

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