The Bike, The Bridge, and The Blizzard: A Story of the Creative Economy

Border crossing at Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Iván Gris has owned 7 bikes in ten years. “Most of my bikes were stolen…” he says, looking down at his shiny, and newest, set of wheels. His voice trails off as he looks across the hills to his hometown of Juarez, Mexico, just on the other side of the Rio Grande River.

“Actually, one of my bikes just broke down right in the middle of the road – on the bridge – on my way to school.” If you’re standing where he is it’s easy to picture him high up on the bridge above the Rio Grande River, looking down at his broken bike, knowing he would be late to class.

Iván is finishing his postdoc in Computer Science at the University of Texas at El Paso, and for ten years he has ridden his bike 8 miles every day to attend classes, work in the lab, and as of the last couple of years, build an early stage virtual reality company.

I was meeting with Iván to catch up on this new venture, a startup called Inmerssion. We were there to talk about his business plan and partnerships he has in process, but I was derailed by the image of him standing on that bridge…halfway to his future but not sure how to get there.  

And that’s how it feels in so many communities across America today: stuck on a bridge, part of the way from the industrial era into the newer, much faster paced “creative economy” but not sure how to really get there. The old economy lies behind us and the economy that’s ahead seems unknown. The current angst in our country reflects the uncertainty we feel: how will we be competitive and create jobs? How can our kids attain the same quality of life we have come to expect? What sort of skills and knowledge should we be teaching?  What if…

Iván’s voice brings me back.  “I had no idea what coding was but I taught myself to code and I would play StarCraft every afternoon and build games – and games within games.  In those days drugs were becoming more pervasive in Juarez and a lot of my friends didn't make it out of high school. But I fell in love with technology and playing games -it was this mix of creative and tech. I could tell stories, my stories.” 

He came of age as the drug cartel violence exploded in Juarez.  During college he would ride his bike from the most violent city in the world, to one of the most sophisticated computer labs in the world and immerse himself in the world of gaming.

His startup seems an obvious next step after his postdoc work. Inmerssion combines Iván’s passion for gaming, storytelling, and creating technologies that, as he describes, “people never dreamed they would see in their lifetime.”  Their technology creates autonomous virtual agents and embeds them in a virtual reality environment.  For most ordinary people, like myself,  that translates into something more along the lines of...

Put on these Oculus goggles and step into a world where you can have unscripted and realistic conversations with Harry Potter, or Ronald Reagan, or anyone you want us to create for you 

Inmerssion went through the Creative Startups Accelerator this past fall. On Demo Day we watched dozens of people put on the goggles, become transfixed and then suddenly animated as they began to chat with the character in their environment.  “It’s amazing when we take this stuff out of the labs – thousands of people can experience it!  The technology gets people so excited…the next thing for us is to figure out how it can help people in their daily lives!” Ivan exclaims.

 In startup speak, Iván and his team is still in the process of market validation: figuring out how their creative work can meet a  market opportunity.  That’s why they came to Creative Startups. Our intensive course and the week spent with mentors help  founders avoid the pitfalls of languishing in the lab, or going after markets that are not a profitable fit, or running out of  money before they get to market.

 “Creative Startups destroyed all our plans and dreams.  And after that the program made us come out so much stronger -  with a better understanding of why are we doing what we do, who are we doing it for.  Now we have our vision, our strategy.  And we came out with a lot of connections, and tools to make better decisions about our next steps.”

 One of those connections is a Creative Startups mentor named Tom Lopez. He's one of the world’s most visionary creative entrepreneurs, and as Ivan sat with him and began to explain his technology they quickly realized that Tom had a hand in sparking Iván’s  trajectory. Tom was an early Vice President with Activision, one the leading gaming companies that eventually acquired  Blizzard Entertainment, the inventor and producer of StarCraft.  Today Activision Blizzard employs nearly 7,000 people in California and is one of the leading creative companies in the world.  

Sitting together and discussing Inmerssion, the story of The Bike, The Bridge and The Blizzard unfolded. And in that singular moment a glimpse into the next economy, the creative economy, appeared.

A Different Kind of Company

The jobs of tomorrow will result from the chemistry of human creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit. The companies of tomorrow will be creative companies. Creativity has stepped ahead of knowledge as the resource most coveted by thriving economies. Today, knowledge is a given. It can be consumed in MOOCS, on Wikipedia, and via millions of tutorial YouTube videos. But creativity brings forth leaps in innovation, moments of inexplicable beauty, meaningful connections to people, places, and ideas.  Knowledge is simply a canvas.  Creativity, however, is the array of colors and imagery artfully worked across the canvas.

The creative economy is growing by leaps and bounds: an estimated 1,447,100 jobs come from the creative industries, including product design, fashion, art, and other creative uses of technology. That’s nearly 1 in 10 of every job based on wage and salary employment figures, and it’s a number projected to rise significantly in the next decade.  And that’s just in the U.S. - a recent report from UNESCO (.PDF) found that creative and cultural industries worldwide are responsible for over 2 trillion dollars in commerce:

In response to these changes, places like the UK are seeing increased interest in supporting creative entrepreneurs, and higher education institutions are shifting their catalog of courses to reflect student demand for courses offering creative technology skills like machine learning, mobile app development, and game design.  Less formal educations are also being doled out in the form of nimble, digital focused programs like Udemy, The Moz Academy, and Coursera that make it easy for entrepreneurs to access coding, design, and entrepreneurship skills that can be applied quickly, no matter where they are located.  And while technology is important, we believe it is the creative use of technologies that will drive the creative economy.

Accelerating Growth

At Creative Startups we’ve spent the last three years focusing on the growth of creative entrepreneurs and their companies.  Our accelerator is the only one in the world focused exclusively on creative founders.  The accelerator includes an intensive online component followed by mentoring and a 5-day Deep Dive gathering.  The end goal is to create successful companies, and, eventually, jobs and economic vibrancy for a region.

And our work is having an impact. Meow Wolf, from our 2014 cohort, is readying for the launch of an amazing collaboration with Game of Thrones author George RR Martin.  Another 2014 alum, Etkie, was recently featured in Elle magazine for their efforts connecting native artisans to sustainable global marketplace, and this year’s Walls of Benin is already well on their way to creating a competitive fashion business for the global market. All told, we’ve helped to support the creation of 140 jobs, and nearly $3 million in private investment.

Recently, we were also pleased to see that impact recognized by the Kauffman Foundation in the form of a $190,000 grant to explore and understand the strategies we’re using to grow creative entrepreneurs and their companies.  Our intention is to understand what works and what doesn't work and expand our program in regions including North Carolina, Portugal, and Baltimore. Because while our work in New Mexico has been successful, communities around the world are struggling to make it all the way across the bridge and we want to support their transformation, too.  

Iván Gris ended up walking to school the day his bike broke down. He missed class. But he got caught up on his work and found himself a new bike.  He kept going to school, graduated and went on to graduate school. You know the rest of the story.

Making our way to the next economy will require grit and steadfast determination. We will have to persist despite unexpected challenges and setbacks.  And while our current angst is understandable, it isn't solving any problems. We think it’s time to focus on that economy that people like Ivan are building, the creative economy, and get moving.  

In the next few months we’ll be using our blog to share some of the stories from startups we’ve worked with, hot spots for creative entrepreneurship around the world, and looking at how the emerging creative economy can be harnessed by a variety of actors across globe, including investors, and economic development leaders. We're so excited you've joined us, and we look forward to hearing your stories of the creative economy as well. 

Alice Loy is a Co-founder of Creative Startups, and has researched the creative industries for 15+ years. She has lived and worked in Europe, Mexico, Central America, and Native America, designed and taught university level courses ranging from Social Entrepreneurship to Environmental Ethics, and holds an MBA and PhD in Strategic Communication and Entrepreneurship. 

Featured image used by CC 2.0 via George Miquilena on Wikipedia