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Kern's first business accelerator set to launch at Bitwise


Bitwise is ready to open up its new building in downtown Bakersfield for normal operations. Work is mostly finished and tenants have begun moving in.

Kern's B3K economic development initiative has scored its biggest achievement to date with an announcement Wednesday that Bitwise Industries will soon launch the county's first business accelerator with the financial support of local government.

Starting Oct. 19, a group of 12 local aspiring entrepreneurs will have a six-month opportunity to earn $17 per hour or more for at least 30 hours per week while receiving training at the Fresno-based company's new tech and office coworking hub at the southwest corner of 18th and H streets in downtown Bakersfield.

The city of Bakersfield and county government have agreed to roughly split the annual, $1 million price tag of running two cohorts per year through the program. The understanding is that the accelerator will create good jobs as part of B3K's broad-based efforts to strengthen and diversify the local economy.

Students who for the most part will come to the program by referral will receive various forms of coaching and mentoring as they work to build startup companies expected eventually to grow and seek external financing.

Government officials involved expressed hope the center will eventually become part of a countywide system of general and industry-specific business accelerators similar to others around the state and country that have spun off countless startups, many of which have sold for large sums after scaling up with the help of private investment.

"What we have today is an innovative tech and entrepreneurship incubator, but the city expects this to be the first of many," city of Bakersfield spokesman Joseph Conroy said by email, adding the city has agreed to put in $640,000 this fiscal year with the option of continuing that level of support in years to come.

That city money will pay for staffing and other support at Bitwise, while the county's roughly equal financial contribution will cover students' wages as they learn to refine their startup ideas, Bitwise said.

County economic development official Teresa Hitchcock described the accelerator as a first step to expanding the local startup ecosystem.

"We are working to develop a system that provides small businesses with the support that they need to grow and thrive in our local market," she said by email. While the Bitwise program is expected to gradually sharpen its focus on technology instead of general business, Hitchcock said future accelerators around the county might deal more specifically with industries such as energy.

Professionalism and soft skills such as proper business etiquette will be part of the curriculum, Bitwise Vice President Amy Thelen said. But so will the process of exploring opportunities to introduce new products.

Would-be startup founders will be given access 24 hours per day to the Bitwise complex downtown, where they will attend presentations by local executives and venture capitalists, collaborate with fellow trainees and refine their pitches for investment money.

Each cohort will be led by an instructor supported by one or two full-time, administrative-support people at Bitwise. Thelen said the overriding goal is to remove barriers for entrepreneurs who may not have access to capital.

City and county employees, along with local businesses and investors, will be invited to make referrals to the program, Thelen said. Current and future enrollees in Bitwise's pre-apprenticeship classes may also earn a spot in the cohort, she said.

"We're looking for people with grit and determination looking to get their businesses off the ground and willing to put in the work," she said.

Initially, she said, participants will be able to pursue startups of almost any kind. But over time the idea will be to focus on local opportunities and priorities such as clean energy "that will benefit the community as a whole."

Bakersfield's economic and community development director, Paul Saldaña, said in a news release that the partnership will provide a roadmap for innovations to come to life locally.

"By investing in diverse founders and giving them a space to flourish, this incubator will have a direct effect on the economy," he wrote. "It will create new companies that will in turn create more jobs and inspire other founders to follow their dreams."