If you've been to downtown Las Vegas in the last few years, you've likely been to Fremont Street, specifically the caged section near several historic casinos that hosts a nightly laser light show. But, thanks to the Downtown Project, the neighborhood is now home to a large and diverse concentration of startups, each slowly making their mark on the landscape.
As part of the Downtown Project's commitment, $50 million went to the VegasTechFund, a seed-stage investment fund that nurtures and advises local startups, and often lures new ones to town. The fund works out of a former law office called Work in Progress, that has three co-working locations, one in the Emergency Arts building I visited earlier in the day. This one, with a large garage on site, also doubles as an event space for social functions and serves as ground zero for the local startup community.
Coworking at Work in Progress, which has three locations around downtown
When I met Andy White, the fund's director, at Work in Progress, I was expecting to get a Keynote presentation and some handshakes around the communal desk. But some of the startups have expanded out into the surrounding blocks and their impact can be seen on foot. We hit the pavement.
White himself came to Vegas from Salt Lake City two years ago, and was expecting a tech wasteland, which was not the case. "Everyone's pretty aware that Vegas got hit by the economic downturn which decimated the local infrastructure, so many of the things you'd think of as building blocks simply didn't exist," says White. "But you have a lot people here who were still working together and believed in the area, and were making some amazing things happen." New bars and restaurants were already coming to the neighborhood, and a coworking culture was starting to emerge, creating a solid geographic center which primed the area for Zappos' arrival.
The fund's focus is to build on that network of existing tight-knit founders while simultaneously finding ways to launch fresh startups—like Progression Labs, VegasTechFund's "dorm room" accelerator program, which will bring early-stage startups to Vegas for an incubation period with interested investors. They'll live in the same apartment complex, co-work together—this already sounds like a perfect Shark Tank-meets-The Real World reality show—and, as part of their residency, VegasTechFund will ensure that startups have access to all the top local companies.
"That's a huge opportunity in Vegas that you won't have in other areas," says White. But it's also smart because it draws startup teams to Vegas initially, which is sometimes the fund's biggest challenge: Getting people to move to a city that they perceive as one big debaucherous Strip.
"We don't have to work hard to get people here—it's Vegas," White jokes. "But then they make the trip five miles to get downtown and they say, 'This is incredible, I had no idea.' After that what we see is that people fall into one of two camps. It's either 'This is batshit crazy, I'd never do it, but I have these friends who are crazy so let me refer them to you,' or 'This is amazing, let me process it, I'll be back in a few months.'" (As I mentioned in a previous post, those regular but not permanent visitors are known as "subscribers.")
White acknowledges that a move to Vegas is not for everyone, but it turned out the biggest fear from people moving here was the concern that nothing else was available if their gig didn't work out, he says. "We hardly ever hear that anymore."
Local Motors' microfactory will begin building outlandish high-tech custom vehicles here next month
That's because VegasTechFund is as concerned with investing in brick-and-mortar spaces and local amenities as it is with raising venture capital: Everything needs to serve the downtown core. Vehicle-design innovators Local Motors opened a microfactory here which will open next month. Ticket Cake hosts the Downtown Podcast for local news and events.
"The community itself is our product," says White. "We have people who come in as subscription models turn into permanent residents."
White and I end our walk at a former casino called the Gold Spike, which is now a Downtown Project space. The slot machines have been swept away to make room for cushy chairs and bar stools, where the surfaces are covered in laptops by day and cocktails by night. At 2:00 p.m. people are drinking beer and playing cornhole. Outside there's a skating rink. This is exactly what I would expect an ad-hoc co-working space to look like in Vegas: a solid balance of work and fun, with plenty of old-school gilded glamour around the edges. It plays upon the city's strengths.
The casino floor of the Gold Spike is now a place to work (or drink) 24 hours a day
That's what I saw, too, in the kinds of investments the fund is making. VegasTechFund's most exciting startup is something called World View, which will take adventure-seekers on a $75,000 trip on a football field-size helium balloon into the stratosphere for a peek at the planet (like Red Bull's space jump, without the jump).
My eyes widened with excitement as White gave me all the details and I had a feeling that was exactly the kind of response that the VegasTechFund wants to see from the startups they're recruiting. Like the city they're reviving, these startups are young and smart but slightly risky, infused with audacity and sheer spectacle—in other words, utterly Vegas.
Top image: Murals on old motels created as part of the Life is Beautiful festival, which saw plenty of collaborations with local startups