Sioux Falls’ annual Innovation Expo will ring in its seventeenth year on October 22, albeit with new precautions in place thanks to COVID-19.

The one-day event, which typically draws a crowd of 250 to 300 people, will be limited to 125 in-person attendees. However, it will also be streamed online with an unlimited amount of virtual tickets available. 

The structure of the event will be identical to previous years, kicking off at 1 p.m. with the first of seven speakers. Each will have 15 minutes to share their stories, with interludes for the Student Pitch Competition and the presentation of the Spirit of Enterprise award. The event closes with a panel of four local entrepreneurs who will offer their unique perspectives on a series of questions. 

Though the organizers faced uncertainties when it came to planning the expo during COVID-19, they adapted to create an event that will stand the test of time as it moves forward.

Matt Paulson moderates the panel at the 2019 Innovation Expo.

What’s different this year?

The addition of both virtual speakers and attendees will be the primary difference between this year’s expo and past events, and it’s a change the organizers see as a positive for multiple reasons. 

Nick Fickbohm is a business consultant at the South Dakota Enterprise Institute, and he serves as the emcee for the Innovation Expo as well as part of the planning team.   

“It’s a bit of a unique year with the COVID situation going on,” Fickbohm said. “We’ll have a much smaller group in the room, we’ll be spaced out and socially distanced, but at the same time, it’s a great opportunity to open up that live streaming component.”

Fickbohm says the addition of live streaming provides the chance for speakers and attendees who aren’t local to experience all that the Innovation Expo has to offer. In addition to eliminating risks associated with COVID-19, live streaming could combat issues related to travel costs, timing, or sudden inclement weather. 

This year, at least four speakers and panelists will be joining the expo remotely. While it will be an adjustment to the typical in-person event, Fickbohm says most people have adapted well to virtual experiences.

“It certainly won’t be people’s first Zoom call or probably even their first online conference,” he said. “The ability to have an impact and deliver a great conference is first and foremost, so we’re doing everything we can to make sure it’s still a great experience for people.”

Bringing value to entrepreneurs at every stage 

The Innovation Expo is hosted by the Enterprise Institute and Startup Sioux Falls, and it’s made possible by a variety of local and regional sponsors. 

The Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship is a Gold Level Sponsor of the expo, and speaker lineups for the event often include past graduates of the facility or even current tenants, like one of this year’s featured speakers, Walter Portz of Helen’s Plan.

I look at the Innovation Expo as one of those marquee entrepreneurial events in our community,” said Brienne Maner, Zeal’s executive director. “It only makes sense that we get involved in different ways with this event. We’re part of the planning committee, we help bring in speakers, and we’re also there to help promote it to our network and make sure the right people are there.” 

The event’s target audience is up-and-coming entrepreneurs, but Fickbohm emphasizes the value that the expo’s speakers bring to any type of startup. 

“There’s something for everyone,” he said. “Even for your more traditional startup like a restaurant or boutique, the great thing is that the entrepreneurs on stage may be in a different industry, but they’re amazing at sharing their stories and talking about what it took to move forward, which could be anything from how to scale your business or how to utilize mentors.”

Fickbohm highlights Philip Xiao, the co-founder and CEO of Homi. While the company is a mobile video career platform, Xiao’s story will emphasize the importance of connections when it comes to building a business. 

“It’s not just about the high-tech, flashy stuff,” Fickbohm said. “It’s hearing how they scaled or that it’s normal to struggle in the beginning.” 

The ultimate goal of the expo is to show current and future business owners what’s going on in the upper Midwest as far as high-growth startups and the individuals who are investing in them. 

“People are aware of the retail stores or the success stories that they see around them, but the tech companies and startups that are more behind the scenes are still all around us on the prairie, and it’s fun to be able to champion them and let them tell their story of how they made it and the resources they had,” he said. 

The Innovation Expo will be held on October 22 at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Sioux Falls. Masks will be encouraged but not required, and both masks and hand sanitizer will be available at the event. Tickets are $25 for the in-person event and $10 for the live stream. You can register online via EventBrite.