Fort Walton Beach in Florida is hoping to become the veterans' version of Silicon Valley.
The city government last week announced plans to team with the entrepreneur consulting firm Venture Hive on a veteran-focused business accelerator program, designed to attract some of the best and brightest tech startups in the nation to the Florida panhandle.
Officials have set aside $500,000 for the project and office space in town, not far from Eglin Air Force Base and a nearby Air Force Research Lab. Companies selected for the program will receive a $25,000 nonequity grant, working space for a year and mentoring as they meet potential investors.
The Veterans Affairs Department and other federal agencies in recent years have highlighted entrepreneurship as a potential path for separating service members, noting that the challenge and freedom of starting a new business links well with military skills and experience.
But Susan Amat, founder of Venture Hive, said few programs exist to move veteran startup companies to the next level.
The goal in Fort Walton Beach is to use the region's ample talent — the area boasts one of the highest rates of doctoral degrees and veterans per capita — to entice entrepreneurs with a "global vision" to create a community of growing veteran business leaders.
"People tend to think of Boston, Austin and Silicon Valley in California when you talk about technology startups," she said. "So we see a lot of brain-drain problems, people moving across the country because they think they have to.
"But with all of the veterans here, we know they have the local talent."
Amat said the 12-week accelerator course will lean more heavily on business development skills, an area where many veterans have less experience than their civilian peers, and less on leadership development, an area that military service already largely covers.
The effort also includes a 12-week "pre-accelerator" program for veterans and military spouses looking to move small-business ideas into the startup stage. Partnership officials are recruiting veterans to help run the programs and share their own experience with the would-be entrepreneurs.
The deadline for applications is June 1. More information on the program is available at http://veterans.venturehive.com/