A program to help early-stage startup companies is coming to Independence, with the aim of adding jobs and creating a more diversified business community.

“I think what we’re going to do in Independence is a lot of fun,” said Jeff Shackelford, executive director of Digital Sandbox KC. He spoke at Friday’s meeting of the Independence Council for Economic Development, which is a partner in the effort and whose business incubator is expected to play a large role in the process.

Digital Sandbox KC has federal grant money to help startups take the next steps in development and to connect them to established businesses in the area, to the benefit of each. It’s been around a little more than three years and says it has worked with more than 300 entrepreneurs, provided more than $700,000 – about $20,000 per qualifying company – and attracted another $22.7 million in other funding for the start-ups. That’s created more than 300 jobs, Sandbox says.

Shackelford said the focus is the “right time, right person, right connection” for a startup in its critical early stages before major investors step in.

“What we find is we’re filling a gap,” he said.

He added, “We’re really about helping them raise money.”

Shackelford said Independence has many assets, including the EDC’s Ennovation Center at Forest and Truman, to help entrepreneurs. He suggested that three to five small companies in Independence taking part in the Sandbox process in the first year might be a good goal.

The companies the program works with tend to be focused on new software, but there’s also a new Sandbox for energy-related firms.

Shackelford said the Ennovation Center, with its commercial kitchen and other space, is a huge asset.

“A startup company can only work out of its house for so long,” he said.

Tom Lesnak, president of the EDC, said the Ennovation Center just passed a milestone – 70 clients.

“Took us a long time to get there – five years,” he said.

More broadly, Shackelford said, Kansas City doesn’t attract a lot of large private employers. Companies such as Hallmark, DST and H&R Block tend to be home-grown. If the metro area is to meet civic leaders’ stated goal of becoming one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the country, he said, then massive numbers of startups are needed so some of them can grow and make it for the long term.

“How do you find the next Cerner?” he said.

The EDC plans an open house for anyone wanting more information about Digital Sandbox KC. It’s from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. July 26 at the EDC offices, where the Ennovation Center is, at 201 N. Forest Ave.