A look at four business incubators around the state.
Written by Jake Stump
When you think about it, chickens and start-up businesses are basically the same thing. When farmers want to keep chicken eggs warm and safe from predators, they secure them in an incubator until the eggs are ready to hatch. For start-ups, business expert Joseph Mancuso imagined a similar concept.
In 1959, Mancuso opened the first business incubator in the United States, the Batavia Industrial Center in Batavia, New York, aimed at helping new companies grow. Mancuso’s incubator would provide those companies with services such as office space and management training—a little bit of protection before having to face the big, cruel world on their own.
Business incubation programs have grown considerably since then. As of 2012, more than 1,250 business incubators existed in the country, according to the International Business Association. A handful of those operate right here in the Mountain State, providing start-up companies with that safe, nurturing environment they might need in order to soar freely into the market.
For several years, the Fairmont Community Development Partnership has centered itself on eliminating blight and constructing new, affordable housing in targeted areas of Fairmont.
In 2014, the partnership dove into a new venture: business development. The group acquired space at 517 Fairmont Ave. that included seven offices, a conference room, lobby, restrooms, a kitchen, and off-street parking—a rarity in Fairmont. They would dub this space “Excelerator,” a hub for growing edgling businesses in Marion County.
Excelerator is currently home to two private counselors who outgrew their former space. Together they are planning to merge and grow into an all-inclusive therapy business complete with acupuncture and massage therapy. “The Excelerator space gives them the opportunity to expand their business without heavy rent and utility costs,” says Andrea Salina, the partnership’s interim executive director and resource development manager. “The FCDP allowed the exibility to make the space their own with painting and décor to meet the clients’ needs.”
While newer incubators such as Excelerator are enjoying the fruits of early success others, like Unlimited Future in Huntington, have been kicking around for a couple decades. In 1993, a feasibility study found that negative trends in Cabell County’s employment rate might well indicate the need for a business incubator. Fast-forward to today and Unlimited Future boasts more than 150 successfully operating former clients in the Huntington tri-state area. Those clients, many of which are more than 15 years old, employ more than 300 people.
One business that benefited from Unlimited Future’s expertise was the Wild Ramp, a year-round, indoor farmers’ market in Huntington’s Old Central City that carries the products of more than 130 farmers and food producers. The three-year-old market has returned more than $1 million to area producers and the local economy, says Gail Patton, executive director of Unlimited Future.
You can find Unlimited Future’s business incubator in Fairfield, the historical African-American neighborhood of Huntington. It contains 15 suites ranging from 100 to 250 square feet. It currently serves seven clients, who have access to a training room with a computer lab, a conference room, and a waiting room. All utilities, including high-speed Internet, are covered by the monthly fees.
Although Unlimited Future is on solid footing, the incubator continues to tweak its operation. Patton would like to see the incubator improve its facilities, update its training and technical assistance programs, and continue to support social enterprises. Plans include a worker-owned cooperative
New Biz Launchpad
Folks in Wardensville avoid calling the business incubator on Main Street an “incubator.” “We’re in the Potomac Highlands, which is a chicken-producing region,” says Joe Kapp, entrepreneur-in-residence at Eastern West Virginia Community & Technical College. “So every time we said ‘incubator,’ people thought we were raising chickens.”
Instead, Eastern West Virginia Community & Technical College decided to call its business-friendly venture the New Biz Launchpad. The facility includes a retail floor facing Wardensville’s Main Street, where Kapp and others provide mentoring, co-working areas for eight to 12 startups, and meeting and conference rooms for training and lectures.
Although only about a year old, the incubator is already seeing successes. Lost River Green Tech is a small business that specializes in off-grid alternative energy systems. It was the creation of a military veteran and student, Matt Persinger, who used the Launchpad’s coaching and assistance in tracking down grants. Redwood & Co., a soap and candle manufacturer, is another success story. The company launched in May and has already opened a second location, in Staunton, Virginia.
Launchpad’s makeup uniquely benefits new business owners if they want to tap into the resources of the community college network—Eastern West Virginia Community & Technical College is part of a consortium of community colleges focused on developing entrepreneurship in the Potomac Highlands.
The incubator offers weekly master classes that host an array of people from farmers to weavers, and also call on high school and middle school students to help develop its programs. It’s full-force community involvement. “I think we can serve as a model for other colleges,” Kapp says. “We’re not just teaching entrepreneurship. As a discipline, it’s different from Spanish or math, where you learn the basic concepts and move up. In running a business, your day is different from one day to the next. The role of the entrepreneur is to uncover a successful business model that works for them.”
Charleston Area Alliance
The Charleston Area Alliance opened its incubator in 2004 to help small companies springboard into regional and global markets. Located in a renovated, nearly 70,000-square-foot warehouse, the incubator features 40 office spaces as well as warehouse space for companies that need to keep and ship inventory. Over 11 years, the Alliance has graduated 75 businesses and organizations from its incubator. Those 75 businesses have created 313 jobs. Presently, the incubator hosts 18 companies and five support organizations.
“Going into business is not easy and we can help mitigate some of the risks by offering entrepreneurial training, great resources, and short-term, below-market rate office space,” says Justin Gaull, vice president of economic development with the Charleston Area Alliance. “We like to say that the alliance is only one degree of separation from anyone in the state. For a new business, being associated with an organization that can help make connections to required resources is immensely valuable.”
Gaull noted that small businesses make up 87 percent of the business landscape in West Virginia. The Alliance has had a hand in the development of many of those businesses, including Morgan Rhea, which has garnered national recognition with its designs, leather handbags, and accessories. Celebrities such as John Legend and Grace Potter have been seen wearing Morgan Rhea products.
It may sound like the alliance and its clients are in a happy place. But there’s still room to grow, Gaull says. The alliance is considering the creation of a shared space program for early stage start-ups, similar to programs found in larger cities like Austin or Boston. This shared space program would include mentorship and lunch and learn sessions, as well as classes on coding and business best practices. “This will be a place where aspiring entrepreneurs can network with like-minded people, share ideas, create brands, and grow companies,” Gaull says. “We want to be able to provide a space that works with wherever you are in your business idea or business. More options hopefully spur more success. I think we are just at the beginning of something big.”