Michael Wacholder hesitates when I ask whether the word “renaissance” can be used to describe the renewed interest shown here lately in university-linked business incubators.
He considers it a moment then brushes the word aside, saying “renaissance” implies starting over. Instead, he says, he prefers to think that incubators, which help fledgling businesses get a running start, are catching on as an “accepted economic development tool.”
Wacholder helped establish the granddaddy of college incubators in 1980 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. He says it was a logical first step in the creation of Rensselaer Technology Park — where he is the longtime director — which today is home to 70 companies, including such heavyweights as GE Healthcare, MetLife and Pitney Bowes Business Insight. The latter has roots to RPI’s incubator through MapInfo Corp.
For decades, the incubator model nationwide was to offer cheap space and shared services to start-up tenants. But RPI tossed out that construct last month when it reconstituted its incubator as EVE (Emerging Ventures Ecosystem) and moved off-campus. Now, from a central office in downtown Troy, the program aims to match member companies to real estate, mentors, financing and other professional assistance in an attempt to “turbo-charge” their growth.
RPI wasn’t alone, though, in its new focus on start-ups. Siena College in Loudonville announced in the fall that it would establish an incubator, and the School of Business at the University at Albany said it was exploring doing the same.
And in the next few weeks, a new incubator, dubbed the Innogen Business Accelerator, will debut in Schenectady, supported by Union Graduate College and DHA Holdings, an industrial manufacturing services firm whose principal is a Union alumnus. Innogen will offer graduate-level business courses, mentoring, marketing services and financial support to start-ups that pass muster.
Innogen’s mission statement emphasizes the commercialization of products and services that lead to job creation and further business investment, a goal that came up again and again when representatives of the college incubators took part in a breakfast forum last month.
Michael Hickey, named to lead Siena’s incubator effort, participated, as did Donald Siegel, dean of the UAlbany business school. Serial entrepreneur Richard Frederick, who will oversee EVE, was there, as were Thomas Keane, director of The Sage Colleges incubator in Troy, and Michael Visk, an MBA student at Union Graduate College who was just named to head Innogen. All mentioned the objective of helping start-ups get from the drawing board to the marketplace.
And they talked, too, about collaborating with each other, with Hickey urging them to “create one agenda we can all work on.”
To that end, Wacholder, who moderated the breakfast panel, got the group together again last week to talk about how a regional collaborative of incubators could be helpful to all without hurting any of the schools’ individual programs.
Next time they meet, he said, they’ll assess the strengths of each incubator and see where overlaps or complements exist. “Everyone’s model is different,” he said, “but they all serve a similar purpose” in supporting entrepreneurs and economic development. Duplication of services, he added, was “foolish.”
I didn’t want to split hairs with Wacholder, but that sounded like a renaissance to me: tweaking or expanding programs that help businesses get their sea legs, so that products, jobs and economic growth result.
But I couldn’t argue with his view, honed over 30 years: that the incubator concept — and particularly any regional initiatives undertaken here — is “so new it hasn’t gotten old enough to have a renaissance.”
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