Business incubator will bring out the innovative spirit of Edison's hometown

Even as the restoration of Port Huron’s 19th-century downtown continues to expose brick walls and shine up fashionably distressed hardwood floors, it's about to become a hub for new 21st-century businesses.

A business incubator is planned for part of the former Sperry's department store. Inspired by Thomas Edison, the office and its programs will celebrate this city's history as boyhood home of the world's most famous inventor. The Underground is slated to occupy 5,000 square feet of the basement of the iconic building. Edison’s quotes and illustrations will line the walls. Even ultra-hip "Edison bulbs" will keep the space illuminated for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Two co-working spaces have already launched in Port Huron: the down-to-business Tech Port and the more loosely creative Loft 912. (This article, for instance, was written at Loft 912.) A business incubator is a similar space, but with additional services.

Dan Casey, CEO of the incubator’s manager, the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County, described an up-to-three-year "formal program" for success. Each of the initial 10 businesses-in-residence will be assigned what is called a "kitchen cabinet." This advisors' group will typically include a banker, an industry expert, an accountant or lawyer and a representative of a local business group.

Firms in the program will be required to meet benchmarks and report to their advisors quarterly. They can use any number of resources, including mentors, "angel" capital investors and trainings.

What makes this incubator even more special: Some of its entrepreneurs will be under the age of 21. The Crossing, an Indiana-based dropout prevention and recovery program for at-risk teens, is set to occupy and manage the physical space of The Underground, while continuing its "business lab environment" and academic support for 14-to-20-year-olds.

These junior members will help run the more mundane services the facility provides, such as refilling copiers and keeping the space clean, while running their own "microbusinesses." Six of these at-risk teenagers in Port Huron went door-to-door last September to deliver their mission statement: "We are young business owners with a vision for global success. We're starting our company, and we want to find out how to make a successful business run."

It got the attention of local businesses.

"That's really cool for a 16-year-old to talk that way," said the Crossing’s chief officer, Quentin Bishop. "It was a really beautiful thing that unfolded."

Community leaders got involved in mentoring the teens, including the Bluewater Area Chamber of Commerce and Tech Port.

"The kids think, wow, when I put myself forward and give it my best effort, I am gaining access to the people who make decisions in the community," said Bishop.

Many incubators in Michigan are affiliated with some of the 15 state-designated SmartZones, and they typically tap a nearby research university for expertise. The EDA is currently talking to officials at Michigan State and Lawrence Tech about a collaborative venture with the startups.

Loft 912 plans to cross-promote with The Underground, and Tech Port will move into the incubator space itself.

For an example of the impact an incubator space can make, several Michigan incubators already provide models. Robert Smith, CEO of White Pine Software Technologies, LLC, started the company in November 2014 and took up residence in Ypsilanti's SPARK East co-working and incubation space. White Pine manages the enormous "terabytes" of test data that engineers draw on to fine-tune designs for engines and transmissions for the auto industry. Smith had some 30 years experience at Ford Motor Company before he retired.

Southeast Michigan area provided a well-educated pool of candidates in the information-technology and engineering fields. Smith admits, "I know my domain very well. I just don't know how to run a company."

He took advantage of the business-training seminars and informal contacts with other entrepreneurs on site. The CEO especially credits Joe Licavoli, Director of the Spark East incubator, for providing ongoing advice and resources.

"Often I would go to him and say something like, ‘How would I partner with a company in Germany?’"

Says Licavoli, "We get judged on people leaving us better than when they came in." At this point, White Pine is ready to "graduate." The firm has benefited from the fully equipped, inexpensive and scalable office space, but it has already signed a lease on a separate location and will move soon.

Incubators can serve a diverse variety of business needs across industry sectors. SPARK Ann Arbor, sister to SPARK East, has helped existing firms and startups in, among other fields, software, medical safety equipment, batteries, marketing and sales consulting, and even manufacturing and marketing non-electric warming blankets for infants in poor areas of the world.

The Port Huron incubator is part of an overall plan for economic development that will also include the Port Huron Industrial Park and a future technology park off I-94 in Kimball.

The Underground will accept applications from interested businesses, startups and college and high school students in September. Their launch date is tentatively planned for around Nov. 1. For more information on The Crossing, email Quentin Bishop at qbishop@crossingcec.com. To inquire about business incubator space, call (810) 982-9511.
 
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