Inspiration Through Incubation


A common mantra of state and city leaders is that, to move forward, Michigan must diversify and innovate. Incubators are designed to make that happen.

Incubators come in many forms. They can provide a boost to a young company by mitigating many of the risks and expenses associated with entrepreneurship. They support entrepreneurship and innovation in areas like science and technology, and help students and entrepreneurs turn ideas into growth and success. Done right, incubators give access to resources that young entrepreneurs might have a hard time finding elsewhere, such as training, mentoring and advising.

Michigan State University, the City of East Lansing and the Lansing School District have set up incubators and, by providing a cooperative working atmosphere that lends itself to easy networking and collaboration, are working to provide more than a workspace and a conference room.

The Information Technology Empowerment Center (ITEC) in Lansing and the Technology Innovation Center (TIC) in East Lansing are two of the most discussed new incubators on the scene.

ITEC is a K-12 educational organization that focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects. The TIC provides inexpensive resources and an environment that is custom-built to nurture startup technology companies.

Passion and Competence

“The need for improved math and science skills has been recognized for a long time,” says Kirk Riley, executive director of ITEC. To meet this need, ITEC was developed “to equip today’s middle school and high school students for college and career opportunities in technology fields—particularly in computer science and information technology.”

ITEC is the result of a convergence of a group of MSU faculty with heavy-hitters like the City of Lansing, the Prima Civitas Foundation, Lansing School District, Lansing Community College and Capital Area Michigan Works!, along with private sector firms and key funding from the Dart Foundation and TechSmith. The stakeholders looked to after-school programs in places like Harlem, Pittsburg and Detroit as they modeled their program.

The participation of MSU is of particular importance to the ITEC project. With very little in the way of serious research studies done on such programs, most of the success stories Riley found were anecdotal. “The need for solid data on what works and why is part of the basis for MSU's involvement,” he says.

The goal is to “stake a claim in improving schools throughout the region” – in fact working directly in them – offering after school-classes in computer programming, math, robotics, digital media and other subjects.

“You don't want students to see the field as boring or restricted to ‘geeks,’” Riley says. “Nor do we want students without science and math skills.”

It appears to be working. In the spring of 2009, Lansing’s Pattengill Middle School alone had more than 80 participants.

“Our basic rules: It must be fun; it can't be ‘school after school,’” Riley says. “There is no answer key to ITEC projects and classes. Instead, students explore these subjects through innovative, self-paced, exploratory means.”

“21st Century jobs demand those kinds of skills,” he says. “ITEC will produce students better able to move into technology careers. We will build students’ passion for and competence in technology subjects.”

De-Risking

If ITEC produces the raw material that higher education forms into successful students and entrepreneurs, the East Lansing TIC waits on the other end to catch them on their way out.

The TIC is 7,000 square feet of entrepreneur heaven. For a very reasonable rate, a tech-focused startup can lease private office space and get the use of shared conference rooms, IT services, a mail room and copier as part of the package.

“The Downtown Development Authority and the city council took a risk during one of the riskiest economic periods in our nation’s history,” says Jeff Smith, project manager for New Economic Initiatives, Planning and Community Development for the City of East Lansing. “The demand for this type of space was growing. The university began focusing on tech transfer and commercialization. The region started shifting their focus about the long-term strategy for economic development.”

“Think of it in terms of de-risking,” says Smith. “Suddenly, a business can focus on growing clientele and R&D versus worrying about rent and overhead. We provide an environment that is conducive to succeeding.”

But that may not be the best part. The TIC also provides access to training, funding sources, mentoring and a network of professional advisors.

“The most beneficial aspect of the TIC is the entrepreneurial atmosphere and the support of others who share common goals,” says Nicholas Chilenko, a recent MSU grad and owner of web design firm Nicholas Creative, one of the TIC’s first tenants.

“The low-cost office space and location is what initially spurred my interest,” he says. “Having been in the space for nearly a year, I am happy to say that’s not why I will continue to renew my lease. Now I realize it’s more about the people, resources and new opportunities. I’ve been able to branch out and close new business in the Mid-Michigan area while forging new relationships that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.”

The hype surrounding the TIC and the success that it has seen has already created a spin-off. The Hatch is located in Scene Metrospace and creates a bridge between college coursework and business ownership. For a very modest fee, students can use many of the facilities of the TIC, along with desk space and Internet access across the street at Scene Metrospace.

Modeled partly after Beehive Baltimore, Smith holds high hopes for The Hatch. The Beehive, he says, “has been very successful in creating a co-working environment that helps accelerate business development.”

With the success of the TIC having been described as nothing less than “explosive,” The Hatch is in good hands.

Constant Evolution

Despite having only been in operation for a year, the organizers behind the TIC and the Hatch are already looking at what comes next. With the incubator movement picking up steam, more new initiatives are likely to be popping up in Lansing soon. At least one is already in the works.

With the help of local entrepreneur Bunmi Akinyemiju, plans have already been laid for a project known as Skunkworks, which may initially function as a sub-project within The Hatch and provide a prototype testing ground for new ideas.

“The TIC is a constantly evolving idea,” says Chilenko. “The best part about it is that all of the tenants are free to help shape the outcome.”

All of which is music to Jeff Smith’s ears. “The hope is that it will start to change the way we think about our economy,” Smith says. “The success of the businesses in the TIC is the region's success.”

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Jeff Shoup is a musician, student, and freelance writer based in Lansing. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.



Photos:

Students at at Pattengill ITEC class use digital video cameras

Kirk Riley in front of ITEC's future home


Pattengill ITEC students create audio files for their videos

East Lansing TIC's lobby

Nicholas Chilenko's TIC office space

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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