Something is blossoming for entrepreneurs out in the deserts of Arizona.
In a 60,000-square-foot building formerly occupied by Intel, the city of Chandler spent around $6 million to transform the microchip giant’s fully equipped but abandoned facility, into an incubator for tech, biotech, and other nascent businesses. As of this winter, the Phoenix suburb has drawn 22 companies to its unique real estate—which features state-of-the-art wet and dry labs, a “clean room,” industrial deep freezers. The University of Arizona is also on site, actively looking to join forces with entrepreneurs.
Startups apply with business plans that go before scientific and financial panels, with a turnaround time of 48 hours or less on approval. One entrepreneur relocated from Rhode Island to take advantage of the affordable rent and rare habitat; another has gone from two employees to 35 since the site opened in 2010. Local institutions from hospitals to academics to prototype makers are teaming up with incubator inhabitants to help them scale up. Two resident firms are set to spin out on their own later in 2013—right on schedule, says Christine Mackay, Chandler’s director of economic development.
“I can’t even begin to put a value on what it’s doing for Chandler’s economy,” Mackay says. “Everybody’s working to help these companies succeed. The city’s only one small component of it.”
Leigh Dow moved her technical-marketing business, Dow Media Group, into the Innovations Incubator in 2012. She says it’s a great fit, and it allows her to collaborate with other startups in the building. “For me, it’s more about being around other likeminded people—we exchange ideas about not just marketing,” Dow says. “I’ve learned so much about operations, product development, product management, product introductions. It’s just so nice to be surrounded by other people who are in the entrepreneurial space when you’re trying to do that, too.”
Accelerators, science parks, seeders, incubators: these settings come in many names, but with the common ideal—to build a center where entrepreneurs and their fledging businesses can get a boost.
This business-incubation movement got a long look during the dot-com heyday, then found renewed emphasis since the 2008–09 recession, as governments, academia, and industries push to create more skilled workers and more well-paying jobs to place them into. There are thousands of these incubators around the world, with more than 1,200 just in the U.S., according to the National Business Incubation Association. (And here’s a good website to follow for events, competitions, and launches around the world.)
Here is a look at a few of America’s promising innovation incubators and what they’re doing for entrepreneurs.
EvoNexus (San Diego)
This incubator, a nonprofit with backing from the city government and hometown wireless giant Qualcomm among others, is unabashedly aiming to boost the region’s high-tech presence to compete with Northern California’s luminaries. With two locations and 20 companies under its roof, firms they’ve nurtured have pulled in some $95 million in venture capital. There’s no rent, no contracts for the amount of time a company will stay, and mentors are provided.
Interesting feature: Its rare “no strings attached” policy. Startups don’t pay a dime to participate coming or going, not even in the form of an equity stake to EvoNexus.
StartUp Kitchen (Washington, D.C.)
It’s a big step from a delicious recipe and an entrepreneurial itch to successfully operating an actual restaurant. StartUp Kitchen tries to close that gap by taking winners of their business-plan competition and pairing them up with expert restaurateurs who’ve been through the perilous early days and know the pitfalls. (The venture is sponsored by two DC-area nonprofits.) The reward: a recurring pop-up restaurant in the mentor’s existing dining spot, under the guidance of on-hand chef-owners who give advice on how to smooth out service, kitchen, and logistical aspects of the business.
Interesting feature: Follow StartUp Kitchen on Facebook to get a reservation and see it firsthand (and get a great dinner).
SURF Incubator (Seattle)
More than 45 tech startups are working out of this downtown incubator overlooking Puget Sound. Founded in 2009 by serial entrepreneur Seaton Gras, SURF charges $400 per month for full-fledged members, which provides them access to conference-room time, mentoring, 24/7 dedicated seating, Internet service—and to other potential collaborators in this innovation hotbed right in Microsoft’s back yard.
Interesting feature: This is Seattle: For $50 a month, get a designated seat in SURF’s in-house self-serve Cafe SURF, with unlimited coffee and WiFi.
Women Innovate Mobile (New York)
It’s still disproportionately male in most of the tech sector, but this accelerator aimed at mobile-tech startups founded by females is trying to change that. Successful applicants to WIM’s three-month program get free office space, product development assistance, design support, and $18,000 in funding—in return for a six-percent equity stake in the venture.
Interesting feature: Their deep roster of mentors.
MuckerLab (Los Angeles)
Hooray for Hollywood? Los Angeles recently moved to No. 3 in the world (behind Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv) when it comes to conditions for startups, according to a StartupCompass survey. MuckerLab is part of that booming scene, taking on entrepreneurs even at their earliest stages. They offer participants in their three- to six-month accelerator as much as $21,000 in funding, office space, marketing and legal support, access to top-tier investors—in exchange for a six- to eight-percent equity stake.
Interesting feature: Laugh along with their recent grad Laffster, which aims to be the Pandora Internet radio of comedy apps.
Fringe Union (Somerville, Mass.)
It’s not just tech startups that are flocking to this incubator close to the Harvard, Tufts, and MIT campuses. This coworking space for creative businesses has also found success with some thought-provoking participants, like an artisanal florist, an inventor who’s turning Mason jars into travel mugs, and a firm recycling fleece into new items.
Interesting feature: When the weather is nice outside, the industrial-scale garage doors on this old warehouse are opened, letting incubators work al fresco.