by Dennis E. Powell
It has been a year of significant changes at abi Innovation Hub in Manchester, N.H. In February 2011, the Amoskeag Business Incubator, a mixed-use incubation program with a 14-year history, announced its rebranding as abi Innovation Hub.
While abi is still a mixed-use program, the name change represents a change of focus, too. "We felt there was an opportunity to diversify into the world of innovation," says Jamie Coughlin, CEO, who joined the then-Amoskeag program in October 2010. "That is subtly different from 'mixed-use.' The world is beginning rapidly to change, and people in New Hampshire can take part."
The rebranding provides an opportunity to change incubator policies and strategies, says Michele Petersen, chief operating officer and a four-year veteran of the program. "We have a review committee now and are trying to focus on companies that are a good match."
In its new incarnation, abi Innovation Hub is a 15,000-square-foot facility with 40 "residents — we prefer that to 'tenants' or 'clients,'" says Petersen. About half locate their businesses at the abi facility full time, while the other half is involved in a newly revamped co-working program. "We have a co-working lounge they can access 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and private meeting rooms and a conference room they can sign up to use."
Because New Hampshire is in some ways in the shadow of the Boston area and its rich business incubation environment, Coughlin and Petersen make a point of including people from the local community and beyond to sell the incubator, the city and the state to companies thinking of locating there. "We're trying to put some eyeballs on what we do, to make it interactive and get the public engaged," says Coughlin.
The most visible public outreach has been VentureX, an event held at the end of January, conceived as a pitch competition and more. Wasabi Ventures, a venture capital firm with offices in Silicon Valley and at abi Innovation Hub, offered $10,000 in seed capital and $20,000 of engineering and product management services from Wasabi Ventures, and a year's free residency at abi to the winner of the competition.
But it wasn't an ordinary pitch contest. Instead, each of 10 companies chosen by abi and Wasabi from among 100 that applied via a Web entry form received a booth where it could explain its products at a cocktail party open to the public. Attendees were asked to distribute five "golden tickets" in all or part to whichever enterprise(s) they found worthy. The three businesses that received the most tickets were named finalists and judged by a panel of five successful entrepreneurs and investors. The preliminary judging, final pitches and winner announcement all took place that evening.
More than 250 community residents attended the event. The winner was Mosaic Photo Systems, a company that provides storage and tools for commercial and other photographers who need access to their images from everywhere. Their presentation involved taking photographs of VentureX attendees, which they could see almost instantly on the Mosaic Web site.
"We're in the midst of an evolution in thought," says Coughlin. "New Hampshire is a very attractive state, both tax-wise and lifestyle-wise. People are starting businesses in very different ways these days. Now they can ask themselves if they want to be a small fish in a very large pond, or if they want to get established in a state ecosystem full of opportunity. New Hampshire has stuff going on, and we're part of it."–DEP
Keywords: networking, marketing and promotion, co-working program
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