In an early 20th-century building that has been a movie theater, a bowling alley, a carpet display room and a warehouse, the South Side Innovation Center of Syracuse, N.Y., creates businesses in an area where there was once little business and even less hope. The program considers anyone who asks for business assistance a client, so each year, the incubator’s three full-time and two part-time staff work with hundreds of nonresident clients in addition to its resident clients. As a result, SSIC has had a remarkable impact on the downtrodden south side of the Empire State’s fifth-largest city.
“It started with a visionary college administrator,” says Bob Herz, who until recently was SSIC’s director (he now works on economic development projects for New York State Sen. Martin Golden). “Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University, thought that by opening the incubator’s doors, the school could enrich both the school and the community.”
With Cantor as champion, SSIC was created in 2006 as part of the Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises Program within the Whitman School of Management. Whitman students act as consultants under the supervision and guidance of their professors and SSIC staff, says Herz. In exchange, students may receive class credit, pay or experience.
While many incubation programs carefully screen applicants, SSIC accepts everyone – though entrepreneurs still undergo an assessment of their strengths and weakness and work with staff to develop an actionable business plan. “When you walk through the door, so far as we’re concerned, you’re an entrepreneur,” says Herz, who directed the program when it received NBIA’s 2012 Dinah Adkins Incubator of the Year award in the general and special focus category. (The position is currently held by El-Java Williams Abdul-Qadir, a former SSIC client.)
SSIC accomplishes its mission to increase the vitality of the local economy through incubation by partnering with public and private entities to reduce clients’ financial burden for training and assistance. The comprehensive suite of programs and services for entrepreneurs includes the Entrepreneurial Assistance Program, which provides business assistance and entrepreneur training on a sliding-fee scale (including Kauffman’s NxLeveL Business Plan course, one-on-one consulting and other assistance). SSIC also offers a U.S. Small Business Administration Program for Investment in Micro-entrepreneurs (SBA PRIME) that provides personalized start-up training and business assistance to disabled and low-income individuals at no cost.
Other partners provide business assistance and training for specific demographic groups, such as Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship program and V-WISE for women veterans, and the Syracuse Community Test Kitchen (COMTEK) for low or no cost to the client. SSIC also established a microloan fund through the Syracuse Cooperative Federal Credit Union and receives general operating support from JPMorgan Chase. New York state provides funding for the Entrepreneurial Assistance Program.
SSIC is more than a business incubator – it’s a beacon of economic strength for everyone in its service area who is willing to make an effort. “You may be minority, disabled, unemployed – and we’ll work with those issues also – but you’re an entrepreneur,” says Herz. “So the first thing we do is make sure you understand that and what it means.” The only people who do not receive assistance are those who do not ask for it; however, all clients must endeavor to grow their business to remain SSIC clients.
“There’s work required here,” says Margaret Marie Butler, director of SSIC’s Entrepreneurial Assistance Program. EAP focuses on business plan development, entrepreneurial training, and Minority- and Women-owned Business Enterprises certification, which facilitates entrepreneurs’ access to federal and state contracts. Its services are part of the broader array of SSIC programs, in what the incubator calls Inclusive Entrepreneurship. “Our business counselors will send people home with homework, and if they don’t do what’s required, we don’t continue with them,” Butler says. The counselors are area business owners who contract with SSIC to provide the service, and the homework is getting the start-up or existing business in order.
SSIC requires resident clients to have a business plan or be well along in its development, and SSIC management approves resident client applicants. Otherwise, resident and nonresident clients receive the same services. “The difference is proximity to the counselors and the opportunity for networking with others at all hours as resident clients,” says Herz.
The incubator leases two dozen offices that range from 100 square feet to 600 square feet. The smallest office rents for $150 per month and is fully equipped with utilities, Internet, computers, telephones, other essential office equipment and enrollment in EAP, which gives discounted or free access to SSIC training. “The only thing they need to do is show up with their office supplies,” Butler says.
A new client at SSIC goes through a three-stage process. “First, we walk them through the issues —initial marketing, barriers to growth, what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Developing the frame of mind that gets them to ask if this is really for them,” Herz says. “The second part is helping create a business plan and getting their first small business loan.”
The program starts with eight training sessions Herz calls Entrepreneurial Awareness. Clients who choose to continue graduate into the Entrepreneurial Assistance Program, where they work to develop a business plan, take 60 hours of classroom training and solidify their concept. “After that, we help to create the business entity, develop access to financing and market,” Herz says.
Residents and nonresidents can enroll in courses on entrepreneurship and other business-related topics and tools such as Microsoft Office and QuickBooks at fairly low cost. “We have a four-hour time management course that costs $40,” says Butler. “The five-hour QuickBooks course is $45.” The incubator offers about 100 hours of training each year in its various programs; clients are not required to attend all the classes, but incubator staff strongly urge resident companies to attend at least 40 hours of training each year.
“Finally, the third part,” Herz says. “That’s help to get to market. If we’ve only trained you, we’ve done nothing.”
There are informal milestones along the way. “It’s a balancing act,” says Herz. “You have limited resources against an unlimited need, and for that reason, we established normative scales.” A typical company, for instance, might need to meet with counselors eight times during the first phases of their involvement with SSIC. “Some might be ready to move up after four, but if you’ve needed 16 sessions and it’s taken two years to make a business plan, that’s too long.”
Last year, SSIC also offered a summer program for 20 local students in grades 10-12, which included business classes taught by Syracuse University instructors and group work in which five-member teams – with no two team members from the same school – were paired with a Syracuse University mentor and tasked to create a clean-energy business idea. The weeklong session ended with a business idea competition with the five members of the winning team each receiving a donated $500 gift certificate. Butler says the program will continue, and plans for a second track for returning students are in development.
Tuition was $600, but local sponsors provided many student scholarships. The boot camp didn’t generate revenue, but it was considered a success. “It’s not about making a profit,” says Butler. “It’s about working with the public and helping them.”
South Side Innovation Center
2610 South Salina Street
Syracuse, NY 13204
Year established: 2006
Incubator size: 13,000 square feet
Incubator resident clients: 25
Incubator graduates: 9
Organizational structure: Incubator is a 501(c)(3) organization that is part of Syracuse University and is a project of the Whitman School at Syracuse University.
Keywords: Economic development, NBIA programs, client services – general, special-focus incubator, social entrepreneurship
Phone: (740) 593-4331
Fax: (740) 593-1996
340 West State Street, Unit 25
Athens, OH 45701-1565