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Ohio incubator embraces international agreements

February/March 2013

When the staff at the Akron Global Business Accelerator in Akron, Ohio, recognized that the governments of Finland and the U.S. were supporting innovation at different stages, they saw an opportunity for the incubator and businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Finland actively encourages high-tech start-up companies and provides entrepreneur support for proof-of-concept and prototype development through Tekes, a Finnish organization that funds early-stage technology development. Michael LeHere, recently retired CEO of the Akron Global Business Accelerator, says the Finish government contributes a significant amount of its gross domestic product to help companies avoid the Valley of Death [the gap in small business development between $1 million and $4 million].

In the U.S., private investment capital tends to support mid-stage companies – those beyond proof-of-concept with existing intellectual property and potential for high-level growth. So, it just made sense for the Akron Global Business Accelerator to collaborate with Finnish companies and capture support for entrepreneurs from the earliest stages through establishment and expansion.

Backed by the city of Akron, the incubator established relationships with Finnish government agencies and businesses to encourage collaboration. “We have built a technology bridge with life science incubators comprised of three components: research and development, business assistance for companies and financial,” LeHere says. “If you don’t have all the components, it doesn’t work.”

Akron is home to an extensive network of medical and biotech organizations and is a hub of biomedical R&D. The region hosts leading-edge hospitals, a university and institutions that give entrepreneurs access to researchers and technical support. “Companies learn a great deal firsthand in Akron because they have higher visibility here compared with a larger city,” LeHere says.

In December 2011, Akron offered its first two-day intensive training event for six Finnish companies. Representatives from the federal government and the European Union participated, as well as 20 professionals from Akron’s network including specialists from the biomedical, research and legal sectors.

“[International linkages] are a very complex relationship with tentacles that spread throughout – the public entity, the university and the private sector,” LeHere says. “It is very important to establish a commitment beyond the incubator and the accelerator – there needs to be community commitment to be successful.”

Akron Global has spent many years cultivating a successful model for international partnerships, but the hard work has allowed the incubator to build a global ecosystem that attracts talent to Akron and benefits the local business community as well. A number of clients at the Akron Global Business Accelerator export throughout the world, and Akron companies are moving into Finland just as Finnish companies are moving into Akron.

“Incubator-to-incubator relationships require a fair amount of time to develop,” LeHere says. “You have to build the relationship and trust – not just talk and then team up. You have to establish credibility as a program before you can move forward in an effective relationship. It’s not easy, it’s not cheap and it takes time.”

Buy-in from stakeholders in both Ohio and Finland has been crucial to the success of the partnership. “The mayor of Finland needed to see high-level involvement by the accelerators and stakeholders on both continents,” LeHere says. “Our mayor made several trips to Finland to finalize the relationship between our community and Helsinki. We are fortunate that city government saw the writing on the wall: To grow, we need to be a global city. People want to get into the U.S. market – we need to bring them to Akron rather than Silicon Valley or New York.”—Bridget Lair

Keywords: international partnerships, client services – general, special-focus incubator, international incubation

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