National Business Incubation Association; Your source for knowledge and networks in business incubation

Professional development plays vital role in incubation industry

by Dinah Adkins

June/July 2009

Nobody earns a college degree in incubator management. Although some incubator managers have experience as incubator staff members, the majority come to incubator management from other fields. Some are former entrepreneurs themselves; others have worked in economic development or technology transfer, or have corporate or financial experience. And a few come to incubation from completely unrelated fields. As a result, incubator managers and their staff get their training on the job.

The incubation industry has changed significantly since 1959, when the first program was created in Batavia, N.Y., and even since 1980, when only 12 to 15 programs operated in the United States.

For one thing, the role of incubator manager has become more sophisticated and demanding. Entrepreneurial firms expect more from incubation program staff than in the past, and the manager must have the respect of the local business community and other stakeholders for the program to thrive.

Another sign of the industry’s evolution is the variety of incubation programs in operation. There are incubators in urban, suburban and rural areas serving clients of myriad backgrounds who run companies in diverse industries. Incubator management and staff must be prepared to meet the precise needs of their unique clientele.

And because of the breadth of the industry’s reach, client services have expanded and deepened. The first NBIA State of the Business Incubation Industry report in 1989 listed only 16 types of “management and technical assistance” services. The 2006 SOI report listed 33 distinct types of services offered by incubation programs, ranging from help with business basics to in-house seed funds.

All these factors point to the necessity of investing time and money in professional development for incubator management and staff. Some allowance for professional development should be put aside each year. Simply put, a best-practices program (or even a moderately effective one) cannot afford to forego all forms of professional development.

Incubator sponsors should be warned that failure to invest in professional development results in incubator programs that do not provide sufficient return on investment. Stinting on professional development is as bad as failing to compensate management sufficiently to attract professionals who have the skills to grow companies. It is penny wise and pound foolish.

In the broadest sense, professional development encompasses skills and knowledge obtained from personal development and career advancement. In the incubation industry, it can be obtained through consultation with others, coaching, reading, mentoring and networking.

All incubator developers and managers should learn about the best incubator models and practices and develop networks among these programs’ managers, with the goal of creating the best possible incubation programs in their own communities. Only if we follow this rule will we be able to raise the quality of business incubation and service to our client companies.

How do we do that? Primarily by becoming an active participant in NBIA and other associations that can keep you fresh in your job and up-to-date. NBIA sincerely believes that everyone involved in the incubation industry should join the association. Incubator developers can learn how to avoid mistakes that can cripple a program from the outset. And those who work in operating programs – regardless of their level of experience or market niche – will benefit from membership because NBIA is the primary source of information and professional development for incubator managers.

NBIA offers a number of incubation-specific professional development opportunities. The most obvious are our training programs and International Conference on Business Incubation, as well as our publications. But we also facilitate professional development by connecting members to one another via the NBIA member listserv.

Programs often get in a rut because management isn’t open to new ideas, or because they mistakenly think the field of business incubation has become stagnant. This is hardly the case! Longtime NBIA members – even those who have years of experience helping companies – note that they particularly enjoy conferences because they give them the opportunity to network with other experienced managers, to solve or get fresh perspectives on immediate issues, and to re-energize themselves professionally.

Especially during these tough economic times, NBIA recognizes that some incubator managers have limited resources and must pick and choose books and training events or attend irregularly depending on the proximity of the venue or other costs. However, I urge all incubator sponsors and incubator managers to budget for NBIA membership fees, publication purchases and attendance at training events or conference.

Lest you think these statements are purely self-interested, let me note that everything I know about business incubation and all the valuable contacts that I have made have come from close association with industry practitioners who belong to NBIA. These resources are incomparable. I cannot understand why anybody would fail to avail themselves of these riches in one way or another.

This article is just one of many resources available to incubation industry professionals through the Resource Library that is part of NBIA’s online benchmarking tool, available at NBIA thanks the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission for their support on this important new initiative to help incubator managers benchmark their program’s performance against that of their peers. For more details, see “Benchmark your business incubator – for free!

Need more information about industry best practices?

NBIA’s online benchmarking tool features a free resource library with a wealth of information drawn from NBIA Publications and commentary by Dinah Adkins, NBIA’s president and CEO. Learn more about:

  • Incubator governance
  • Staffing
  • Incubator finance
  • Selecting and serving clients
  • Facilities management
  • Measuring impact
  • And more

Just click on the “Resource Library” tab at to learn more! Also, watch for a complete revision of our best-selling book, Best Practices in Action, set for publication in early 2010.

Keywords: history of business incubation, networking, professional development -- general

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