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Assembling a strong advisory board is equivalent to building an arsenal of powerful assets for your incubation program. Unlike a board of directors, advisory boards have no fiduciary responsibility and their advice is nonbinding, but when you need an objective opinion or assistance establishing strategic networks, an advisory board can be invaluable.

Building effective incubator advisory boards

by Carol Kraus Lauffer

August 2011

Whether you're the CEO of a corporation or an incubator manager, you need outside expertise and advice to run a best-of-class program. Incubator advisory boards can help managers guide and evaluate clients, provide mentoring support, raise community awareness and provide access to resource networks. This outside assistance helps the incubator manager remain focused on providing client services and contributes to long-term program sustainability.

Advisory board roles

"Credibility, connections and counsel" are the most important contributions of an incubator advisory board, says Joel Wiggins, president and CEO of the Enterprise Center of Johnson County in Lenexa, Kan. "There are three categories of advisory board members: sleeves [those who roll up their sleeves and do the work], resumes [they know everyone in the community], and wallets [they help you to find the money]," Wiggins says. "You need all three."

Primarily, an incubator advisory board provides advice and counsel to incubator management and staff. Unlike a board of directors, which has a specific governance role and fiscal responsibilities, the advisory board is just as it's named, "advisory," providing advice on programs and services for client companies, marketing and generating deal flow for the incubation program, and sources of funding for the incubator.

Incubators operating under a host organization – such as a university or college, economic development program, city government or chamber of commerce – typically organize advisory boards because the program doesn't have a board of directors to help provide strategic direction, advice and oversight.

David Terry, executive director of the West Texas A&M University Enterprise Center in Amarillo, Texas, describes his advisory board as a source of innovation, critical analysis and application. "It advises on how we should grow our program and how we catalyze entrepreneurship in the region," he says. "We want to create a best-of-class incubator, and the advisory board's role is assisting the staff to accomplish that goal."

Advisory board members can help to determine the types of programs the incubator should offer, how best to provide services to clients, and how effective the incubator's programming and services are. Working with the incubator manager, advisory board members can even help to develop new programs. "An advisory board has an outside perspective on the issues confronting entrepreneurs," says Terry, and therefore, "they can help us to identify programmatic opportunities and challenges that will benefit our clients and our community."

In Monterey, Calif., several advisory board members for the Marina Technology Cluster developed the Monterey Bay Regional Business Plan Competition. MTC advisory board members provide marketing and public relations assistance, evaluate applicants and coach finalists. "I can call on each of my advisory board members for help. I don't do it all the time, but I know I can count on them," says Susan Barich, MTC director.

Beyond advising, incubator advisory board members are advocates and ambassadors for the program. To be strong advocates, advisors need to understand incubator programming, clients, finances and stakeholder responsibilities. Management can keep their advisors informed about program news during regular meetings and periodic one-on-one discussions.

In addition to providing program guidance and evaluation, advisory board members often act as a public face of the incubator, highlighting its services and impacts to potential clients, stakeholders and the community at large. "They help to keep the incubator on the radar," says Marla Michel, director of the Scibelli Enterprise Center at Springfield Technical Community College in Springfield, Mass.

Brad Proctor, executive director and CEO of the Dayton RFID Convergence Center in Dayton, Ohio, says his advisory board lends credibility to his program. "I just show the names of the advisory board members [to prospective clients], and their interest in the program increases. Their names, titles and affiliations are effective recruiting tools that attract clients."

Credibility and experience are prerequisites for another important advisor role: facilitating networks for the incubator and its clients. Through advisors' community connections, an incubator manager can often find resources for client companies, locate new service providers, access funding sources (for both the incubator and client companies), and even recruit new client companies. Terry actively engaged his advisory board with a very specific assignment: Find three client company referrals. They didn't all come through, he recalls, but the effort did generate a few referrals.

Selecting advisory board members

Strong advisory board members bring more than their titles and affiliations. You need people invested in the incubator's success and available to provide assistance to both your program and your clients. When evaluating potential candidates, ask yourself: Do they have skills (e.g., operations, financial and accounting, marketing, sales) that benefit client companies? How good is their network? Do they have time and interest in participating? An advisor's willingness to engage with clients and incubator staff is critical, but the ability to follow through on commitments cannot be overlooked.

Responsibilities of advisory board members

According to Barich, it is important to be clear about your expectations of the roles and responsibilities of advisors from the start. "Prior to [new advisors] joining the advisory board, I tell each member that I expect them to work with clients, find new clients and be a resource for me and my incubator," Barich says.

Some incubator managers even provide a comprehensive job description outlining roles and responsibilities to help people to understand the required commitment and potential influence of their new position.

In general, advisors should attend regularly scheduled meetings, provide feedback about prospective clients, contribute expertise about programming and operations, and in some cases, act as mentors for clients and incubator staff.

Once an incubator sets organizational parameters for the group, an advisory board can get to work, often meeting quarterly. Advisory board meetings usually begin with a review of incubator and client status, followed by a discussion topic or two. During these discussions, advisory board members may share advice on new referral sources for incubator client companies, brainstorm new ideas for services or explore new sources of funding for the incubator.

Conducting regular meetings keeps advisors engaged and provides an opportunity to showcase client companies to key industry leaders. "We wrap up the meeting with a presentation by an incubator client company," Proctor says. "This presentation is an important part of connecting with potential customers and a benefit of being in the incubator."

Advisory board evolution

Incubator clients are dynamic, which means that incubator programs, mentors and advisors need to be dynamic, too. A manager may need to restructure an advisory board to better meet client needs or to accommodate advisors' busy schedules.

Terry is getting ready to launch his "next generation" advisory board. "The first time around I put several serial entrepreneurs on the board, so we could draw upon their expertise," he says. "Instead, they didn't attend meetings because they were too busy running their businesses." This time, he's looking for individuals with both experience and the time to commit.

Most incubator managers agree: Having the right combination of skills, experience, credibility, connections and time to participate are key to the success of an incubator advisory board.

Carol Kraus Lauffer is a partner at Business Cluster Development in Menlo Park, Calif., and chair of the NBIA Board of Directors.

FEATURED SOURCES

Susan Barich, director, Marina Technology Cluster, Monterey, Calif.

Marla Michel, director, Scibelli Enterprise Center, Springfield Technical Community College, Springfield, Mass.

Brad Proctor, executive director and CEO, Dayton RFID Convergence Center, Dayton, Ohio

David Terry, executive director, West Texas A&M University Enterprise Center, Amarillo, Texas

Joel Wiggins, president and CEO, Enterprise Center of Johnson County, Lenexa, Kan.

Keywords: Advisory board – incubator, Best practices, Strategic planning

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