by Kristin Woeste
A ribbon, scissors, flashbulbs, speakers and applause: These are typical sights and sounds on the well-trodden path of incubator grand openings. But Lennox Tech Enterprise Center staff wanted more than just a first-rate photo opportunity when they opened the incubator's doors in 1997 in the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of West Henrietta. From day one, they wanted the center to exude entrepreneurship and excite the greater Rochester community about the possibilities an entrepreneurial environment creates. They succeeded with their innovative Tech Entrepreneurs' Week (TEW) program, and have since started to return to the entrepreneurial spirit and technological drive that flourished in the region at the turn of the 20th century.
"Right from the start, we wanted to make the incubator look and feel like an entrepreneurial environment, not like a government or academic environment," says Paul Wetenhall, venture coach and center manager since it opened. "We said, 'Let's make it a whole week where what goes on has substantive value to people who have already started a company or are thinking about starting a company.'"
And that's what the incubator did when it took the ambitious step of hosting the first TEW in association with its grand opening. Using extensive publicity, expert-led coaching seminars, and a festive open house, the incubator encouraged Rochester-area community members to take the entrepreneurial leap. The community embraced the event, and what began as a weeklong celebration of an incubator's beginning has grown into an annual celebration of entrepreneurship, each year building on previous strengths and successes.
Now in its sixth year, TEW's comprehensive focus and flawless execution caught the eyes of NBIA judges, who chose the center to receive NBIA's Innovation Award at the 16th International Conference on Business Incubation in April. The annual award honors an innovation that benefits client companies within an incubation program by either going beyond usual incubation services or introducing a creative way to implement existing ideas.
Entrepreneurship is not a new concept in Rochester. Located in upstate New York, the city experienced an economic boom during the 19th century with the opening of the Erie Canal and the advent of a thriving wheat industry. The subsequent population explosion attracted many ambitious entrepreneurs who spawned companies that would eventually become some of today's most prominent corporations, including Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, and Xerox. As these companies prospered, the economic climate shifted from one that was characterized by entrepreneurial ventures to one that was dominated by big business. Although these major companies created many jobs and brought prosperity to the region in the early 20th century, changing economic times lay ahead.
Corporate downsizing hit Rochester hard during the 1980s and 1990s, causing community leaders to look at options for creating new jobs. In 1989, the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology collaborated to form a nonprofit economic development organization called High Tech Rochester. Inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit that characterized the city at the turn of the 20th century, the organization decided to test the waters of incubation. With 11 client companies, High Tech Rochester started a pilot incubator in a building owned by Eastman Kodak. Encouraged by the success some of these start-ups achieved, the organization focused its efforts on building a permanent facility, eventually securing a combined $6.7 million in grants from the state of New York and the U.S. Department of Defense.
When the 50,000-square-foot Lennox Technology Center was ready for business in October of 1997, Wetenhall wanted to launch the new incubator with an event that would attract the entrepreneurial community. He knew generating interest and deflecting skepticism would require more than a typical grand opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and bland political speeches, so he began working with his staff to plan an event focused on entrepreneurship. Through this brainstorming, the idea for TEW was born.
More than 150 area entrepreneurs, community leaders and government representatives attended that week's events and responded enthusiastically to the networking and training opportunities. "We had a positive reception," Wetenhall says. "The press covered it very favorably, the people who participated said, 'Hey this is great, we'd like to come back for more,' and the presenters were appreciative of the opportunities to make connections with prospective entrepreneurs."
Although the incubator staff had intended TEW to be a one-time launching event, the animated response showed Wetenhall and others that it was too good to drop. "It was pretty much a no-brainer to do it again," Wetenhall says. "We knew it was a lot of work, but we also knew that if we could pull it off in year one when we were trying to build a building, get clients, and with a very limited staff, we knew it would be easier the second and third times around." His instinct was right: since the program debuted in 1997, the incubator staff has developed what Alana C. McDaniel, the center's client relations manager and TEW organizer, calls "a very workable and successful template," allowing smooth planning of the event.
Now the center is busy planning TEW 2002, during which incubator staff and a series of presenters will equip incubator clients and other Rochester-area entrepreneurs with the business tools and know-how they'll need to retrace the steps of the area's entrepreneurial pioneers. The week kicks off with an opening gala reception featuring a well-known speaker. The next three evenings are filled with coaching seminars, which anyone can attend for a fee. The event closes with a catered open house, during which participants tour client suites and learn more about the center and its programs.
But none of these activities are unfamiliar ground for business incubators. Even the idea of designating a "week" to commemorate an industry, person or event is commonplace. It wasn't the ideas or activities themselves that earned TEW an NBIA award – it was the precision with which the center's staff plan and produce the event.
Wetenhall and McDaniel agree that it's elbow grease, not lightning-strike genius, that has made TEW what it is. "I don't think there's any brilliant insight we had," Wetenhall says. "I think the secret of what we did at Tech Entrepreneurs' Week was that we had a good idea to begin with, and we've been very systematic, very comprehensive in our execution of it." Although organizers didn't have a specific model in planning the first TEW, Wetenhall says he gathered information from other programs, such as one incubator that brought potential clients in for a "taste" of the incubator. The center's staff also relied on incubation publications and networking with successful incubators like the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Incubator Program. Combining these influences, Wetenhall created a unique program in TEW. "I'd never seen anything that was wrapped around the opening of an incubator that was quite like this or concentrated in one week," he says. "We really piggy-backed on a lot of good thinking from other people."
Wetenhall and McDaniel estimate that, all told, it takes four to eight weeks to plan and prepare for each TEW. But that time is spread among four center employees over the year, as some arrangements have to be mapped out months in advance. McDaniel relies on a checklist to track month-to-month progress. "It's something you can't just do in a couple weeks," she says.
Another key is involving all constituencies in the planning. McDaniel believes that brainstorming with entrepreneurs, professionals and academics has ensured success for TEW because the content suits everyone. "It's very important to have enthusiasm and to include as many people's ideas as possible," she says.
What do the center's clients get out of having their workspaces overrun by hundreds of strangers after hours one week every October? For starters, they have convenient access to the high-quality information brought in by the experts who present. This is a definite advantage to clients who can't afford to invest time in traveling to outside training sessions. "They brought in top-notch outside people, and the interaction with them was really a benefit," says Kurt Gelke, CEO of Neo/SCI, the incubator's first graduate. "When you're starting up, every second is precious."
Clients and graduates also have the chance to take a leading role and gain public speaking experience by offering brief company presentations or passing on their own know-how at some of the week's sessions. At the TEW following Neo/SCI's graduation, Gelke served on a panel to share "war stories" from his entrepreneurial journey. The next year, Gelke served as a workshop coordinator, and he's planning to return again this year. His reasons for continued participation are twofold: the event provides valuable networking opportunities and, by sharing the expertise he's gained from experience, Gelke feels he is giving something back to the organization that played an instrumental role in the success of his company. Nonclient presenters – including faculty from the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, attorneys, experienced entrepreneurs, and investors – also benefit, drawing attention and potential clients while delivering valuable content to entrepreneurs.
In some cases, the interaction between nonclient participants has led strangers to become business allies and create valuable partnerships that last far beyond the end of the formal week of activities. "It's a wonderful networking opportunity where you can meet venture capitalists, other entrepreneurs and people dealing with some of the same issues you are," says Bruce Capron, chief operating officer of OZ Saferooms, one of the incubator's clients. Attending TEW earned Capron more than a wider network: He found a new business partner in Andrew Zagorski. Zagorski had developed a unique technique for pouring complex concrete structures and Capron had sales development experience. After the two met at last year's TEW, they decided to put Zagorski's innovation to work building jointless, seamless above-ground saferooms to protect people from tornados and other disasters. The duo embarked on its journey with the incubator in February and since then has been successfully building OZ's team.
Personal connections aren't the only benefit TEW participants reap. They also profit from the coaching sessions that stock them with the best new-business strategies. According to Wetenhall, the program's planning committee strives to organize sessions that address pertinent issues and explain important skills. Committee discussions and client surveys help committee members determine what topics will be most useful in a given year.
The center itself benefits in a more tangible way, as the event attracts potential clients. In its first five years, TEW harnessed about 40 percent of the 40 clients Lennox Tech Enterprise Center has admitted. After the fourth annual TEW, the center reached its full occupancy of 18 clients – one year ahead of schedule. By attending TEW activities, potential clients have a head start on starting up. The center gains a larger and stronger pool of entrepreneurs from which to choose.
TEW has become the annual focal point around which the staff plan the year and brand the incubator. In promoting TEW 2000, the staff developed a graphic of a mountain climber jumping from one cliff to another. The image, which Wetenhall says symbolizes an entrepreneur "taking the leap," was so popular that it has become the incubator's logo, adorning business cards, stationery and promotional materials. "It's become a strong marketing tool," McDaniel says.
The event is also a rallying point to lift the spirits of staff and clients, getting them excited about the center and its mission. This annual celebration of success creates an environment that nurtures more success, thus establishing a self-perpetuating cycle of achievement. The event's popularity is demonstrated by the fact that the room in which seminars take place has become so crowded at times that organizers had to add another fire door to avoid code violations. Even with these structural accommodations, TEW plays to a standing-room-only crowd and the overflow crowd watches the sessions on a closed-circuit television in the lobby. Such high attendance helps make TEW a financially sound incubator program. Nonclient participants pay $30 per session (or $75 for all three) and outside sponsors contribute additional funds. The small profit that remains after the costs of the event are covered is applied to total incubator revenues and used to help operate the center.
TEW may have begun as only a week's worth of activities, but over time the incubator has developed a number of programs to complement TEW throughout the year. McDaniel coordinates other in-house programs for clients, including InfoBytes, an abbreviated version of TEW. Each month, an invited speaker makes a presentation to clients on a business topic. Client companies' CEOs and managers attend the round-table seminar, introducing themselves and their companies to the speaker and other clients. In addition to the primary benefit of teaching business strategies through expert speakers, McDaniel says, "we are establishing a sense of community and camaraderie."
Another event that gets client company CEOs and managers together is the incubator's CEO Roundtable. In this program, client managers meet over lunch once each month to discuss a topic relevant to business growth. McDaniel says one of the keys to the success of these lunchtime sessions is getting the entrepreneurs excited about and involved in the planning process. At the beginning of each year, the incubator holds a kickoff roundtable meeting during which clients plan a year's worth of topics and assign monthly topic leaders and lunch providers. "Everyone has input, so everyone knows what everyone else is looking to learn about," McDaniel says. "It's been very successful."
Gelke of Neo/SCI appreciated the support system that events like InfoBytes and the CEO Roundtable created among the other managers and CEOs. "You could learn from the other clients," he says. "Or if they couldn't consult you, they could console you."
As for the future of TEW, Wetenhall and McDaniel have ideas to take the week to new heights. They covered fresh ground with the addition of a graduation ceremony to the week's events when the center's first clients graduated in 2000. Now some clients enter and exit via TEW. Planners also are considering adding a gala event with a national speaker joining attendees over a dinner or lunch. Because of its potential size, that event would be held outside the center's walls. "You could almost imagine a Tech Entrepreneurs' Month, with events spread out over several weeks so that we could offer more programs," Wetenhall says. The only hesitation is concern that expanding the event too much will dilute its focus. Also, planners have considered adding a springtime version of the week. "It's tough to say to an entrepreneur who's getting cranked up in April, 'Come to our business planning seminar in October,'" Wetenhall says.
In considering all of these potential enhancements, the center's staff keep TEW's end goal in mind. "We want to make sure that technological entrepreneurship is celebrated, that it's understood, that people in political, business and academic leadership can articulate why it's important and can support it," Wetenhall says.
With a program as innovative and successful as TEW making an impact on Rochester's economic climate, the Lennox Tech Enterprise Center is well on its way to achieving this goal.
Keywords: entrepreneurial pool, marketing and promotion, networking activities -- client, seminars and training programs
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