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CVBI's virtual incubator: 'A Hundred Beacons'

October/November 2012

After a successful launch in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Central Valley Business Incubator of Fresno, Calif., is ready to take its VIP virtual incubation program national. The program began two years ago with a $100,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Business Enterprise Grant, which financed development of both the online programming and related materials.

The online offering comprises a series of video presentations, questionnaires and workbooks designed both to assist entrepreneurs in running their businesses and to help them gauge their progress. “We built it in a way that is different – it’s partner-code driven,” says Kirk Nagamine, CEO of CVBI. That means, CVBI issues a unique code to each participating organization, or “beacon,” which determines the site’s cobranding, sponsorship and local counselors to support entrepreneurs.

“‘A Hundred Beacons’ is our initiative, where we’re trying to provide 100 licenses to communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley,” Nagamine explains. CVBI developed the online incubation system so partner organizations – beacons – can offer it rebranded as part of their own incubation or economic development program, with local advertisements, services, advisors and mentors. So far, about 30 organizations in the region offer VIP as a service.

For $1,500 per year, a beacon program may give its partner code to up to 100 virtual incubator clients, giving them access to the virtual incubator. “Those codes are perpetual, so once a client is on, that client stays on until graduation, while the beacon program gets 100 more the next year,” Nagamine says. Should a beacon find the program so popular that 100 client partner codes aren’t enough, they can purchase more for a nominal fee, he adds.

The virtual program begins with an assessment questionnaire, which helps suggest a course of action for each entrepreneur. Clients then complete a feasibility workbook that builds on the questions in the assessment and focuses sharply on the proposed business itself. The next step covers practical business planning.

The VIP also contains a library of business materials; links to various services that might be of use to start-up companies; links to additional organizations, agencies and services of interest to start-ups; and access to mentoring, either face-to-face or online.

“It’s a flexible platform,” Nagamine says. “We’ll continue to add modules as we find the need for them.” There is also the possibility of beacon programs adding localized materials, as they do local mentors and services. “The client can store information in the system for the counselor to go over before giving advice, and in that way it’s highly efficient.”

The program is especially useful for preincubation companies, he says. “A lot of would-be entrepreneurs are currently employed, and this gives them access to the help they need on their schedule – in their place, at their pace.”

And though it’s a virtual incubation program, Nagamine says, VIP administrators monitor client progress, just as they would with in-house clients. Although each sponsoring program sets their own graduation criteria, CVBI plans to collect outcome data. “We track how these entrepreneurs are interacting with the technology but also how they’re progressing. We notice it if they get stuck. And once they graduate, we will keep track of them so we can determine how effective the program has been and where it can be improved.”—Dennis E. Powell

Click here to find out more about the Virtual Incubation Network Toolkit.

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

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