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Louisiana incubator driving force in rural communities

by Mary Jo Milillo

November/December 2009

Louisiana Business & Technology Center’s Incubator on Wheels — Driving Louisiana’s Economy — is incubation’s equivalent of the public library’s bookmobile. In LBTC’s case, if the entrepreneur can’t come to the incubator — located at Louisiana State University’s South Campus Research Park in Baton Rouge — the incubator goes to the entrepreneur.

“We started the Incubator on Wheels in 2005 to serve the underserved rural population,” says LBTC’s Executive Director Charlie D’Agostino. “We wanted to bring our resources to outlying areas to encourage entrepreneurship and business formation and to help existing businesses grow. The program is designed to reinvigorate those local economies with new job creation.”

And it’s doing just that. From its outreach to communities dealing with Louisiana’s devastating hurricanes to its annual 100 days on the road, the Incubator on Wheels is a unique response to the business development needs of the state’s rural areas.

In recognition of the Incubator of Wheels’ achievements, the program received NBIA’s 2009 Incubator Innovation Award at the 23rd International Conference on Business Incubation in Kansas City, Mo. In June, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that the Incubator on Wheels also had won the Economic Development Administration’s 2009 Excellence in Rural Economic Development Award. Read on for more details about this award-winning program.

A winning track record

There are good reasons to take notice of the Incubator on Wheels. After hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike ripped through Louisiana in 2005 and 2008 — leaving a huge gap in communication services and other public utilities — LBTC’s mobile unit partnered with economic development and business services agencies to assist the area’s businesses. The Incubator on Wheels offered Internet access via satellite, laptop computers for business owners and business counseling services to 198 small businesses dealing with the storms’ aftermath.

Even today, the mobile classroom continues to visit areas hardest hit by the hurricanes.

Since 2005, it has set up shop in 37 rural parishes for two to four days each, presenting workshops on basic business topics. Last year, 548 entrepreneurs and potential business owners in 31 locations attended workshops in the mobile unit.

Unlike LBTC’s program in Baton Rouge, the mobile unit provides training to any would-be entrepreneur or small business owner — not just technology companies — and has assisted more than 1,500 people since 2005.

Working with state and local partners

The incubator’s community contacts play an integral role in the program’s success. Before going into a town — most with populations of about 2,000 or less — the incubator staff works closely with mayors and other government officials, chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, universities and colleges, and area incubators to encourage entrepreneurs to attend the seminars and workshops.

Community partners take responsibility for making certain the workshops are well- attended; business counselors from LBTC, LSU’s Agricultural Center and local business service providers conduct the training sessions. The Incubator on Wheels’ staff includes a training coordinator/scheduler, who also presents workshops on customer service and marketing.

Seminars, offered at no charge to entrepreneurs, cover basic topics: starting a business, financing it, writing a business plan, marketing your products, conducting business on the Internet and setting up a Web site. Other programs deal with leadership development, growing businesses through e-commerce, and women and minority forums.

Moving Louisiana entrepreneurs out of their comfort zones

D’Agostino says that although the local market shrank after the storms prompted some residents to move away, there is a worldwide market for Louisiana businesses to tap into. Luckily, the Incubator on Wheels has been available to teach the state’s entrepreneurs new ways of reaching customers.

“We want to help them tweak or re-create a company, especially in New Orleans, where many of the customers are gone,” D’Agostino says.

Besides helping businesses enlarge their customer base, LBTC provides business owners with the information they need to qualify for government loans and grants and to become involved with the procurement and bidding process for government contracts.

D’Agostino says the incubator also provides follow-up services after the mobile unit leaves. “We don’t just go in, present the training and leave,” he says. “We give them contact numbers in Baton Rouge and locally, offer counseling after we leave through our office and identify local points of contact — such as small business centers and local incubators.”

How it all began

Like other great ideas, the Incubator on Wheels concept arose from a casual lunch conversation, in this case between D’Agostino and an LSU graduate whose company manufactures mobile units. They were discussing NASA’s traveling exhibit on the “Benefits of Space,” which LBTC (in partnership with the Louisiana Art and Science Museum) had brought to Baton Rouge, when the alumnus said his company manufactured the mobile unit that housed the exhibit.

“Then,” D’Agostino says, “he asks me if I want one [a mobile unit].” Before long, D’Agostino was meeting with LSU’s chancellor, pitching the idea of accepting a donation of an 18-wheeler and taking entrepreneurship on the road.

The chancellor responded with two questions: “Are you crazy?” and “How will you fund it?” D’Agostino answered the second question by rounding up funders and sponsors — USDA’s Rural Development Office, LSU’s Agricultural Center, Louisiana Municipal Authority, Louisiana Economic Development, Louisiana Public Facilities Authority, Louisiana Secretary of State, utility companies and Capital One. The mobile unit now resembles a NASCAR vehicle with logos of sponsors and LSU.

Success stories

Farmerville, a city in northern Louisiana with a population of less than 4,000 people, is one of the beneficiaries of the Incubator on Wheels program. A large chicken processing plant there shut down, affecting not just the 1,300 employees who worked there, but also the local business people who sold grain to the company. LBTC responded by helping business owners identify other potential customers and by assisting former plant workers to write their resumes.

Fortunately, the state offered a financial incentive for another company to purchase and modernize the Farmerville plant, thus saving jobs and avoiding the loss of $100 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years. The deal was completed at the end of May.

Still, D’Agostino says, the time spent in Farmerville was worthwhile. “With 90 percent of the people there dependent on the plant remaining open, we helped businesses whose livelihood depended on the plant to realize the need to diversify or to look for other markets.”

Recently, D’Agostino spoke at a state legislative rural caucus. A representative from a small town said the Incubator on Wheels had just been to his community and he thought it was so super to see them. “And that’s good PR for us,” D’Agostino says.

2009 Incubator Innovation Award

“Incubator on Wheels — Driving Louisiana’s Economy”
Louisiana Business & Technology Center
Louisiana State University South Campus Research Park
8000 GSRI Ave.
Room 222
Baton Rouge, LA 70820
www.bus.lsu.edu/lbtc

The problem: Small business owners and entrepreneurs in rural Louisiana lacked access to business incubation services and the resources and networks necessary to develop successful businesses.

The solution: LBTC, in partnership with Louisiana State University, LSU’s E.J. Ourso College of Business and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, implemented the Incubator on Wheels in 2005 to bring business development services to residents and entrepreneurs of rural Louisiana. Known as the Driving Louisiana’s Economy initiative, the Incubator on Wheels is a custom-designed 18-wheel mobile classroom, replete with state-of-the-art audiovisual capabilities, a large plasma screen monitor and broadband wireless Internet connection.

The Louisiana Business & Technology Center’s mobile incubator unit can seat 24 people comfortably. LBTC Executive Director Charlie D’Agostino says since the unit first hit the road in 2005, workshop attendance has averaged about 15.

Keywords: best practices, economic development, incubator without walls, rural incubator, technology incubator

Contact NBIA

Phone: (740) 593-4331
Fax: (740) 593-1996
340 West State Street, Unit 25
Athens, OH 45701-1565
info@nbia.org