With a vision of becoming the center for entrepreneurial activities in the Birmingham, Ala., area, the Entrepreneurial Center Inc. (EC) (now Innovation Depot) is continuing to grow and to build on its history.
"We’re very, very excited" about the award, says Susan Matlock, incubator president. "It’s an affirmation that we have developed ourselves in a way to be a role model for other business incubation centers."
The incubator houses service, light manufacturing and information technology startups. When it opened in 1992, the incubator occupied 30,000 square feet of its 48,000 square foot facility. Over the next two years, it grew into the remaining18,000 square feet. Now at 95 percent occupancy, the center is again constrained by space. Expansion plans are in the works with the purchase of two more buildings, Matlock says, but it’s too early to say how the new space will be developed.
She sees the incubator’s longevity and the networking it provides its clients as its most valuable asset.
"Linkage ... is the most valued resource we have," Matlock says, particularly with other businesses and with financial opportunities. "We try to be aware of potential opportunities. It’s very one on one, knowing what clients’ needs are and what clients are trying to accomplish."
Matlock cited as an example an IT company that had spent weeks dealing with potential investors. "We says it was taking too long," she says, and offered to bring in two potential investors daily for a week, with the proviso that if they didn’t get funding, they would know why. "Their problem was targeting the wrong market," Matlock says, so the company is adjusting. "I think they ultimately will be successful."
The success of the incubator program, which began providing services in 1986 without a facility, is demonstrated by community awareness of the center and of its clients through media coverage and site visits of developing business incubation programs.
The center added eight new businesses to its mix from among 70 that applied last year. Even if businesses are not ready to enter the incubator, the center works with them on business plans, market feasibility and other aspects of starting a business. One of the eight recent additions had a two-year relationship with Matlock before entering. A contract with the city of Birmingham pays for that assistance to between 70 and 100 would-be entrepreneurs each year.
"We’re looking for growth potential," she says. "It’s a process that you go through."
The private, nonprofit economic development organization sponsored by the City of Birmingham, Jefferson County and private business, is 80 percent internally funded, with sponsorships and the city contract providing the remaining 20 percent of annual operating funds.
Between January last year and March 2000, seven businesses graduated, bringing to 23 the number of graduate firms since 1994. Sixteen of those are still in business and six were acquired by other firms. The incubator now has 28 tenants.
Last year EC provided 30 educational and training programs, many offered by partners with relevant expertise or experience.
"Early on we tried to do everything ourselves," Matlock says, including arranging for experts to provide programs and workshops. But for the past couple of years the incubator has been partnering with other entities, such as a for-profit business that has expertise in human resources issues. Two other partnerships provide entrepreneurial training programs in incubator space. "We provide space, they provide expertise and it’s a marketing tool," Matlock says. "It’s a way of providing the best quality [training] without us having to be responsible for everything that happens." Most of these programs are open to the community.
Also in 1999, the center helped found the Alabama Information Technology Association, which will continue to raise awareness of the importance of IT businesses to the region’s economic development. "We want to support and see growth of IT companies in the state," she says. "It’s important in terms of being able to attract investment dollars."
Eight IT companies are located in the Entrepreneurial Center. Three of those were among 14 making presentations at the association’s first IT forum in March of 2000, which drew more than 300 attendees.
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