When a $5 million expansion project at the Business Technology Center (BTC) (now TechColumbus) wrapped up in late 2001, executive director David Cattey thought it would take at least two years to fill the additional space. Cattey was wrong.
Ten months after the renovation was complete, nearly all of the 60,000 square feet of available space was full. Lured by state-of-the art facilities, strong business advisors and an attractive location within The Ohio State University’s (OSU) research park, technology companies from throughout central Ohio were ready to sign on.
Cattey shouldn’t have been surprised. Since opening in 1984, the incubator has doubled in size every five years, and start-ups needing space have never been far behind. "During the five years preceding our latest expansion, we had virtually no space open up for new clients," Cattey says. "By nature, entrepreneurs tend not to be patient, so they don’t want to be put on a waiting list for available space. They just go somewhere else."
Unwilling to keep turning away technology entrepreneurs, incubator executives and board members set out to raise nearly $5 million in state and private funds to add 35,000 square feet of space and expand the incubator’s infrastructure. The incubator now houses 28 companies within 42 offices and boasts 10 meeting areas, 16 wet laboratories, seven dry laboratories and four high-bay manufacturing areas.
The program is housed in a 280,000-square-foot former mattress warehouse that is part of OSU’s Science and Technology Campus (SciTech). While the BTC is an independent program, the incubator maintains close ties with both the university and the community. SciTech is now planning to renovate additional space in the building to provide post-incubation space for BTC graduates, which will help ensure a smooth transition for graduating companies and encourage these businesses to stay in the area, Cattey says.
The renovated facility has received architectural awards, but it’s the work that goes on inside the incubator that is truly noteworthy. Since 1984, the program has graduated 40 companies, including 32 that are still in operation. During the 2002 fiscal year, BTC client companies created more than 100 jobs and generated approximately $8.1 million in investments.
Revenue from rent and service fees fully cover the facility’s operations, which allows the incubator to use other funds to support staffing and business development programs. "We’re lucky," says Cattey. "Many times, incubator managers are constrained by financial resources, so they can’t be as active with clients as they would like. Through partnerships with organizations that share our mission, we’ve been able to hire the right people to guide our clients toward growth."
The BTC receives support from the Ohio Department of Development’s Thomas Edison Program—a network of 11 incubators across the state—and its partner organizations, Ohio’s IT Alliance and Omeris (formerly known as Edison Biotechnology Center). The staff includes Cattey, two business development professionals and two support staff.
Recently, the BTC partnered with SciTech and Omeris to create a $1.65 million pre-seed investment fund to help launch early-stage companies in central Ohio. Awards of up to $50,000 will be distributed as unsecured, interest-bearing loans that will convert to equity when the businesses raise more capital. Selected companies can use the funds for product development, market analysis and technology commercialization.
The incubator’s dedication to creating innovative programs that help area start-up companies succeed has not gone unappreciated. Graduate companies are among the supporters who contributed to the BTC renovation project, and clients are quick to attribute much of their success to the support of the incubator’s staff.
Secure Interiors, a company that produces Internet security devices for small and medium-sized enterprises, has been a BTC client since 2000. During this time, the staff of the incubator has worked with founder Jeff Schmidt to recruit an executive team, develop a sustainable long-range business model and secure funding during troubled economic times.
"About three years ago, I had nothing more than an idea and a piece of technology that I thought would make an impact on the security market," Schmidt says. "Without the support of the BTC, I might still be a guy working on a piece of technology in my garage and not filling a market need. The team at BTC deserves recognition for their dedication to clients, including their ability to tap into their vast network of community leaders and corporate partners."
The BTC has an active board of trustees made up of business leaders who share experiences and provide advice to incubator clients. In return, these volunteer board members get to meet new growth companies during their earliest stages and contribute to a growing tech base in central Ohio, which increases the region’s overall ability to attract and retain employees, Cattey says.
Applying for an NBIA award was a new venture for Cattey, but one he recommends other NBIA members consider. "Having never submitted an awards application before, we didn’t really know what to expect," he says. "Our program has made quantum leaps this year though, so we decided this would be the year we’d enter. It’s a wonderful surprise to be recognized by your peers. We’re thrilled."
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