The University of Central Florida (UCF) Technology Incubator is a shining example of how a university can promote entrepreneurial development and technology transfer through an incubation program. Client companies have created more than 400 jobs and $140 million in revenues in the incubator’s four years of operation. Together, the university and the incubator have made it their mission to diversify central Florida’s economy, bolster technology transfer and develop a strong entrepreneurial culture.
From the beginning, one of the incubator’s greatest challenges has been culling the best entrepreneurs from its steady stream of applicants. Central Florida is a hot spot for technology, thanks to numerous centers of higher education and research parks and NASA’s launch headquarters. "We don’t recruit," says Tom O’Neal, UCF Technology Incubator director. "We have to filter [potential clients] since we have so many people coming out of the woodwork looking for space in our incubator." As ironic as this problem may sound, it has kept UCF Technology Incubator staff members on their toes, and has necessitated a rigorous screening process to identify the entrepreneurs most likely to succeed in the incubator.
Before even being considered as a potential client, each entrepreneur must complete the incubator’s seven-session, 21-hour course called "Excellence in Entrepreneurship," at a cost of $395. During the course, participants receive training in business basics and hone their business plans in preparation for a final exam – presenting their business plans to a panel of incubator staff members, local professional service providers and investors. Companies are accepted or rejected based on this presentation. Even though the incubator has many sophisticated and qualified potential applicants, each interested entrepreneur must take this course, regardless of their professional experience.
"The process is really sort of self-filtering," O’Neal says. "By the time they finish this course, the entrepreneurs know where they stand as a potential business." And most entrepreneurs appreciate the opportunity to receive training in business basics. One graduate company found the process so valuable, it required some of its new managers to enroll in the course.
Another reason UCF Technology Incubator receives so many promising applicants is that it is closely tied to the university’s office of technology transfer. In addition to his role as incubator director, O’Neal oversees technology transfer as director of the UCF Office of Research. "The good part about that is that when I have a staff meeting, the incubator managers, incubator staff and the full technology transfer department are together in one room — we’re all on the same team," he says.
This collaborative effort has enabled the incubator to target the needs of researchers looking to commercialize their technologies and provide them with valuable university resources. Strong ties to the university as well as the community have given the incubator access to a wide variety of experts to act as client mentors. These mentors work one-on-one with clients to tackle problems in fields such as accounting, law, human resource management, technology and finance.
The incubator’s mentoring program was especially valuable to client company Cognoscenti Health Institute. The health-care service and technology company came to the incubator in 2001 with $4 million worth of investments and a seasoned scientist as its CEO. After completing the incubator’s Excellence in Entrepreneurship course, CEO Philip Chen worked diligently with incubator staff and mentors to get up to speed on running his business. Their efforts paid off: Twenty months after joining the incubator, Cognoscenti had 47 employees and revenues of $3.8 million. It also won NBIA’s 2004 Outstanding Incubator Client award. "I wasn’t trained in business at all and I’d been in academic medicine pretty much all my life," Chen says. "The incubator had programs to train entrepreneurs and links to the local business industry, so it was actually a pretty easy decision [to become a client]."
Although the incubator has strong ties to the university, it has also cultivated partnerships with other organizations that have boosted its entrepreneurial development capabilities and reputation within the community. Just recently, the incubator forged a partnership with the Seminole Technology Business Incubation Center (STBIC) in Sanford, Fla. Only 30 miles apart, clients of both facilities can now take advantage of services and contacts available at both incubators. The UCF incubator even has office space at STBIC, so that university staff can provide on-site mentoring and services. The incubator also has established relationships with the Disney/SBA National Entrepreneur Center, the Metro-Orlando Economic Development Commission, Orange County Economic Development Department, the city of Orlando Economic Development Department and others.
By forming such community relationships, the UCF Technology Incubator has become synonymous with entrepreneurship in central Florida. Incubator clients currently employ more than 400 staff and 48 UCF student interns, and work with more than 50 UCF faculty members. "We’re entrenched in the university and the community," O’Neal says. "And we’ve simply become the place where people go to find out what’s going on with entrepreneurship."
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