It almost never fails: Whenever The Biz is researching a story about local small businesses or entrepreneurs, most sources end conversations with, “You really ought to talk with the folks at A-B Tech’s Small Business Center and Business Incubator.” Finally, we took their advice, if for no other reason than to see what the fuss is all about. The verdict? The Biz needs to listen more closely to its sources.
While the general populace may not be hip to the local community college’s program, which is housed in a sprawling 141,000-square-foot space at A-B Tech’s Enka campus, it looms bright among many in the local business community—and beyond. In fact, the day before our recent visit, the campus entertained visitors from the Tennessee Valley Authority, who also had heard good things about the program. And it has inked collaborative agreements with incubators in China, India, Mexico and South Africa that, among other things, will help businesses here crack global markets. All that merely scratches the surface of the many partnerships the program has with other schools, state agencies and various other entities.
The incubator offers 30,000 square feet in executive-office space and an equal amount of room for biotechnology and other tech-related businesses that features 14 wet and dry labs complete with technical equipment that few if any startups could hope to afford and still turn a profit. Further, the incubator has 70,000 square feet of light-manufacturing space, while its Blue Ridge Food Ventures offers 11,000 square feet of FDA-approved commercial-kitchen space.
All that room is available thanks to the largesse of the former BASF manufacturing plant, which donated the entire Enka campus in 2000. Located on 37 acres alongside Sand Hill Road, the site—valued at $50 million—“is the largest private donation to a community college in U.S history,” notes Small Business Center and Business Incubator Director Russ Yelton. The building dedicated to the incubator, which also houses the Small Business Center and the companion Technology Commercialization Center, “is also the largest mixed-use business incubator facility on the East Coast,” he says. “Even with the number of companies we have here, we’re still not at 40 percent occupancy yet.”
Though only in operation for two years, the buzz around the facility is understandable. Of the businesses that have gotten their start there, including the new downtown-Asheville store A Sense of Humor (see “To Giggle, Perchance to Guffaw,” Nov. 20 Xpress), Yelton says 98 percent are growing and prospering—and several are even hiring employees at above-market rates, with salaries ranging from just under $30,000 to more than $40,000. They range from natural-products makers to software designers to professional services to an array of gourmet/organic/vegan packaged-foods manufacturers, the latter through the Blue Ridge Food Ventures program.
That early success bodes well for the budding entrepreneurs taking part in the program and for other startups down the road, not to mention the local economy in general, adds Assistant Director Jill Sparks. A National Business Incubation Association study reports that 87 percent of incubator startups are still in business after 10 years, but that 44 percent of new businesses that go it alone fail within four years.
In addition to A Sense of Humor, Yelton points to a number of other recent success stories, including Safe Home Filters, which makes air-purifying filters (www.safehomefilters.com); Golden Needle, which sells acupuncture equipment along with alternative and Chinese-based herbs and medicines (www.goldenneedleonline.com); and Highcliffe Baked Goods, whose signature product is the “World’s Best Carrot Cake” (www.worldsbestcarrotcake.com). The latter, started by former chef Avi Sommerville, recently scored a contract with Whole Foods, the nation’s largest organics-grocery chain, to sell its special gluten-free, vegan cakes nationally. And while many of the incubator’s businesses are housed onsite, the small-business program helps established enterprises crack new markets.
If there is a secret to the incubator’s success, it might be that it requires a lot from the participants who are accepted into the program (including the handful of students from A-B Tech who vie to enter the center’s Student Business Incubator program).
Applicants must submit a completed business plan showing the ability of the company to become self-sustaining by the end of the standard two-year program. Once they make the cut, companies meet with incubator staff to determine benchmarks they hope to reach in the first six months. The companies continue to meet with incubator staff at least every six months to review past and future goals. The companies also submit to open-book accounting during their tenancy in the program; all information is strictly confidential, but staff need to be able to review the financials with company personnel to assist in their growth and strategic planning, Yelton says.
While space in the incubator remains plentiful, it isn’t free—though it is significantly cheaper than the market rate. The rent for tenant companies is graduated in order to assist them in their start-up phase. For example: Wet-lab offices rent for $12/sq. ft., office space goes for $8/sq. ft. and light manufacturing/storage space goes for $4/sq. ft. (All rents are calculated on an annual basis.) Companies can also connect to the college’s high-speed T3 Internet line for $40 per month.
Each month, companies also attend a one-hour tenant meeting, which is conducted to give clients a chance to network and have professionals from the community provide short presentations on services and opportunities that may be of interest.
You’ll undoubtedly be hearing more about the incubator in future Biz articles. But in the meantime, more information on the program can be found online (at www.abtech.edu/sbc).
Green business opportunities: AdvantageWest will hold its Advantage Innovation 2007: Environmental Related Enterprises conference on Thursday and Friday, Dec. 6 and 7, in Asheville. Focusing on the recruitment and expansion of jobs and investment associated with environmental-related enterprises, sessions will include environmental reclamation, green construction, environmental sciences, alternative/renewable energy and environmental conservation. Contact AdvantageWest Executive Vice President Scott Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.