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Building Fort Wayne’s Technological Future
The Innovation Center provides a place for technology-based start-ups to grow
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Bill Westrick’s story is familiar to anyone who has tried starting their own company. A Fort Wayne native with experience in several technology-based companies in the area, Westrick and three other partners formed Photosphere, a software company that produces visualization and color-theory software for the home improvement and interior design industries. Westrick and his partners incorporated in early 2003, then set about trying to get equipment for the new business.
A technology-based company like Photosphere has specialized requirements beyond the usual telephone, fax machine, and photocopier. They needed several computers, as well as office space built to handle all that electronic equipment — a range of expenses that can deter most young companies from moving beyond the idea stage. Westrick and his partners approached several computer stores in town with the idea of leasing equipment. “They all said, ‘Great. Come back and talk to us when you’ve been in business six months,’” Westrick explains.
Photosphere found an ally in the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, a “business incubator” providing technology-based start-up companies like Photosphere with the resources and facilities they need to help them get off the ground. In Photosphere’s case, the Innovation Center not only gave them office space, but was able to help the company get the equipment they needed.
Sharon Sallot, the Director of the Innovation Center, sums up what the organization does: “The national trends tell us that entrepreneurs are going to be creating the jobs of the future and those jobs will be created by one or two people start-ups. We need an infrastructure to support those kind of endeavors and create opportunities for them to learn.”
The Northeast Indiana Innovation Center (NIIC) is currently located in an industrial park surrounding Production Road near Raytheon. Inside, the atmosphere is completely different from the utilitarian exterior, warm and inviting with clean, comfortable common areas, well-appointed conference rooms, and good-sized offices. Most of the 16 companies currently occupying the facilities at Production Road consist of a handful of employees. The companies pay rent on office space. Each office offers a desk, small table, bookcase and filing cabinet, and a T-connection. “Bring your computer, plug it in, and you’re in business,” says Sallot.
A desk and a room of one’s own aren’t all clients get at the Innovation Center. All the companies share a reception area, and have access to fax machines, copiers, and other business essentials. The NIIC also provides other services like technical and business advice, quarterly reviews and evaluation, and marketing and grant writing.
Then, of course, there are the intangible benefits that an association with the NIIC brings. “You have immediate recognition and credibility,” says Lee Pomerantz of emedia technologies. “People know you’re for real when you’re in here.”
Bill Westrick finds the business services and the informal collegiality among the clients a huge benefit. He explains that while the people of Photosphere had the technical expertise to create their product, they had little knowledge of the day-to-day activities in running a business. “Just knowing that there are people around with business experience that can help you through a lot of it, you get a sense of confidence that you may not have just striking out on your own.”
Networking goes on to varying degrees among the clients. Westrick calls that an “unexpected benefit” of being a part of the NIIC. “Just the fact that so many businesses are starting up in one place, you can find synergy between us. We’ve done deals with three other companies. It has taught me to build business relationships and one day, when we’re out on our own, to continue those relationships and build relationships with other companies in the area. That’s been a very valuable lesson and just something that came about simply by being here.”
Applicants for the NIIC go through a careful admittance procedure. First, there’s an initial meeting with Sallott and Remound Wright, the director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence. Wright says that sometimes the potential clients have a very hazy idea of what they want to do in the first meeting. “Sometimes, they just want to hear themselves present their idea, and see someone else’s reaction to it,” Wright says. After crystallizing ideas and gathering the information needed for further development, the potential client can apply for the NIIC’s affiliate (non-residential) or in-house program. Wright says he currently works with about 12 companies in the non-residential affiliate program, but that the affiliate program is very transient; entrepreneurs get the advice and services they need and then move on. For residential clients, the NIIC has no strict graduation policy or time limit other than they’re expected to eventually move into their own permanent space in the area.
Recently, the Innovation Center broke ground on a 15-acre park at the corner of Stellhorn and St Joe roads. Set to open in the Spring of 2005, the state-of-the-art 40,000 square foot facility will contain separate wings for Biomedical Research and IT/ Communications, joined by a Community and Administrative Center with conference rooms, an Entrepreneurial Research Center, and common areas. Karl LaPan, President and CEO of the NIIC emphasizes that the facilities themselves, while impressive, are only a means to an end. “The building is merely a vehicle for the delivery and sustainability of the programs and services we offer to help the client grow their business.”
While the Innovation Center’s impressive new campus certainly makes an appealing marketing tool for Fort Wayne, LaPan says that it’s less about attracting new companies to the area than on providing assistance to start-ups from Fort Wayne (like Westrick’s company) who want to stay here. To do that, however, takes more than just a high-tech business incubator; it requires the community to be open to innovation and willing to support the kind of high-growth, market-driven, technology-based companies the NIIC nurtures. LaPan cites one example among many — insufficient capitol for gap financing. “What do you do with your idea to get proof of concept or prototype or feasibility? This community has to continue to develop a continuum of capitol from the day they’re born until they become the next Vera Bradley or the next Command System.” Fort Wayne’s strong entrepreneurial culture boasts a lot of success stories, and many people at the NIIC see no reason why Fort Wayne can’t encourage that home grown innovative spirit without a drive to attract people from the outside. “It’s about mindset that says this community is going to help people that want to try to do something, and that this would be a better place than if they didn’t try,” LaPan adds.
The survival of these homegrown, tech-based start-ups plays a vital role in the area’s future. Indiana’s “brain drain” is a topic that’s kicked around a lot these days, but the phenomenon is very real. The Innovation Center cites a 2001 paper by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute that claims the state is at the bottom of the country in terms of retaining its college graduates. “High-knowledge, high-quality, high-paying jobs are going to be created by people who are more entrepreneurial, innovative, more technologically enabled,” says LaPan. “All these initiatives that we’re focused on, when we talk about graduate retention, brain drain and other things, is simply because we realize that (for Northeast Indiana) to compete in the future, we’re going to have to create the jobs ourselves.”