Friday, June 17, 2011

Technology Incubators and You

So, I had a discussion on faccebook that went from discussing the cost of labor for a dutch bike mechanic (€40 for about 15 minutes for work to install wheel (i did it myself in 30 minutes instead of paying that)) to a discussion about technology incubators. It got me thinking about incubators and how people think of them. Technology Incubators come in a variety of forms and while many are attached to universities there have recently been a few where they are unaffiliated and some 18 year old kid makes one. But what is an incubator? Well, at the most basic level an incubator is a place that allows a firm to grow from an idea into an actual business. When it graduates it's at the stage where it's making enough money to support itself, or it has gotten Venture Capital (VC) backing so it has enough money to expand to a larger facility.

My first experience with an incubator was the Machine Assistance Center (MAC) at the University of Pittsburgh where I did my undergraduate. I thought it was the coolest idea. It was this old warehouse that was converted into separate mini-factories with a few different companies in it. The rent was free or dirt cheap, and there was equipment, like lathes, drill presses and a 6 axis CNC machine. The firms were able to rent time on these tools to create their product, make new prototypes and train new employees. The university also used these tools to train community members on how to use them to gain new skills for employment. Eventually these firms were making enough money that they were able to move out of the MAC get their own place and set up shop there.

I know that in Pittsburgh there are at least two other incubators. I'm sure there are more. Carnegie Mellon started the other two I'm aware of. However, these ones are software based start ups. So these firms have very different needs than physical product based firms. The Innovation Lab at Eindhoven University of Technology, in Eindhoven The Netherlands, where I'm pursuing my master's degree, has a different model than either. It has spaces large enough for firms that need to manufacture products, but it also has a lot of offices for consultation firms as well. So, there are many different models for an incubator and non are exactly the same.

Ok, that's great, why should I care about these things? Well, it matters because some of these are tax payer subsidized or were created through your tax dollars (Tax Euros? Just doesn't sound right). Earlier this year Obama started the win the future campaign, which put a couple hundred million into both VC, public groups and incubators to help reduce the barriers to entry for new companies. Many policy makers believe that these incubators or hubs of heavy start up activity could spawn another Silicon Valley, or greatly boost the economy through job creating companies. Sadly, most of these companies actually only employ a few people and don't become huge firms like we'd like them to be (Clarysse et al, 2005). However, this activity still can help the economy of the region to some extent.

So what do we do about it? Well, I plan on studying these and their impact for my master's thesis, so we'll see what I find. I probably won't post to much about it as I might try to publish a paper about it. However, when I do that I'll write about my findings on here. Until then, I say we should be supporting these incubators. Lowering barriers to competition will eventually lead to new products, services and lower pricing. That's what we, as consumers, want right? Besides, I want to start a company some day and I'd like some help in getting me to the point where I can get VC funding ;)

Here's an article about the "Win the future" campaign from when it was first announced:

Clarysse, B., Wright, M., Lockett, A., Veld, E. Van de, Vohora, A. (2005) "Spinning out new ventures: A typology of incubation strategies from European research Institutions", Journal of Business Venturing. Vol. 20 pp 183-216

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