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Sunday, August 21,2011

Innovation Center continues success story

Facility has gone from three clients to 20 in two years

By Anne Li

Photo Caption: Innovation Center Director Jennifer Simon has seen a huge rise in new business clients in the past two years.

Some 20 new businesses are currently in the making at the Innovation Center, a technology incubation center located on West State Street in Athens.

According to center Director Jennifer Simon, the Innovation Center was founded in 1983 by Will Konneker, who was good friends with then-OU President Charles Ping. Konneker saw Athens' need for a "a space where we can help companies grow," said Simon.

"And he started it, and it's still here, it's true to the mission. It's kind of exciting; you don't see things stay true to the mission, really," Simon noted.

A business incubator is a program designed to help startup businesses develop with minimal risk and obstacles. In the past, the Innovation Center has fostered the development of Diagnostic Hybrids, Inc. and its current clientele includes Sunpower, an engine, cooler and compressor manufacturer; and Third Sun Solar, a solar panel manufacturer and installer.

The OU Innovation Center was the first university-based incubator in the state of Ohio and 12th in the nation.

To be admitted to the center, Simon said, businesses have to be technology-based and committed to continued growth. Most importantly, she added, the business must be coachable.

"I can't underline that and say that enough," Simon said. "If clients are not coachable, then they don't need us. They can rent space elsewhere in the community If they already know everything, there's nothing we can teach them and there's no help to provide," she said.

After being accepted into the center, businesses have access to coaching, training, networking and discounts on products and services.

"On the coaching side, on the business side, what's the big deal? Well, we help people put together business plans, marketing plans, any expertise that they may need on their technology that may exist at the (Ohio) university, or if we know others that we can put them in contact with, we do that," Simon said.

The Innovation Center also helps businesses network with venture capitalists and seed investors to help them prepare their pitch to funding agencies.

Business incubation is typically a three- to five-year process; once a company is ready to function independently of the Innovation Center, or if it has simply expanded so much that it no longer fits in the West State Street building, it "graduates."

Simon said that it's often difficult for businesses to graduate because becoming independent often means leaving the security of the Innovation Center.

"It's hard, because your self interest which is to have revenue to be able to run the place, versus the success of the company which is what the incubation mission is, can kind of conflict, but we have to make sure that we're helping companies move in to the business environment outside of what we offer so that they can be more successful," she said.

Diagnostic Hybrids, Inc. graduated in 2008 after having spent five years at the Innovation Center. At the time of its graduation, DHI took up 80 percent of the center's facilities. Now, DHI employs about 200 people in Athens, and was bought by San Diego-based company Quidel Corporations, for $130 million.

The center has enjoyed fiscal success the past two years. With 20 clients, it surpasses by far the amount of clients it had over two years ago three clients total. In the 2010 fiscal year, Innovation Center clients had a total income of $22 million; the average wage for the clients' employees was $53,000.

"The best piece is that they had $6 million in direct payroll, 38 (new) jobs and 115 jobs that were retained. There has been growth. The most exciting thing for me is that the average wage was $53,000, not a bad wage for Athens County," Simon said.

Simon said that the center remains flexible throughout the whole process and individualizes its services for each client.

"The way we do it is that we rent each office for a particular price. So if they're going into a new office then that's additionalWe don't charge them if they're leaving an office, so it's pretty flexible. A lot of times you're locked into a two-year or five-year lease when (you may not be ready to take on that big commitment)," she said.

Currently at the Innovation Center is Third Sun Solar, a solar panel manufacturer and installer. According to Third Sun communications director Gerald Kelley, Third Sun began as "a little mom and pop company."

"(Founders) Geoff and Michelle Greenfield both are OU grads. They began doing it initially for themselves. Their friends saw, and like many businesses, it kind of snowballed," Kelley said.

In 2003, the Innovation Center asked the Greenfields to put solar panels on the center's roof. The Greenfields then decided to move their business into the Innovation Center facilities, where they were provided with much-needed services, such as high-speed internet and office space. Since moving into the center, Third Sun has grown from a one-room office to a 10-room office, and employs about 30 people, a vast increase from its two employees in 2003.

Kelley added that this year, Third Sun Solar made it onto "Inc. 500," a list of the United States' fastest-growing businesses, for its third consecutive year. It currently ranks 22 in the nation.

"I think we're the largest tenant (in the Innovation Center) now," Kelley said. "Gradually, Third Sun Solar had added enough that (now) we're fairly self-sufficient. (The Innovation Center) gave us a starting point."

This growth, according to Simon, is the goal of the center. She said that the Innovation Center is continuing to build a biotechnology research and development facility and recently hired a new lab director who will assist clients who need to run the equipment. Simon said that the biotechnology lab is just starting to come together. She pointed at a recently-purchased piece of lab equipment.

"I'm afraid to even look at it it's a $65,000 piece of equipment," she said.

Only two offices of the center remain to be rented, according to Simon. An average of 310 jobs have been created directly and indirectly by center clients, she added.

"You look at the kind of jobs that are here, and it's kind of amazing to have that coming in to our community," Simon said. "So that's what we've been working on."


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