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Scott Solomon likes where his office is. The Columbus financial adviser says it's convenient, with plenty of resources to support his business. Plus, he's only a few steps away from entrepreneurs like himself.

"My business is one where I have to meet people," said Solomon, an independent broker for financial services company LPL Financial. "It's a really neat place if you need to meet people because there's so many people that come through this building on a daily basis... It's a good place to do networking."

Solomon has an office at the Columbus Regional Technology Incubator, a center that provides business support and office space at a reduced rent to entrepreneurs. Located within Columbus State University's Cunningham Center for Leadership Development, the incubator's mission is to help these businesses develop so they can eventually move out -- which, in turn, enhances the area's economic development.

The center's name identifies the kind of entrepreneurs the incubator is primarily focused on recruiting -- technology entrepreneurs whose companies can create technology jobs.

But what started off in 2003 as an incubator for technology companies has turned into a program that caters to businesses of all kinds, including home inspection, career counseling and marketing companies, as well as Solomon's financial services business.

These non-tech tenants have helped provide financial support to the nonprofit. Right now, non-tech entities make up 14 of the 19 companies at the incubator.

"You've got to walk before you can run," said Mike Gaymon, Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer. "You've got to pay the bills."

Those involved in the incubator still hope more tech entrepreneurs will be attracted -- and now may be prime time.

Recently, CSU took total financial and managerial responsibility for the incubator. The nonprofit moved into the black at the beginning of the year, Gaymon said. And at 75 employers and staffers, it's at full capacity, with prospective tenants on the waiting list.

"Now it's time to take this and move it to the next level," Gaymon said. "I want to see the next TSYS come out of this thing."

Beginnings

The idea of a technology incubator for the Columbus region was birthed during a 1999 inter-city leadership conference trip to Austin, Texas. The trip, sponsored by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, takes area business and government leaders to larger cities each year to hear their success stories -- and stories about things that haven't worked.

Local leaders decided Columbus needed something like the Austin Technology Incubator, a nonprofit division of the University of Texas at Austin.

Through a partnership between CSU, the Valley Partnership, the Columbus Alliance for Regional Investment and other state and regional economic development entities, Columbus' first-ever high-tech business incubator broke ground in August 2003.

The Cunningham Center, which houses the incubator, was a $8.2 million project. The late John Cunningham, a local salesman and CSU benefactor, funded almost half of the project.

About $2 million from CSU's 2003 fundraising campaign was dedicated to the incubator. The Valley Partnership was also awarded a $500,000 grant for the incubator through OneGeorgia, a state initiative that funnels cash to economically deprived areas for job growth.

Blair Carnahan was the incubator's executive director during its first two years.

"I would say the challenge was finding entrepreneurs that were interested in starting technology companies," said Carnahan, who is now a financial adviser at a local Merrill Lynch office.

The fact that the incubator was a new entity also created its own obstacles.

"There's always challenges dealing with a new entity," he said. "You have to worry about whether or not you're meeting your goals and objectives. How do you measure those objectives? Plus, it was a collaboration of multiple entities who each had their own goals for their endeavor. As a manager, I was responsible for (making sure) all interested parties were seeing results."

At one point, it was even considered one of the state's Centers of Innovation, which were designed to develop homegrown industries and encourage new companies to invest and build in Georgia. Centers ranged from maritime logistics to aerospace. Columbus was the Information Technology Innovation Center, with four member companies -- Aflac, BellSouth, Synovus and TSYS.

Gaymon said the innovation centers took on a much broader scope compared to incubators -- and were calling for efforts beyond the region. The incubator would be one of three programs within the innovation center.

"It got some different cards dealt to it in the midst of it being constructed," Gaymon said. "(The innovation center) was a cousin to an incubator, but it certainly was not to meet the focused need of what a true incubator was."

Challenges

When it opened its doors in 2005, CARI owned and operated the incubator with support from the Valley Partnership, the Development Authority and the Columbus chamber. CSU managed it.

"We struggled to raise the money to keep it operating," said Carmen Cavezza, executive director of CSU's Cunningham Center. "We do that by way of grants. That is a challenge every year, which is typical of incubators. Incubators are not moneymakers in that they are in the black all the time... . It doesn't make a lot of money but it does a lot of good things for the community."

"If you look at the short-term, it's not profitable," Cavezza added. "But if you look at it long-term, it's creating jobs and contributing to the economic development of the region."

Like the challenge Carnahan faced when he started his position as executive director five years ago, current executive director Jim Bowie faced the same issue recruiting tech entrepreneurs.

Bowie said there are computer programmers out there -- but many are employed at TSYS, Aflac and Synovus. Not a large portion of them have become technology entrepreneurs, he said.

"The Valley area does not have as many new high-tech entrepreneurs birthing businesses as we originally thought," Bowie said.

Bowie's explanation is that Columbus is a second-tier city without an engineering school on CSU's campus -- which is what a number of other successful incubators have.

CSU has a college of science, which includes a TSYS computer science department. It also has a department of military science in University College, one of CSU's five academic units dedicated to student success.

"Having a strong engineering and technical base would probably have greatly influenced the pool of entrepreneurs," Carnahan said. "But it also has to do with the industries that are in our community as well. If there are a lot of high-tech types of jobs, then that typically attracts high-tech entrepreneurs."

So what about tech workers from Aflac, TSYS, Synovus or Blue Cross Blue Shield?

"I would say, to some degree, they were (producing,)" Carnahan said. "I would say that there's still a component that would have helped, and that would be having more technically trained students that were coming out of CSU."

Growth

When Bowie came on board in Nov. 2006, the incubator's head count of tenants and their employees was at 25. Today, there are more than 70 people at 36 companies within the incubator -- and there is a waiting list. It also has expanded its space and now takes up two floors in the Cunningham Center.

In addition to tech companies and general businesses, they also have landing parties, anchor tenants and mobile tenants.

"We knew all along that we needed incubator companies and we needed landing parties," Gaymon said. "Landing parties would pay fair market rate -- which helps us offer space at a reduce cost to true incubator companies."

Landing parties are a new branch office of a firm from outside of Columbus or a new department of a local business.

Anchor tenants are permanent, and they include the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center and Georgia Tech's Enterprise Innovation Institute.

And mobile tenants are part of a program Bowie established about a year ago. They have drop-in cubicles and pay lower rates than "permanent" tenants do and have drop-in cubicles. The incubator offers office space started at $359 per month.

That includes free meeting and training rooms, use of office equipment, a receptionist and high speed Internet. Plus, the incubator's anchor tenants help with business development.

Operating at full capacity, the incubator finally moved into the black at the beginning of the year, Gaymon said.

And now, the multiple entities once involved in the incubator were reduced to one last month: CSU. With the state's grant depleted, it is no longer considered a state innovation center and is being totally managed and financed by the local university.

Gaymon said it is time to focus on the original mission -- to create high-tech jobs in the area.

Is there a chance the incubator will be able to attract more high-tech entrepreneurs?

"Yes, I think so," Cavezza said. "That's what it's all about. It's not necessarily an easy thing. There are some (tech entrepreneurs) coming in. We're starting to see more interest in it."

Cavezza said they need to increase awareness of the incubator and what it can offer. New tenants do not necessarily have to be from Columbus, he added.

Gaymon said the incubator must really starting pushing to find "angel investors" -- those who believe these start-up companies can take off and eventually move into the local business community.

Not all tenants have to be entrepreneurs, Gaymon said. TSYS, for example, could satellite some project managers and teams into the incubator.

"It's something that can develop and will develop over time," Cavezza said, "and I think we're off to a really good start."

Join the incubator

For more information, visit www.columbusincubator.org or call 706-562-8339.

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