Issue: June 2008 Issue
Haven for High-Tech Businesses
With a focus on B2B software companies, the Youngstown Business Incubator is turning the Mahoning Valley into Ohio’s own Silicon Valley.
Hard work and long hours are unavoidable when launching a successful business, but boredom and self-doubt should never be factors — at least not for startups associated with the Youngstown Business Incubator.
Technically, the incubator is a charitable, nonprofit corporation designed to help establish and grow technology-based companies in and around the Mahoning Valley. Partially funded by the Ohio Department of Development, its current focus is on business-to-business software application companies.
A resource-rich, growing organization, the incubator has its own MySpace page and a high-energy chief executive officer who calls himself the “chief evangelist.”
“A big part of my job is to be a rainmaker for our portfolio companies,” says Jim Cossler as he explains his moniker. “I help to open doors for them, to introduce them to value-added resources — any opportunity that’s afforded me. I try to preach the gospel of the Youngstown Business Incubator and get others excited about what we’re doing and what our portfolio companies are doing.”
Part of that strategy includes the Youngstown Business Incubator’s MySpace page (www.myspace.com/
ytownbusinessincubator). With “Hearts Fin” by Posture Coach playing in the background, visitors can read YBI’s creative profile:
General: Downtown Youngstown, Technology Development, Quality of Life
Heroes: Our companies
Status: In a Relationship
Here for: Networking, Serious Relationships, Friends
Zodiac Sign: Aquarius
Lightheartedness aside, the YBI has earned its bragging rights. Since its inception, companies have been awarded 16 intellectual-property patents, developed 19 commercial software applications and created 270 jobs. Further, incubator companies boast customers in 90 countries and have translated products and support materials into eight languages.
High-profile customers and marketing partners include Firestone, IBM, Harvard University, Dell and Microsoft. Portfolio companies have also won several prestigious awards, including Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year.
During the last two years, YBI has shifted some of its focus. “The big factor is the real estate we’re bringing on,” Cossler explains. “We’re still very much an incubator focused on creating the most resource-rich environment in the Pittsburgh-to-Cleveland corridor for B2B software, but we’ve also become an accelerator and a managed cluster for B2B firms.”
The managed cluster is “a critical part of what we do here,” Cossler explains. The model allows accelerator companies to receive mentoring from the businesses already housed in the YBI’s growing complex. Once the emerging company establishes itself, it is expected to share information with the next generation of businesses. Cossler cites the case of Visual Impact Imaging, a 2-year-old landscape design software company based in Akron. The company has already established a national customer base and boasts annual sales of $1 million.
“When we first met the company and did an in-depth analysis of its business practices, we found fundamental mistakes that we could help correct,” he explains. “They found they could benefit from locating in a managed cluster of similar business-to-business companies.”
Further, the company wanted to attend its first national trade show, but needed advice on how to “do it right,” says Cossler. The incubator arranged for Visual Impact Imaging’s principals to meet with the marketing department of Turning Technologies, a 5-year-old software company with several hundred successful trade shows under its belt.
Tony DeAscentis, vice president of marketing at Turning Technologies, and his team outlined everything Visual Impact Imaging needed to do to make the most out of the event —from driving traffic from the showroom floor to the hospitality suite to following up on leads.
“That sort of guidance was priceless, and it didn’t cost the incubator anything,” Cossler notes.
Proximity is important to the success of portfolio companies. Adjacent to the incubator building is the new 35,000-square-foot Taft Technology Center, where some of the incubator’s more mature companies, such as Turning Technologies, will soon move. There are also plans to turn Youngstown’s Semple Building into another high-tech facility.
“We have $3 million in grant funding for this summer or early fall [for the project],” Cossler says. “We want the three buildings interconnected because we want the companies to interact and exchange information with each other.”
A fourth building will complete the city’s “Tech Block” as renovations to the Wells Building, located east of the Youngstown Business Incubator, are expected to be completed by 2010.
Also on the agenda is the Inspire Lab. “We see people who have spent many years and thousands of dollars writing a software product that we’re not sure there’s a market for,” Cossler explains. “We want to create a space for entrepreneurs at the idea stage to talk to other entrepreneurs, jump on the high-speed wireless and start flushing ideas through with YBI staff and portfolio companies before they’ve made a substantial investment they can’t walk away from.”
Cossler hopes portfolio companies remain on the YBI campus indefinitely. “If you’re an hour from Youngstown and a business-to-business software startup, you’d be absolutely crazy not to want to locate your facility on our campus. It’s the single-most robust and resource-rich campus designed from the ground up to meet the very specific needs of business-to-business software companies.”
Youngstown Business Incubator
241 Federal Plaza West
Youngstown, OH 44503
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