In the last year or so, the topic of growth in rural areas has become somewhat universal. Those who live and work in rural areas have been working toward growth and prosperity for years, if not decades. For this reason, InBIA is throwing it back to 2013 to share case studies from InBIA’s Best Practices in Rural Incubation: Successful Programs in Small Communities, to show what organizations were going through and how they managed to adapt.
Successful incubation programs operate like the businesses they help launch, whether they’re located in rural areas or more urban areas. When budgets are tight, best practice programs identify efficiencies to conserve scarce resources. But they also develop new programs and implement innovation ideas that can bring additional revenue.
At the core of their success are principles essential to all business growth – experienced management, lean operations, attention to finances, market focus, customer buy-in and a highly developed supply chain. For incubation programs, that value-added chain also includes regional networks of contacts, service providers, training organizations, innovation resources, capital networks and other support.
Incubating Success, a 2011 research study conducted for the U.S. Economic Development Administration, and InBIA’s Best Practices in Rural Business Incubation: Successful Programs in Small Communities found that there is no one practice that helps incubators build strong companies and graduate clients. Instead, it’s the synergy of practices and policies that leads to incubation program success. Finding the right mix of policies, procedures and services can help a program meet its mission and goals while working within its resource constraints, even when the program is run by a single individual.
The case studies presented in InBIA’s newest publication, Best Practices in Rural Business Incubation, detail how rural programs that help build high-potential companies and effectively graduate clients integrate incubation best practices to meet their particular market needs and maximize (sometimes limited) program resources. As their stories illustrate, it’s through the interaction of those practices that they are able to serve client needs and accomplish their missions.
Increasing resources – and impacts – through regionalization
Having a regional approach to business incubation is a good idea for any incubator. But this practice is even more important for rural programs, which work with dispersed populations, limited local markets, and a smaller base of expert advisors, service providers and potential clients. Effective networks increase access to specialized knowledge and services – meaning more people and more money to help businesses grow. While many incubation programs have found that regional resource networks can help them succeed, how those networks are designed varies with community needs and capabilities.
In Tennessee, Tech 20/20 operates a multistate network of incubation facilities owned by various entities throughout the region. The organization collaborates with local universities, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other partners to provide entrepreneurial services to businesses in five states in the Tennessee Valley region. The network offers clients any combination of space, training, advisory services and access to capital through a hybrid model of nonprofit and for-profit corporations.
Les McKenzie, executive director of the Quincy Business and Technology Center in Quincy, Ill., built a self-sufficient program that uses both formal and informal networks of resources to assist companies. For example, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the Illinois Procurement Technical Assistance Center pay premium rent as anchor tenants, but they also provide business counseling, technical assistance and access to capital to incubator clients and other regional businesses.
In addition to McKenzie (who has led the program for the past 16 years after retiring from General Electric), agencies residing in the incubator, incubator board members and engaged community members provide business assistance to QBTC clients. “Our area is a diversified business community, and many executives choose it as a place to retire – but they don’t want to let their experience go to waste,” he says.
Generating community support by fostering understanding of incubation
Effective rural incubators make sure their stakeholders and other community members understand the important role their program plays in helping to grow the region’s innovation ecosystem. Without an understanding of and vested interest in an incubator’s success, communities are less likely to help identify high-quality clients, offer long-term access to resources and help identify potential partners or provide business assistance services.
West Texas A&M University Enterprise Center’s Executive Director, David Terry, learned the importance of ensuring community buy-in when he first offered to provide entrepreneur training and technical assistance to incubators in a 26-county region of the Texas panhandle. WTAMU had funds to provide entrepreneur assistance, and the rural communities agreed to provide the incubator facilities and management.
The problem was that those rural areas were not invested in their programs’ health. “Supporting entrepreneurs through incubation is so much more than just [providing] a building and some technical assistance,” Terry says. “There has to be a champion in the community, with boots on the ground. Incubation is the synergy, the services, the partner relationship between the clients and advisors and clients and each other.”
The solution was to ask communities to invest token financial support for the Enterprise Center’s services. Working with economic development officers throughout the region, Terry and others developed a program communities could afford that met client needs. A local economic development official still manages the local effort, but the organization’s contract with the Enterprise Center to provide business facilitation services for an annual fee of $35,000.
Many of the strategies implemented by the companies mentioned are still useful today but, as you know, it is important to stay up to date on the best practices and strategies. If you prefer learning from others, Karl Kelly of Tech Village is hosting a webinar in which he will talk about how small town rural areas can be successful. If reading is more your style, look out for the new and improved InBIA’s Best Practices in Rural Business Incubation: Successful Programs in Small Communities. For the socialites who love events and collaboration, take a look at September’s e.Builders event. To share your strategies for overcoming the obstacles that go along with being an incubator in a rural community contact inbia.org.
This information originally appeared in the InBIA Review, Volume 29, No. 1, February/March 2013, ©2013 by the International Business Innovation Association
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