November 30, 2010

Online Incubators Growing In Demand

By: by Kathy Kahn, HV Biz


Les Neumann still has an office - only his is a virtual one. His PDA and laptop are his portable technology incubator, which he can take anywhere and everywhere - even to the other side of the world.

It wasn't always that way. In 2005, Ulster County selected Neumann to open and manage the Hudson Valley Center for Innovation, an incubator that would help grow new technology and mentor entrepreneurs. "Since it was funded by the county, one of the requirements was to have a brick-and-mortar location in Kingston," said Neumann.

He found 10,000 square feet of office space in Lake Katrine and started providing the physical essentials - desks, chairs, telephones, a reception area, along with an assistant - as well as an old-time pinball machine so his new-time incubator tenants could enjoy some "down-time."

The most essential component in the incubator equation were the men and women who would mentor the startups, helping them grow their businesses to the point where they would be able to move out of the incubator and into the elusive Tech Valley Corridor.

He assembled a group of Fortune 500 business owners and leaders to work with the incubator's tenants, advising them on writing business plans, working with intellectual property laws, creating and obtaining patents, and raising funds to grow their businesses. Retired IBM executive Tom Phillips, president of the Hudson Valley Technology Development Center now based in Newburgh, became chairman of HVCFI's board of directors as well as one of the incubator's mentors.

"Unfortunately, what we had hoped to accomplish didn't happen," said Neumann. "We were totally filled - but what most of the entrepreneurs and startups were really looking for was inexpensive rent - essentially, we ended up becoming landlords." In 2009, the center decided to close its doors.

In 2010, the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority selected the incubator for a Program Opportunity Notices, or PON, grant, partnering Neumann and his team of mentors with the College of Nanoscale and Science Engineering in Albany.

"We are only one of six incubators in the state to have that designation," he said. "It has been a tremendous opportunity to work with (the college) and has opened new doors in education and research for us as a result."

HVCFI formed a subsidiary, I-Clean, which focuses primarily on renewable energy and clean technology. "We are the same group, working under a different banner within the PON."

A team of four regional HVCFI business development directors serve Rockland, Dutchess, Ulster, Sullivan, Westchester, Fairfield County, Conn., Bergen County, N.J., and New York City. In addition, the virtual incubator has forged a partnership with another accelerator in Athens, Greece, its first cohort outside the U.S.

Neumann says HVCFI's monthly breakfasts - Skypecast from the 711 Media Center in Kingston where members and guests meet via teleconference with its Athens-based partner - are available for anyone who wishes to sign in to, listen and learn. "Our relationship with the European incubator has been our first step into the global world of entrepreneurs - we all have so much to offer each other. One of their companies is helping a Hudson Valley entrepreneur get its product marketed in Europe. HVCFI is doing the same for one of its companies here.

"Ideally," said Neumann, "we would (like) to see as many companies as possible make their base of operations here in the Hudson Valley, but we live and work in a virtual global economy and have to stay focused on that reality. Having a European company help to sell Hudson Valley products there and vice versa is truly the kind of global partnership we needed to establish ourselves as true participants in the Hudson Valley's Tech Valley corridor - now we have accomplished that. We are not just a member of Tech Valley in name only."

Since going virtual, HVCFI's managing director is offered an office or desk in many locations for temporary touchdowns, but the need for its own brick-and-mortar facility is no longer in the equation. With that, Neumann grabbed his PDA and briefcase and took HVCFI off to its next meeting. "And when I get to there, I can still go anywhere - with just a mouse click."