Graduating Businesses

Once upon a time, young entrepreneurs — like any other college students — sat through four years of classes, then donned a cap and gown. With diploma in hand, they were sent on their way to start a business. 

Business-minded students no longer need to leave college to start their own companies. Today they can develop innovative products and services right on campus.  

Academic incubators offer an alternative to the traditional classroom environment. Depending on their mission, they typically provide office space, labs, mentors and networking opportunities that might not be available outside the academic setting. 

Increasingly, universities are creating academic incubators to nurture entrepreneurial students, faculty and researchers, while building alliances between industry and academia.

Auburn University: Auburn Business Incubator

ABOVE Tennibot’s CEO and Founder Haitham Eletrabi (right) with robotics developer Xianglin “Lincoln” Wang.

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Key Client: Tennibot

Launched in 2011, the Auburn Business Incubator is a full-service, mixed-use business incubator to assist startup and early-stage companies by linking them to a network of services from university and community sources, explains Phil Dunlap, assistant director of the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation, which manages the effort.

The Auburn Business Incubator is currently providing services to 16 companies, 13 faculty-based companies and three part-time clients. Incubator clients represent a variety of business sectors, such as energy efficiency, civil and mechanical engineering, social media, biomedical and website development. There have been eight graduates from the Auburn Business Incubator in the areas of natural gas, medical device, marketing/advertising, software engineering and investment. 

Founder and CEO Haitham Eletrabi of Tennibot — a robotic tennis ball collector that eliminates the need to collect balls — won a competition that awarded him six months free in the Auburn Business Incubator. With the help of the incubator staff, he found an investor and has now become an actual Auburn Business Incubator client.

“The Auburn Business Incubator was extremely helpful for us as a tech startup and provided space, connections, legal and accounting experience and key introductions, ” says Eletrabi. “For an early stage startup, those connections and services are vital and crucial for our success.”

Tennibot received “The People’s Choice Award” in the 2015 Alabama Launchpad competition. And Dunlap says the company has garnered a lot of attention in the past two years at the Consumer Electronics Show held annually in Las Vegas.  

“It’s only a matter of time before he just explodes with this type of product, ” Dunlap predicts. 

New to the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation is the Tiger Cage Accelerator, a collaborative, co-working space that provides students with guidance from Auburn University’s College of Business staff, university faculty and professionals in the community. 

University of Alabama at Birmingham: Innovation Depot

Key clients: many and more to come

University-based business incubators are thriving across Alabama, including Innovation Depot, which operates in partnership with the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  

The nonprofit organization was founded in 1987 and rebranded as Innovation Depot in 2007 and has since evolved to serve as the region’s epicenter for technology startups and entrepreneurs, says CEO Devon Laney. 

“While Innovation Depot is industry agnostic, its regional focus is on technology startups in the financial, health care and service industries, ” Laney says. “Innovation Depot’s focus is in tandem with Birmingham’s resources. UAB, one of Innovation Depot’s major partners, is now Alabama’s largest employer and has spurred significant growth in the healthcare and technology sectors.”

Laney says the most recent five-year economic impact of Innovation Depot on the Birmingham region is $1.38 billion. In 2015 alone, 104 member companies produced 809 jobs, 141 startups applied to enter Innovation Depot (17 were accepted) and 12 graduated out of Innovation Depot. Member companies raised $27.7 million in funding in 2015. 

Services offered include Velocity Accelerator, which Laney says is Alabama’s first full-time premier seed accelerator program. Each year, up to 10 high growth potential technology startups are selected from an international pool of applicants. Velocity teams are paired with successful startup founders and entrepreneurs who serve as mentors.

Ignite Co-working offers entrepreneurs a month-to-month flex option for space and access to Innovation Depot. Access to Resources gives member entrepreneurs access to organizations that support their growth. And Depot/U, the name given to all of Innovation Depot’s educational programs, is part of Innovate Birmingham, a workforce development program to train youth for technology jobs in Birmingham. 

University of South Alabama: Coastal Innovation Hub

Key Client: Travers Consulting 

Founded in 2013, the Mobile-based Coastal Innovation Hub is a joint project between the University of South Alabama’s Office of Research and Economic Development and the Melton Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at USA’s Mitchell College of Business. 

Coastal Innovation Hub incubated a variety of companies from health care software development to biomedical startups, which has become its fastest growing sector thanks to the Hub’s recently expanded Coastal Innovation Labs. 

“This new expansion has given us the opportunity to better accommodate more biomedical startups with proper laboratory settings to facilitate their research, ” says Harry Brislin, director of USA Properties & USA Technology & Research Park. “Since our expansion earlier this year to include these labs, we have already leased up to four of the six available wet labs of the Hub.”

The Coastal Innovation Hub offers furnished office space and wet laboratories with access to common spaces for meetings, conferences and break rooms. Opportunities are available for university collaboration and mentorship from fellow Hub tenants. These include the USA Small Business Development Center and other organizations that Brislin says are able to “assist up-and-coming startup companies as they make their way through the fledgling stages of starting a business.” 

Because the Hub was founded just a few years ago, none of its companies have yet graduated. However, two companies are getting close: MD Mobile Care Inc. and Travers Consulting. MD Mobile Care is a transitional care management practice helping patients navigate the first 30 days at home following hospital or rehab discharge.

Founded in 2012 by Steven Travers, Travers Consulting offers services for health care application platforms and provides outsourcing services for information technology service/help desk operations. 

Travers says a key benefit to being a Hub tenant is the option to rent on a monthly basis and being able to leverage contacts with fellow tenants, some of whom are in similar businesses. Travers plans to move his business into a large space in USA’s Technology Park. 

Says Brislin, “Travers Consulting exemplifies the drive and focus we are looking for from our startups at the Coastal Innovation Hub. Steven has made great use of the collaboration opportunities the Hub provides and his own relationships he has forged at the Hub to push his company forward.”

University of Alabama Innovation and Mentoring of Entrepreneurs Center

Key Client: Inventure Renewables

The Alabama Innovation and Mentoring of Entrepreneurs Center in Tuscaloosa helps the University of Alabama faculty, staff and students make their ideas, inventions and innovations commercially successful. Part of the center is the Bama Technology Incubator that nurtures high-growth, high-tech businesses.  

“Many of our incubators are start-up companies that are varied and range from tutoring to chemistry to biology. We currently have eight companies incubating, ” says AIME Director Dan Daly. “AIME offers many services including actual physical space. We also mentor and help find investors for the companies. We also help the companies obtain grants.”

Since it was founded in 2006, three companies have gone through AIME’s incubator to become stand-alone companies. One is Inventure Renewables, a Tuscaloosa company that develops enabling process technology for the production of sugar from biomass, which is used to produce green chemicals, synthetic jet fuel, biodiesel and green gasoline.

Inventure Renewable’s Chief Scientific Officer Rusty Sutterlin moved into the AIME building in 2008 by himself and by 2012 the company was occupying much of AIME’s laboratory space. Later that year, the company relocated a few miles off campus into a 35, 000-square-foot facility with 30 employees. Sutterlin credits much of the company’s success to the incubating experience at AIME. 

The AIME staff introduced Sutterlin to students who began working for the company part time and are now full-time employees. He says AIME was quick to help him acquire new lab and office space as his company grew and provide technical support when needed. 

“Dan Daly, who leads the AIME center, was instrumental in getting us started at the incubator until we could stand on our own, ” Sutterlin recalls. “For us, the incubator worked as designed. We started, we grew and we left the nest but stayed in the community.”

A Nationwide Trend

Academic businesses are on the rise, says Kirstie Chadwick, CEO of National Business Incubation Association.

University-based incubators, which started at land grant and research universities some 20 years ago, are now springing up at smaller colleges, too, in response to a growing interest in entrepreneurship as students hope to bring their ideas to market.

Chadwick says, “Academic business incubators are very prominent in the entrepreneurial ecosystem across the United States and are growing.”

Innovation Depot earned NBIA’s Tech Incubator of the Year award in 2011. 

Jessica Armstrong and Julie Lowry are freelancers for Business Alabama. Armstrong lives in Auburn and Lowry in Montgomery.


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