When Larry and Kim Lewis’ company was new, they met with the owners of the BizTech incubator building in Huntsville to see about opening their office there. However, their IT service company, Project XYZ, didn’t meet the requirements of the high-tech incubator, so they moved on to another location.
Fast forward 13 years: Now Project XYZ has become an award-winning company providing solutions in information technology, as well as engineering, logistics and alternative energy, and the Lewises now own the 20, 800-square-foot building where they were once turned away. After purchasing the building in November, 2014, the Lewises have changed its name to The Entrepreneurial Center (TEC). While TEC still houses BizTech, Huntsville’s longtime high-tech incubator, it’s also opening its doors to a broader range of new technology companies and finding its place at the center of the Rocket City’s burgeoning startup community.
“BizTech has been here 25 years and has played an important role in building Huntsville’s economy, but it hasn’t brought in a new client in the past three years, ” says Bob Ludwig, interim CEO and president of BizTech. “For the past few years, BizTech has struggled to figure out where it fits in the new startup world.”
With no interest in becoming a real estate management firm, BizTech placed its building on the market. Eventually, the Lewises came along with new energy, contacts and ideas, and once again, the building at 515 Sparkman Drive is bustling with business-building activity.
Over the past several years, as the Lewises built a successful company, they became known within their networks as valuable mentors for other entrepreneurs. “People were always sending startups to talk to Kim and me, ” says Larry Lewis. “We have learned some skills that can help other entrepreneurs, and we enjoy the mentoring process.”
Because they already were mentoring several new company owners, becoming the proprietors of an established business incubator made sense for the Lewises. Although BizTech had developed a number of vacancies over the past few years, it had a strong history and tradition of building and growing soon-to-be successful companies. “When the ‘for sale’ sign came down, people realized this building is still a viable place and wanted to use it, ” says Kim Lewis.
Since the Lewises bought the building last November, a number of the entrepreneurs they mentor have moved in. “The guys who originally launched BizTech wanted to give back to the community, but things have changed, ” Ludwig says. “We’ve come to understand we have to create an environment first and plant enough seeds so that enough people are bringing in good ideas to keep new startups coming. Now we have started filling the place back up.”
BizTech is still located in the building, but its strict criteria for accepting clients has broadened to include verticals, such as cybersecurity, energy and geospatial technologies. “Businesses have to evolve, ” Kim Lewis says. “The mayor of Huntsville has focused business recruiting on several verticals, and we have to match up with what he’s doing if we want to be The Entrepreneurial Center for Huntsville.”
TEC now provides services to more than just high-tech, potential-growth companies. It’s also working to partner with all the local organizations that serve small businesses rather than duplicating efforts across the city. For instance, the Women’s Business Center of North Alabama (WBCNA), previously located at the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County, relocated to TEC in January and now provides programming and training to incubator clients. And when the new West Huntsville complex opens, offering inexpensive space and advice to would-be entrepreneurs, TEC sees itself as a potential second step for those new businesses.
“At [West Huntsville], they’ll work with you to broaden your idea and get it started, and a business that gets off the ground could potentially come here next, ” says Larry Lewis. “There’s no sense in us doing the first-phase startup stuff, since that will be available there. Through networking and collaboration, we’re developing more and more understanding of what everybody’s trying to accomplish and working together more, as we all have the same goals of building business in Huntsville.”
Most business incubators are either investor-backed or community-backed, Larry Lewis says. But TEC is a hybrid. While the center receives some funding from the city government, the Lewises also invest their own money into the project. Incubator clients pay monthly fees for the services they receive, including conference rooms, phone and Internet service, IT support and access to investors and business expertise.
“But it’s not all about money, ” Larry Lewis says. “It’s about being able to find companies that provide added value to the community and to our own businesses.”
For instance, Project XYZ now counts some TEC clients as vendors and service providers, and the Lewises are investors in and partial owners of some client companies. For Larry Lewis, who always wanted to be a venture capitalist, having the opportunity to help build new businesses — through mentorship or financial backing — is a dream come true.
“We want to create that atmosphere for entrepreneurship, ” says Kim Lewis. “We’re computer geeks; we like to play with technology, invest in different things and learn new ideas. We are really having a lot of fun.”
Part of the fun, for the Lewises, is helping to create jobs in Huntsville that go beyond the city’s traditional economic base of government work and government contracting, mostly defense and aerospace. Because Kim Lewis originally launched Project XYZ to provide IT services to the commercial sector, later adding government clients after Larry Lewis joined the business, she has expertise that is fairly unique in this city of government contractors.
“In communities like Huntsville, where most people work in government, finding people who are willing to step away from that safety net is difficult, ” Ludwig says. “We need people who have experience in commercial business and can show government contractors how to get into [doing business with] commercial customers. There are a lot of people with good ideas, but because they have government day jobs, those great ideas sit on the shelf.”
Recently, the Lewises have met with engineers whose ideas for new military products could also have a number of commercial applications in areas such as home security. Other new contacts include out-of-state business owners who are considering moving their manufacturing operations to Huntsville to be closer to potential customers and a high-tech workforce.
In addition to providing business advice and expertise, the Lewises plan to organize investment groups to help new companies find investors. And with the new Alabama Crowdfunding Law in place, allowing individuals to invest as little as $5, 000 in a startup, they expect to meet growing numbers of investors who want to help build new businesses. “We want to create an ecosystem where investors and entrepreneurs can come together and create new jobs and products that will build a stronger economy and community, ” Larry Lewis says. “They won’t all be huge successes; maybe one guy will create only four or five jobs, but that’s four or five jobs we didn’t have before.”
With the resources available at TEC, in a city with a history of smart, inventive residents, the Lewises expect to continue working with a long line of successful entrepreneurs.
Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.
text by Nancy Mann Jackson • photo by Dennis Keim