Nov 12, 2010
Jennifer Simon has been cultivating seeds for as long as she can remember. First as a child, growing up on her family’s Washington County farm. And today, as director of the Innovation Center, Ohio University’s business incubator.
Though situated in a region often characterized by economic depression, the center’s numbers speak for themselves.
In 2009, the center's firms contributed 152 jobs in the community, $9.4 million in labor income and an estimated $1.8 million in state and local tax revenues. All this during what some economists consider the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Having served as director of Athens Economic Development Council and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, Simon is no stranger to business. Today, she’s working to enhance that understanding through a professional master’s in business administration (PMBA) – which will mark the second Ohio University graduate degree on Simon’s already extensive resume.
All the while, she is actively cultivating entrepreneurship in the region, against the tide of economic downturn.
Simon recently took time from her jam-packed schedule to discuss the economic landscape, regional entrepreneurship and OHIO’s Innovation Center.
C: How have the businesses of this region fared the economic downturn in recent years?
JS: Some have hit a wall while others are flourishing. In every crisis, there is opportunity as more entrepreneurs come forward to start companies. They're willing to take chances because they have either been laid off or unemployed for a long time. They know they can either continue to look for a job or build their own.
C: How is the economic situation impacting the Innovation Center?
JS: Incubators across the country are seeing an uptick in the number of clients. At the Innovation Center, we have seen drastic growth in the number of companies here, from three in late 2008 to 18 as of Nov. 1, 2010. We have maintained our focus on our business sectors including biotechnology, energy, information technology and transportation technology. While there have been shifts within these sectors, our companies are maintaining strong growth.
C: Can you quantify the Innovation Center’s contributions to the regional economy?
JS: During the state fiscal year, our clients soared with total income of $22 million with the two largest revenue generators: $10 million in sales and $9.8 million in federal research contracts. Our clients submitted five new patent applications and were issued seven. Perhaps the biggest indicator of our companies’ success is $6.12 million in direct payroll with 38 new jobs and the retention of 115 jobs. The average wage is $53,000.
C: How does the University affiliation work to the center’s advantage?
JS: There are a number of ways. First, Ohio University's growing research reputation brings talented researchers from across the globe to our campus. Our clients have access to much of that talent. Many of those researchers want to start companies.
Second, the University's vast entrepreneurial assistance network provides business and marketing plan assistance, access to venture capital and traditional funding, and connections to subject area expertise.
Third, the University maintains a high quality location with landscaping, maintenance, janitorial services, and access to very high speed broadband. Clients need professional-looking space, and Ohio University delivers.
C: Are there other University programs that work in tandem with the Innovation Center to support entrepreneurship?
JS: The University manages the TechGrowth Ohio program, a Third Frontier-funded initiative. The program provides technical assistance, purchased services and pre-seed to early stage technology-based companies.
The University has also started a new center known as the Center for Entrepreneurship. This certificate program provides additional assistance to faculty inventors as they work with students in the program to craft business plans, explore the validity of a technology in the marketplace and develop a marketing approach.
C: What does your job at the Innovation Center entail?
JS: What I do is similar to a conductor of a symphony. We have a lot of resources for entrepreneurs at Ohio University and within the community, from financial recourses to technical assistance. On a daily basis, I’m making connections for people. In addition, we consistently provide tours to potential clients and interested stakeholders like other incubators, partner organizations, OHIO Foundation board members, financial institutions, foreign ambassadors, etc.
C: How do you differentiate the Innovation Center from other business incubators?
JS: Our greatest strength is the value-added benefits of being in an incubator. We are not just a building for businesses to locate. Anyone can do that. Our rent is more like a membership cost because clients receive more than their office space. They receive expanded space, business coaching, access to our networks, shared office and laboratory equipment, etc. If you were to put a price tag on all of those things, the rent would be substantially higher.
C: What are your long-term goals for the Innovation Center?
JS: Currently, we are working on building a $1.5 million drug discovery equipment lab within the Innovation Center. This investment will create new jobs through developing new biotechnology companies, recruiting new companies to the region, and supporting the latter stage of development of specific pharmaceuticals that have significant market potential value and employment opportunity.
In addition, we are working on creating a Research & Technology Park. We are exploring options of working with private developers as well as doing the project with public and private funds. The park would be the future home for successful incubator graduates. It is critical that we keep the companies in the region, and any program designed for that purpose is critical.
C: What advice can you offer to someone looking to start a business in the region?
JS: Because there are so many entry points to small business resources, I would recommend that entrepreneurs call the Innovation Center. We will make connections for them to determine the best road for their success moving forward.