NCGrowth’s Incubator Guide Launch: How to Determine if an Incubator is Right for Your Community

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In this webinar, NCGrowth Assistant Director of Economic Development Carolyn Fryberger spoke with five panelists about their experiences with business incubators, ways to foster resilient small business communities and the impact of COVID-19 on incubators. Panelists included Hillary Sherman, NC economic development representative at the Economic Development Administration (EDA); Thom Ruhe, president and CEO of NC IDEA; Dr. Jonathan Thill, president of Venture Asheboro; Steve Fletcher, community partnership manager at Low Country Local First; Mavis Hill, executive director at Tyrrell County Community Development Corporation (CDC); and Will Leimenstoll, recent graduate of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and co-author of NCGrowth’s Incubator Guide. The webinar introduced the audience to different types of incubators and feasibility considerations for communities.

The panelists highlighted different approaches to incubator creation and operation, and shared their experiences of how COVID-19 has changed their services. The guide intends to help community leaders in North Carolina and across the county understand different incubator approaches to facilitate job creation, increase the tax base, reuse older buildings and improve residents’ lives. Incubators are not always the best option for a community; the guide helps leaders determine if they are the right tool to address community concerns like these.

For Hilary Sherman, incubators have been a critical way in which the EDA has engaged with communities. Incubators are more than a space; they are about the collection of minds and knowledge. They provide a platform of connectivity with access to capital and legal and other services, and can help create equitable opportunities. Many considerations factor into the success of an incubator, and there is no one-size-fits-all application that works for every community. Economic development is a team sport that must take a wholesale approach.

Thom Ruhe spoke about two strategies that NC IDEA, a private foundation, uses to approach small business development. The first approach is an ecosystem partner program that helps other organizations through grants and loans. The second approach is a seed program that grants roughly twelve companies $50,000 each to build their businesses. Ruhe also announced that the board of NC IDEA has committed to investing no less than 10% of net assets in the ecosystem partner program, focusing on women- and minority-owned businesses.

Will Leimenstoll, a recent UNC graduate with joint master’s degrees in regional planning and business administration, co-authored the NCGrowth Incubator Guide with Carolyn Fryberger. The guide is intended for a broad audience in North Carolina and beyond and walks community leaders through different types of incubators. The guide outlines the process and considerations for starting an incubator, such as developing a vision and conducting a demand study. It also highlights key elements of successful incubators. For communities that determine an incubator is not the best match for them, the guide highlights several alternatives. It includes case studies and resources for funding, placemaking and planning. Addressing the question of how incubators can best adapt to the changes engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Leimenstoll suggested incubators listen, foster symbiotic partnerships, host virtual events and focus on mentorship.

Mavis Hill described the incubator in Tyrrell County, North Carolina as an incubator without walls. The 65-mile distance to the nearest community college, she said, made clear the need for a regional incubator and business assistance. The incubator provides copy services, conference rooms and assistance with business planning from community partner North Carolina Rural Economic Development Business Center. A microloan program helps business owners expand or start new businesses. Due to pandemic, the incubator is not currently operating out of the building, but they are continuing to provide assistance and advice to businesses affected by the pandemic. The community development corporation will have seven incoming interns, who will work with business clients to assist them with planning and other resources.

Steve Fletcher, with Local Works, a project of Low Country Local First in Charleston, South Carolina, described his work with the six-year-old co-working space. Local Works provides low-cost, contract-free working space and support for local businesses, and facilitates interactions amongst its members. Local Works was deemed essential during the pandemic and was able to stay open with enhanced protocols. Although it has seen a market decrease, Local Works adapted by discounting some members and providing online resources.

Dr. Jonathan Thill with Venture Asheboro aims to serve rural communities and create an ecosystem that brings different entities together and enhances collaboration. Venture Asheboro recently upgraded to a larger space, which allowed them to stay open and allow for greater social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis. With different businesses sharing workspace, natural partnerships have led to additional projects. For example, a rural theater group creates digital content for other businesses. Thill hopes that Venture Asheboro will be a catalyst in creating businesses that contribute to quality of life and inspire and motivate a younger generation of entrepreneurs. Thill plans on creating a black businesses accelerator within the Venture Asheboro umbrella.

The question and answer portion of the panel discussion highlighted the value of using focus groups to identify needs, gaps in resources and community assets, as well as the importance of scalability and adaptability when forming an incubator. The panelists also emphasized the value of working with many different types of businesses so that they can network and potentially partner on projects. Regarding organizational structure and leadership, nonprofit organizations like the Tyrrell County CDC and Local Works are governed by a typical board of directors structure that provides oversight and governance with their staff. Venture Asheboro, a private organization, works with its partners and collaborators to create policies for the shared space that work for everyone.