I recently had one of those driveway moments, so described by the folks at National Public Radio. I now know I’m not the only one who perked up on February 17th to listen to the ‘All Things Considered’ story regarding the Youngstown Business Incubator.
I am proud to tell you my roots go deep into the mill-towns of Massachusetts. I grew up in a shoe town. Later, I spent many happy years in and after college watching Lowell, MA transform from a denigrated former textile giant into a re-definition we all take pride in. My family currently resides in Gardner, a city suffering immensely as our industrial base exhales its last sigh. We’re keenly aware of the change surrounding us. This story is about that change. It is a story about possibilities. Our friends in Youngstown, OH may have something to show us here in New England.
Following up on what I heard on NPR, I recently sat down with Mr. Jim Cossler, self-described ‘Chief Evangelist’ for the Youngstown Business Incubator. YBI is a non profit organization that cultivates and accelerates entrepreneurs, primarily in the Mahoning Valley. YBI’s major source of funds is the Ohio Department of Development (ODOD). They focus, quite intently on their strategic position in the Cleveland to Pittsburgh ‘Mega-Region’ (Those of you, like me who are devotees of Richard Florida have heard this term.) There are several key reasons for YBI’s success. Focused attention in a specific sector/industry. Comprehensive, capacity building support for its constituent companies. An effective balance of vision and practical support for success. A mechanism in place to keep its ‘accelerated’ businesses in Youngstown in order to re-invigorate downtown. It was nearly a decade ago, following a re-tooling of the ODOD strategic vision that YBI set out to focus its course on a select sector to incubate in Youngstown. The result is a business support mother-ship which focuses on business to business software development. By doing so YBI maintains a resource rich environment, the best of its kind in the Cleveland-Pittsburgh region. The YBI approach, not to mention their results, are currently attracting the attention of several major players from regions long associated with technology, most notably the Silicon Valley.
They have created a system of development that takes portfolio companies through idea formation, implementation, R&D, and launch; ‘accelerat’-ing rather than ‘graduate’-ing companies into YBI managed facilities in the city’s downtown, in keeping with its prime goal of developing the urban environment.
Not only can start-up firms expect low-cost or deferred rent, utilities, shared or deferred office capabilities, free office furniture, R&D facilities, trade show equipment, and more but tenants are expected to participate in what Jim Cossler terms the managed cluster.
Unique to YBI’s incubation model, the “managed cluster” is an YBI original. The communication and relationship-building of similarly situated firms allows for sharing of expertise, technical skills and resources with others in the cluster in need of the same. YBI provides entrepreneurial development services and counseling for concept evaluation, beta testing, market verification; business, marketing and strategic plan development; conventional, equity and government-sourced funding; intellectual property issues, corporate formation and ownership structures. YBI has an extensive resource network of successful entrepreneurs, prominent community leaders, private investors, consultants and academic representatives who contribute time and talent.
The numbers tell the story. Since committing to information technology in 2000, YBI’s portfolio companies have posted impressive results which include: The creation of over 250 new jobs with average salary of $58,000. Development of 24 new commercial software applications. Received 17 intellectual property patents. Awarded the prestigious Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year, Weatherhead 100, Spirit of Entrepreneurship and Ohio’s Emerging Technology awards. Winner of top positions in Inc. magazine’s 500 list and Entrepreneur’s growth list. Customers in 85 foreign countries with products and support materials translated into 10 languages. A customer list that includes Textron, Firestone, Bristol Myers Squibb, Lockheed Martin and IBM as well as higher education customers such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Ohio State University and Youngstown State University. Entered into joint marketing agreements with companies such as Dell, Microsoft and Intel. Launched the world’s most popular Web 2.0 broadcast site for the green/environmental movement. Approximately 73,000 square feet of downtown space revitalized. YBI has an annual budget of approximately $650k, 3 full-time employees. Now a funny thing has started to occur in Youngstown. Former residents spread across the country and years away from ‘home’ have been calling, emailing, blogging, linking, and writing Jim and his staff. Many more people and their companies are also showing real interest in the area. YBI touts its city’s energy; its proximity to major cultural and educational opportunities with accessible suburban living for the family. Cossler points out his city’s unique location in the Cleveland-Pittsburgh Mega-region.
By leveraging what it has, having a clear vision of what it could be and focusing on a strategic number of key goals the Youngstown Business Incubator is smashing all misconceptions of the worn-out milltown.