Opportunities await at Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center

WARREN — The new chief operating officer of the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center said the opportunity he’s promoting isn’t new, but it’s one some area entrepreneurs might not know is available.

Although the downtown Warren facility’s primary focus is helping energy-related companies get started, the incubator, known as TBEIC, has always been open to non-energy businesses, explained Rick Stockburger.

“Primarily, (TBEIC) is about energy as well as advanced materials companies and we’re also very interested in the future of internet of things,” Stockburger said. “But we believe there are opportunities for support companies and other businesses that are doing different things. We want to help them as well.”

For example, Modern Methods Brewing Co. is taking shape in TBEIC’s warehouse behind its main building on Courthouse Square.

“When you think about it, at the end of day brewing is an industrial, manufacturing process,” explained Adam Keck, 30, of Warren. “People might think it’s strange, or at minimum, different, for a business like this to be in a tech center, but it’s actually a great place for it.”

Keck, who is launching the business, had been into home brewing six years, but said he “never really had the entrepreneurial bug.”

“But I realized there’s an opportunity here,” he said.

Keck set out a plan to find a location for his business within a five-minute walk of Courthouse Square. After looking at several places, he met Dave Nestic, program adviser and executive-in-residence at TBEIC. Nestic showed Keck the warehouse space.

“I couldn’t wait to go home and draw a rendering,” Keck said. “I saw the potential. It was perfect for us.”

He worked out the terms with TBEIC to start his business in the warehouse space, signed a lease in November and started renovations in January. His goal is for the brewery to open this fall.

Stockburger said 51 percent of the businesses occupying office space at the center must be energy related because of the public funding the center receives.

But that leaves a lot of room for other startups, he said.

“I just don’t know many people are aware or realize it,” he said. “We’re trying to get that word out. “We want to spin companies out of here.

Stockburger, who lives in Norton, grew up just outside of Salem, graduating from West Branch High School in 2002. He graduated from Kent State University, where he majored in political science. He also served seven years in the U.S. Army as an infantryman and received multiple awards for his service in combat operations as a leader in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Since 2010, he has worked with several economic development organizations in northeast Ohio.

His newly created position, which he started in July, makes him the first full-time executive for TBEIC. He is also a vice president for the incubator. He is responsible for TBEIC’s day-to-day operations, including program development, entrepreneurial support, planning and execution.

John Pogue, TBEIC president / board chairman, said Stockburger’s “drive and experience” is what TBEIC needs for its next phase of development.

Stockburger said he was aware of the work taking place at TBEIC and that’s what sparked his interest in participating in it.

He said the co-working space he’s developing at TBEIC on the first floor is open to anyone starting a business. The concept is similar to a co-working space in Akron he used to start a consulting firm.

“I was looking for office space, but I was also looking to be among people who had different thought processes than me, to network, get ideas and share ideas,” he said. “If I had been stuck in an office by myself I would have never done it. We’re creating that kind of atmosphere and collaboration at TBEIC.”

On Friday, the center hosted a day of free co-working space to familiarize the community with the concept.

“If you have an idea for a coffee shop or a t-shirt printing business, whatever your idea, bring it to us,” he said. “I want to see someone walk in here with an idea on a napkin, then within a couple months come back with a business plan, then get an office. Eventually, they’ll have to leave because they’re too big and successful and we can’t contain them. The ultimate goal is to see companies graduate from here.”

There are about 10 businesses working out of TBEIC. The federally funded center, which also has 80 portfolio companies, recently secured funding from the Ohio Department of Higher Education and the Appalachian Regional Commission to develop a shared resource center with a lab for companies to research, test and certify products.

“This has been a great way for me to get started, to build my business,” said Candys Mayo, founder/CEO, QUEEN (Quinn Engineering & Employment Network LLC) Ohio.

Mayo , an engineer, set up an office at TBEIC in January after hearing about it through the Women in Entrepreneur program at the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI).

“The people at YBI thought (TBEIC) would be a good fit for me because of my industry of engineering,” said Mayo, a Youngstown native now living in Warren. “There’s opportunity here to work with people, bounce ideas off each other, network, support each other. I would recommend anyone wanting to start a business, to look into starting at the tech center.”

TBEIC opened in January 2015 in the 27,000-square-foot building that formerly housed the S.S. Kresge Co. Department Store. The $3.3 million project was funded in large part by public money, including a $2.2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant and a nearly $1 million, two-year Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credit.

The site also offers a conference area, meeting rooms and demonstration areas.

“I’m a firm believer in you’re only as good as the place you’re in,” Stockburger said. “When I look across this square and I see the beautiful courthouse and all the assets that this downtown has, this is a good place to be. It’s not just a rust belt city or a tech belt city, there are really, really good people here who are doing really, really good work. The more we can introduce those types of people to each other and the more we can introduce to them different companies the more successful we’ll be in our mission as well as the community’s mission.”