YOUNGSTOWN - Awareness of the Youngstown Business Incubator has increased steadily over the past few years, but what often isn't realized is that the organization has existed for 20 years, YBI's CEO and "chief evangelist" Jim Cossler relayed recently.
"It even pre-dates the physical plant by five or six years," Cossler said as he settled back in a modern accent chair at the West Federal Street building that has become the center of an evolving business campus in downtown Youngstown. "When we look at the historical records in the late '80s, there were people in the community who thought an incubator was a good idea, but it took about six years to finally put together the dollars to renovate half of the building you are in right now."
Today, YBI is recognized internationally for assisting startup companies in the area of business-to-business software application. Its biggest success story was the creation of Turning Technologies, an education software company, that started in 2002 in a 12-by-20-foot YBI office and today occupies 30,000 square feet of office space in Youngstown, and is home to about 200 employees.
Last year, YBI was ranked 11th among the 30 best university-affiliated incubators in the world, according to the University Business Incubator Index, a research initiative based in Stockholm that benchmarks incubators. National business publications and broadcast media have frequently noted YBI's success.
Now YBI is serving as a model for a Warren business incubator, the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center, or TBEIC, but that program will focus on energy creation, storage and clean technology, not business software.
Business incubation, described by the National Business Incubation Association, is a support process that helps speed development of startup companies. Support can include facilities, equipment, resource networks, entrepreneurial counseling, networking opportunities and more.
Dave Nestic, chief executive of Regional Operations at TBEIC (pronounced T-bike) is well aware of the challenges TBEIC faces as it is held up against high standards created by YBI.
"YBI took 12 years to get national recognition," Nestic said. "We are looking to build the same type of relationship in a relatively short period of time."
Couple the work to develop TBEIC's program with work to convert a historical building to business and lab space for energy startups, and the challenges become even greater, explained Barb Ewing, YBI's chief operations officer and a TBEIC board member.
"Their physical plant development is so unique, it's just daunting," Ewing said.
Still, leaders from both incubators say any suggestion that they should combine efforts to accelerate the pace of development is just not realistic.
That's because the key to being a successful incubator is to find a niche that sets the incubator apart from others around the country. That enables the startups to utilize the expertise and technical skills of not only the incubator's leaders, but also peers in the network.
"You simply can't be good at everything that knocks on your door," Cossler said.
So, while the expertise in YBI's leadership lies in business-to-business software, TBEIC leadership has expertise in clean technology development for energy.
"They are providing very sophisticated services, entrepreneurial support," Ewing said. "They are not physically incubating companies that need support, but I think they have several clients throughout northeast Ohio. They are the pre-eminent advanced energy experts."
Nestic also believes TBEIC's depth of energy knowledge makes it the right fit.
"YBI doesn't have people on staff that are in the energy industry. We need a YBI in northeast Ohio that focuses on information technology," Nestic said. "There aren't other incubators that we have located that have the kinds of services that we are proposing."
And while it appears slow, progress exists, the leaders at both incubators said.
"They are doing exactly what they need to do and beginning to fill the incubation pipeline," Cossler said. "To move something from the idea stage to the job-creation stage takes several years to do."
And the close geographical proximity is not a bad thing. That's because frequent inquiries YBI gets from energy startups who don't realize they specialize in software and additive manufacturing can be referred to TBEIC.
"It's a different network, a different skill set, but it's one thing that does play well for TBEIC," Cossler said. "I think we will be a good feeder to the organization."
Nestic is aware of how the geographical connection to YBI can help TBEIC as it gets going.
"We need to grow independently of YBI, but work collaboratively with YBI," Nestic said.