There’s a reason it’s called a business “incubator.” Like baby chicks, new businesses have a better chance of survival when given time to develop in a safe environment. The LaunchPad Incubation Program (LPI) at The University of Toledo is providing new technology-oriented companies the support they need to grow and thrive in the wilds of the startup world.
LPI started out as the Clean and Alternative Energy Incubator program, a means for commercializing the innovative renewable energy research happening at UT in the early 2000s. But by 2013, when Molly Reams Thompson took over as LPI director, the regional entrepreneurial landscape had evolved beyond the energy sector.
“LPI had been more of a landlord/tenant situation previously,” Thompson said.” But I wanted to build it out into a bona fide incubation program.” With that goal in mind, Thompson put together an advisory board and LPI adopted a more rigorous process of business-model development in order to expand its reach into the information technology, biotech, and advanced manufacturing sectors – a move that Thompson describes as “a logical extension of what was happening in the region.”
Since then, LPI has worked with dozens of local companies to help them develop viable, scalable business models using the “lean launch” methodology popularized by startup pioneer and author Eric Ries. The lean startup method relies primarily on the Business Model Canvas, an evidence-based approach that helps entrepreneurs break down the activities and resources needed to attract customers and take a product/service from concept to sustainable, investable business.
It’s not the same thing as simply writing a business plan. “Business plans don’t behave the way customers act, “ Thompson explained, “Plans are static – you’re basically guessing what you think you want to have happen, but contrived numbers don’t represent real customers.”
Every new company’s needs are unique. Some simply require office or manufacturing/lab space, while others need hands-on coaching or access to funding sources in order to take the business to the next level. LPI tailors its services to meet the needs of each individual business, leveraging ties with UT to provide entrepreneurs access to campus facilities, expertise or other critical resources. LPI also plugs into the local business community through events such as its regular Pitch & Pour competitions, which allow budding entrepreneurs to rub elbows with established business leaders, potential mentors, and most importantly – potential investors.
Ultimately, Thompson wants the LPI program to help create a Toledo that’s as vibrant and economically sustainable as such cities as Boulder, Austin or Ann Arbor. But the city’s emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem is young, and some of its best and brightest young companies still have to leave the nest and go where the investors are. Roost, one of three technology companies that have officially “graduated” from the LPI program, hatched in Toledo before migrating to New York City.
According to Thompson, success stories like Roost’s are reason for optimism about the future of Toledo. “You have to have a long-term view,” Thompson said. “It’s not brain drain. Allow people to go and do what they want to do, but build a place where they want to come back to.”